Invariably, these two camps are going to be in perpetual conflict over the governance and administration of our beloved university. Administrators have to appease both sides. Our side has gotten steamrolled the past two years, sustaining blow after blow. But recently, we realized that the various protests have had a collective impact, and we claimed a minor victory.
But one recent high-profile decision illustrates very clearly who's side OBU's power players are really on. We didn't hear until two days ago, but obviously it's been in the works for some time for the Rev. Dr. Tom Elliff to give the commencement address on Friday and receive an honorary degree from OBU.
As a former missionary, retired large church pastor, past SBC president, and current International Mission Board president, Dr. Elliff is without question a distinguished and significant figure in Baptist life -- particularly Oklahoma Baptist life -- and the school has every right to honor his achievements.
Still, Elliff's presence will upset many, and we feel he was a very controversial choice. If the president truly values and honors his faculty and is serious about his commitment to do right by them in the future, I do not know how he could have made this insulting choice. Dr. Elliff's career spanned the entirety of the Fundamentalist Takeover and its aftermath, and Elliff has been relentless in his faithfulness to the fundamentalists' agenda in SBC life. Like SBC presidents before and after him, Elliff used his two terms in office (1996-1998) to ensure that only fundamentalists were appointed to SBC boards and agencies, gleefully making moderate Baptists exiles and outcasts in their own denomination.
I truly do not understand the current administration's obsession with praising Elliff. Less than a year ago, they gave him the first annual "Herschel H. Hobbs Award for Distinguished Denominational Service" at last year's Southern Baptist Convention. This new award, besides demeaning Hobbs's distinguished legacy (many of today's SBC leaders booed Hobbs at the 1980 Southern Baptist Convention), seems like it was designed to ingratiate SBC fundamentalist power brokers to OBU.
Now, a packed Raley Chapel commencement audience will have to abide OBU conferring an honorary degree on someone who believes moderates in the SBC are "barnacles" and "parasites." That's right. In his final address as president of the SBC in 1998, Elliff boasted to incoming President Paige Patterson that "all barnacles and parasites had been removed from the Ship of Zion." The reference was to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other moderate Baptist groups. How awkward it will be as Elliff is speaking to know that he holds such vehement disdain for the overwhelming majority of the hooded and robed professors sitting behind him.
He may as well turn around and call them parasites to their faces. Which unfortunately is the nice version of what the BGCO thinks of some of these very fine people, who at least for the moment are safe because President Whitlock has learned that it's hard to dismiss faculty "in a winsome way." Without question, Elliff was instrumental in the saving of many souls and the maintenance of many institutions. But a lot of Baptists -- good, faithful Baptists -- have suffered because of him. In addition to the 35 year veteran of the Southern Seminary library who lost his job because he dared correct inaccuracies in one of Elliff's speeches, a lot of clergy and lay investors were screwed out of their savings when Elliff, as pastor of First Baptist Church of Del City, asked bondholers to forgive the church's debts.
Having Dr. Elliff speak wouldn't be so offensive if OBU invited one of the "parasites" once in a while, too. But the fact that they have chosen to honor Elliff with not only the insultingly named Hobbs Award, but also with an honorary degree, unfortunately shows their true colors. At the graduation, few students and hardly any parents will have any idea just what a controversial figure Elliff is. But most OBU professors will be disappointed and feel dishonored. And you can bet that Anthony Jordan will be sitting the platform with a huge smile on his face. As long as the BGCO calls the shots at OBU, this dynamic will always be the same. Administration will always ultimately side with them over us.
As for President Whitlock, he may as well stand up and give the middle finger to the assembled faculty he's supposedly been trying to win over this academic year after a disastrous start to his tenure. Very few of them will be impressed that he wanted to honor such an vociferous advocate of fundamentalism's advance in BGCO and SBC life.
If I was graduating Friday, I would write "Parasite" in bold on the top of my graduation cap and encourage all my friends to do likewise. But even if students wanted to protest having to hear from such a hater of moderates on their big day, I'm sure OBU is still conformist and authoritarian enough to find or create a rule against such protests.
I'm especially sad for faculty, many of whom are either moderate Baptists or stand in solidarity with moderate Baptists. It's unfortunate that they have to hear from someone who so openly loathes them and all they hold dear.