Saturday, May 12, 2012

OBU's 2012 Commencement: Beneath the Surface

Congratulations to the OBU Class of 2012!  The Green Book lists 23 regulations pertaining to "College Citizenship," and I hope the graduates went out and broke 1 or 2 of them last night.  God loves a joyful celebration!

I understand it was cloudy yesterday -- perhaps an apt metaphor for the storm clouds of conflict looming over the campus.  I saw part of the ceremony, which was streamed on Shawnee Live and is also available "on demand" through OBU's website.  It was hard to believe a decade has passed since I walked across that stage!  But I was so happy and proud for all the students and their families.  I have to credit last fall's alumni petition for providing the impetus to start Save OBU.  And I credit Contributing Editor Veronica Pistone for helping make sure the movement survived its infancy.  But the truth is, we wouldn't be this far without the hundreds of OBU students who have expressed interest in our movement, read our blog, and kept the issues salient on campus.  I'm especially grateful to the several dozen students -- mostly seniors -- who actively helped out by providing information, context, and nuance on a number of fronts.  We invite you to even more active participation in Save OBU now that you are alumni!  And we trust that the torch of student leadership is passing to students who may not remember OBU under Brister or Parrish, but who nonetheless revere academic freedom, Baptist freedom, and OBU's great liberal arts heritage.

While it was entirely appropriate for the university to pull itself together to honor the 246 graduating seniors, there are a handful of relevant tidbits that curiously didn't make it into the official press release.


Commencement Address/Honorary Degree
OBU conferred an honorary doctorate on the Rev. Dr. Tom Elliff, a former missionary, Oklahoma Baptist minister, and current president of the SBC's International Mission Board.  Of course, no opportunity is wasted to remind everyone that OBU sends more missionaries to the IMB than any other college.  And we will not waste an opportunity to a) courteously remind everyone that correlation does not imply causality and b) reiterate our view that Oklahoma's contribution to the mission field owes as much to Falls Creek as to OBU, and that as with all BGCO ministry and mission priorities, funding for Falls Creek suffers because of the BGGO's $2.5 million annual subsidy to OBU.

After hearing Dr. Elliff's rather innocuous homily, I almost felt bad for highlighting his role in the Fundamentalist Takeover (and aftermath) of the SBC.  It's amazing how downright likable fundamentalists can be when they're not waging ideological warfare and destroying our treasured institutions.  The bondservant/slave and kamikaze illustrations seemed a little strange at first, but do indeed point to important servant/surrender aspects of the Christian life.  But given his open disdain for moderates in the SBC and the fact that OBU gave him an award less than a year ago, I continue to feel that honoring him in this way was insulting, particularly to faculty.  Still, they politely applauded the man who likened moderates in Southern Baptist life to "barnacles and parasites" that he himself proudly "removed from the Ship of Zion."


Retiring Faculty
We certainly join OBU in commending the service of six very fine retirees.  At least two of them have been courageously and openly opposed to some of the bad policy and personnel changes we've seen in recent years.  One of the retirees, interviewed in The Bison last fall, said she doubts she would be hired by OBU today.  What a tragedy.  Still, we must thank these very fine folks for their service and leadership over the years.  We wish them all the best as they begin exciting new chapters in their lives.

Faculty Awards
There is widespread suspicion among the faculty that politics played a role in the Promising Teacher Award this year.  Many faculty had assumed the award would go to an effective and well-loved professor who just finished his sixth year -- his last year of eligibility for the award.  Of course, being an Episcopalian may have been the kiss of death, given a certain administrator's recent obsession with church affiliation politics.  OBU may be saying to young professors, "We may not be able to fire you or deny you tenure 'in a winsome way,' but don't think you're getting any extra awards unless you a down-the-line fundamentalist Baptist."  Many were surprised that the promising teacher honor went to a relatively newer hire who is demonstrably more in line with the fundamentalist party line.  As one insider explains:
It's clear that the administration chose him for the award to make a statement, especially in light of Veronica's Save OBU blog post.
This awkward situation underscores the problems created when faculty search committee recommendations are ignored and when politics and ideology figure so prominently in OBU administrators' decisions about who to hire, honor, and reward.  Many faculty suspect this move is administrators' way to try to justify their decision to overrule the faculty search committee, which unanimously preferred another candidate.  Anyone want to take bets that the Christian apologetics professor wins the award next year?

Student Awards
Last year, when our own Veronica Pistone won the Outstanding Religion student award, the OBU website featured a nice writeup and a picture of Dean Mark McClellan giving her the award.  We're told that Dean McClellan was not too happy that one of last year's most decorated graduates (a woman now studying for the ministry at a non-SBC seminary) has become a prominent figure in the growing opposition to the BGCO's mutually draining stranglehold on OBU.  This year, another woman won the Outstanding Religion award.  But Dean McClellan told the religion professors that "we need to be careful who we choose for this award because we don't want someone getting the award and then using it as platform against OBU."  Thankfully, the faculty convinced the dean that their choice would not "turn" on OBU after she graduated and she won the award she so richly deserved.  However, just to be safe, there is no photograph or press release this year.  (EDIT: Yes, there is: here.)

Oh, and just for the record, perhaps Dean McClellan should consider that maybe his bosses in Thurman and friends in the Baptist Building are the ones who are using their positions as platforms against OBU.  And maybe rather than thinking that some of these "gals" (his term for female religion and ministry students) turned on OBU, he might consider that it is OBU that has turned on women, particularly strong, bright women who reject the fundamentalist vision of "biblical womanhood."

We will continue to monitor the distribution of student and faculty awards in the months and years to come.

Just a quick shout-out to the organist, whoever s/he was.  "How Firm a Foundation" is a wonderfully appropriate graduation prelude and I enjoyed the rendition immensely, as well as the rest of the medley.  Speaking of music, we wish the University Chorale a safe and successful tour this week!  And in the coming weeks, we'll be blogging about changes in the College of Fine Arts under the new regime.


So there you have it.  OBU may not be in the throes of a full-on faculty rebellion or a dramatic fundamentalist takeover (yet).  But this week's celebrations definitely papered over a number of important conflicts that exist as a result of OBU's relationship with the BGCO.  We'll continue to keep you informed of progress and changes.

Again, our very best wishes to the OBU Class of 2012!  "May thy spirit guide thy sons, keep thy daughters true!"


  1. The organist was Dr Ron Lewis, long-time music faculty member and organist at FBC Shawnee. Quite gifted.

    1. AS good example of a music faculty member who was left alone to do his job and had a great impact, both musically and spiritually, on his students. What's going on there now?

    2. Well, we haven't received as much inside information from the Fine Arts department as we have from other areas. We don't know the extent to which the Angell College has been a target. Dean Hammond was passed over for the Meritorious Service Award last year when he retired, which upset a lot of people. The new dean came from the Baptist Building, but also had a long tenure as a seminary church musician at NOBTS (post-Takeover). Reviews have been mixed. There are some concerns about the direction of the theater arts program. We'll be reporting on these issues in the coming weeks.

    3. As one of the barnicles and parasites, I am grateful to OBU.


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