Wednesday, May 2, 2012

OBU's Peers: Nearby SBC Schools?

OBU's Peers Series:
Intro: Who's In the Same Boat?
OBU's Peers: Nondenominational Colleges?
OBU's Peers: Nearby Baptist Colleges (Ouachita and Southwest Baptist)?
OBU's Peers: Texas Baptist Colleges?
OBU's Peers: Union University?

We continue our search for colleges that face similar challenges in meeting the needs of faculty and students whose experiences depend on academic freedom and outside forces that seek to impose policy and personnel constraints in the name of "doctrinal accountability."  In yesterday's post, we explored some of the many advantages nondenominational Christian colleges enjoy as a consequence of being untethered to the politics, shifting ideologies, and various intrusions of denominational bodies.

Among Baptist colleges still controlled by state conventions, OBU is one of the better ones.  And, to its credit, the BGCO has not been nearly as meddlesome as some other conventions have been.  Unlike in Georgia, where the state convention blatantly imposed fundamentalism on its colleges, OBU's recent problems with academic freedom originated with one renegade administrator.  Whether he invented this mandate for himself or was following orders is not entirely clear.  In any case, he is on a much shorter leash now due to sustained activism from people like you.

Anyway, today's post is less an investigation and more of a question.  With respect to academic freedom, outside interference, and relations with Baptist state conventions, how are nearby schools faring?

Ouachita Baptist University (Arkadelphia, AR)
With immediate apologies to our Ouachita friends, we sometimes refer to your school as "the other OBU," as I'm sure you do to us.  (And yes, we're still jealous that you beat us to registering the domain in the mid-1990s!)  From the outside, academic freedom seems to be alive and well at ("the other") OBU.  I'm sure Ouachita constituents will correct me if this impression is wrong.

Before assuming the presidency of Samford University, Dr. Andrew Westmoreland had a successful tenure at Ouachita.  Under his leadership, the university revamped its core curriculum, expanded its donor base, built new facilities, and affirmed its longstanding connection to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention:
Ouachita’s relationship with the churches of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention was strengthened. The annual consultation with the convention’s Nominating Committee continued to yield mutual agreement on trustee nominations. Regular reporting to the ABSC Annual Meeting, Executive Board committees, and associational annual meetings, along with frequent collaboration with Executive Board program leaders, resulted in enhanced understanding of the university’s mission and ongoing support for its operating budget.
Westmoreland's successor,  Rev. Dr. Rex Horne, had been a large church pastor and president of the state convention.  I don't know how the faculty and students felt about having a pastor rather than a higher education administrator assume the Ouachita presidency.  (There was some skepticism in Oklahoma Baptist University circles when Rev. Dr. Mark Brister was elected from a large church pulpit to the OBU presidency.)

But all indications are that the school is doing well.  For those more familiar with Oklahoma, Dr. Horne's election to the Ouachita presidency is analogous to someone like Rev. Dr. Hance Dilbeck being elected president of Oklahoma Baptist University.  Horne seems not to have too much difficulty bridging the gap between the convention's convictions and the university's aims.  I don't know whether Ouachita faculty are any more conservative or if the state convention in AR is any more liberal than what we find in Oklahoma, but I doubt either is true.

Job postings for Ouachita faculty vacancies give no indication that a Norman-style inquisition awaits applicants:
Faculty members are expected to share the institution’s commitment to both academic and Christian excellence.  The University is, however, dedicated to the principal of academic freedom.
Another positive sign is that Ouachita does not waste its time or money with the CCCU, a trade organization that believes there are only 116 "intentionally Christ centered" colleges in the U.S. -- coincidentally the same 116 that pay dues to the CCCU.  It would be wonderful to find out why Ouachita is not affiliated with this special interest group.

Southwest Baptist University (Bolivar, MO)
I suspect the situation at Southwest Baptist may be different than at Ouachita.  For starters, we already know that the Missouri Baptist Convention tried (unsuccessfully) to force itself on William Jewell College in Liberty, MO.  Neither of the two remaining Missouri Baptist colleges are even ranked by Forbes.  With all due respect to Hannibal-LaGrange University, we'll look at SBU because it's geographically closer and a more relevant peer to OBU, especially since we have shared administrators over the years and some OBU students probably consider SBU as well.

SBU President Pat Taylor seems to be doing the impossible difficult job of protecting academic freedom and keeping state convention elites happy.  Taylor was certainly well prepared to thread that needle, having served as chief academic officer at OBU under President Bob Agee for a decade before moving to SBU.  And we know that Taylor recommended David Whitlock, who had been a longtime administrator at SBU, for the OBU presidency.

As we've told the Southern Baptist world about OBU's recent brush with fundamentalist encroachment, I haven't heard anything about similar disturbances at SBU.  It certainly seems to be the case that Whitlock spent his time at OBU honing his considerable personal charisma and administrative skills rather than engaging in Baptist politics or waging institutional warfare.  One can only imagine the greatness he could achieve at OBU without having to rein in the provost or appease the state convention.

Incidentally, SBU is a member of the CCCU.  Its HR page gives no indication that any litmus test is required for hiring, other than commitment to the university's mission.

[EDIT: Okay, people are writing that SBU has a much more fundamentalist ethos than I knew existed there, especially with the rule book all students must sign.  Thanks for the clarification, folks.]

So, it looks like academic freedom is surviving at some of OBU's convention-controlled peer institutions.  Relatively laissez-faire conventions and determined, principled administrators create environments where open inquiry and the fearless search for truth can flourish.  Ouachita and SBU friends, thanks again for reading and please correct me where I'm wrong, either in the comments or on our Facebook page.  We welcome your support in our mission.


  1. Just for anyone who is interested, from what I know from my friends who went to SBU-- pretty much every Baptist from my high school-- I think that the faculty is more conservative there, so that may help keep away the trouble that came to Jewell. My hunch is that that could have played into the fact that Whitlock and Norman did better there than they are doing at OBU. Jsut a hunch, though.

  2. Thanks Veronica for that good insight regarding SBU! Religion-based schools are really conservative, that is how they teach manners to their students. I guess it's an advantage.

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