Tuesday, May 1, 2012

OBU's Peers: Nondenominational Colleges?

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?

This week, we're looking for OBU's sister schools that have had to negotiate the balance between "doctrinal accountability" and academic freedom.  Yesterday, we pointed out that neither the Furman/Stetson model nor the Brewton-Parker/Truett-McConnell model fits OBU's situation very well.  The former are no longer intentionally Baptist/evangelical and the latter are so fundamentalist that if we ever became like them, we would not be a legitimate liberal arts university so none of this would even matter.

Today, we look outside Baptist life for signs of flourishing (or trouble) among non-denominational Christian universities.  Forbes Magazine, in whose rankings OBU has plummeted in the past two years, gives us a starting place by listing the Top Ten Christian colleges in the U.S.  For the moment, we'll overlook the highly problematic fact that Forbes equates "Christian" with membership in the Council for Conservative Christian Colleges and Universities.  (According to the CCCU's accounting and blatant right-wing bias, only 116 of the hundreds of Christian colleges are actually Christian.)

Let's take a quick look at the top 10:

#59. Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL) - Nondenominational
#81. Westmont college (Santa Barbara, CA) - Nondenominational
#134. George Fox University (Newberg, OR) - Quaker
#142. Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA) - Churches of Christ
#160. Gordon College (Wenham, MA) - Nondenominational
#179. Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA) - Presbyterian (PCA)
#209. Whitworth University (Spokane, WA) - Presbyterian (PCUSA)
#213. Houghton College (Houghton, NY) - Wesleyan Church
**#233. Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, OK) - Southern Baptist
#235. College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, MO) - Nondenominational

**In 2009, we were #109 on this list, literally just a few places behind Duke, Cornell, and Georgetown.

The astute observer will quickly note that none of these schools is Catholic and only one is from a mainline Protestant tradition (PCUSA, one of the denominations whose members Dr. Norman would like to exclude from consideration for faculty positions at OBU).  But again, putting the CCCU's blatant and ignorant biases aside, let's assume for the sake of discussion that this is a representative (though not exhaustive) list of some of the better evangelical Christian colleges in the U.S.

Opponents of BGCO separation have said that without the convention to "hold OBU accountable," that the university would inevitably drift off into secularism.  That's ridiculous!  Four of these ten colleges have managed to retain their "intentionally Christ-centered" ethos without a denomination to keep the secularists out.  Never mind the fact that 30 years ago, many of the top Christian colleges in the U.S. were Baptist and today hardly any of them are.  If anything, affiliation with a Baptist state convention since the early 1990s degrades the academic quality of an institution over time.

While Baptists schools have left their conventions or regressed into fundamentalism, evangelical schools from other denominations (and those without a denomination) have flourished, a point we highlighted in our recent discussion of the "Evangelical Renaissance" in academe.

Does anyone really think the trustees or faculty at Wheaton, Gordon, or Biola -- even though no one is obsessing about their church affiliation or doctrinal purity -- are about to let those schools' religious character erode?  The mere suggestion is completely stupid.  These colleges may not have a dedicated funding stream from a denomination, but it hasn't stopped them from being excellent.  If anything, their options for hiring, recruiting students, and soliciting donors are greatly expanded without the burden of the denominational attachment.  Given that that OBU gets less than 5% of its annual operating budget from the BGCO (down from 25% 30 years ago), it's reasonable to at least ask the question of whether we would be better off without the affiliation.

Sure, administrators at Wheaton and Gordon are giving up a measure of control by welcoming trustees from a variety of Protestant denominational families.  The BGCO thinks it is doing OBU a favor and somehow protecting it from corruption by selecting its trustees, who in turn elect the president and sign off on many of his(/her -- ha!) decisions.  But the truth is, even though we have some great trustees, we are hurting OBU in the long run by excluding men and women whose gifts and expertise would be a great asset to OBU governance, even if they are not clergy and laity in BGCO congregations.  These excellent nondenominational schools assemble their boards from across the country, because they want to have a national reach.  It's an idea OBU should consider.

One of the reasons nondenominational colleges are eclipsing Baptist ones in Christian higher education is that the Wheatons and Gordons of the world are not distracted by and obsessed with appeasing fundamentalists.  Unfortunately, we are hindered in many ways by our unhelpful attachment to the BGCO.  I'm certainly grateful to the men and women who have supported OBU over the years.  And given how awful the situation is in other state conventions, I'm happy that the problems we've had seem to originate in the provost's office (which is an easy fix) rather than the BGCO Nominating Committee (which would be a sign of major, perhaps intractable, problems).

But looking at Southern Baptist life broadly, its degradation of educational institutions over the past 20-25 years does not bode well for the future of OBU as long as it is in the BGCO's hands.  Because while other, dare I say better, Christian colleges are forging ahead, secure in the knowledge that they have Christian faculty and governing bodies committed to a Christian ethos, that is not enough at OBU.  Our hires now have to hold the right social views (or be the right gender).  And the narrow circle of people of people the BGCO deems fit to be OBU trustees and the narrowing circle of people Provost Norman deems fit to teach at OBU will eventually limit our pool of prospective students and donors, as well.  I wonder how many OBU trustees would be opposed to having a few non-Baptists or non-Oklahomans who love OBU and are passionate about Christian higher education on the Board.  I bet not many, but they don't get to make that choice, unfortunately.

As much as some people might like to believe otherwise, these fine nondenominational colleges are not really our peers in any meaningful ways.  Though OBU and Wheaton are comparably selective in admissions, OBU's 75th percentile SAT score is about the same as Wheaton's 25th percentile.  Aside from the doctrinal rigidity and appeasement the BGCO expects from OBU (in return for a proportionally dwindling annual subsidy), the relationship imposes a set of constraints on the university that limits our reach and our profile.  Without such constraints, nondenominational colleges and seminaries have left Baptist ones in the dust.  Even so, we welcome their support in our efforts to rejoin the top echelon of Christian colleges in America.


  1. OBU is now only 2 places ahead of College of the Ozarks. Houston, we have a problem!

  2. YA! College of the Ozarks SUCKS!!! LETS BASH!!!! YA

  3. It's always good to know that there are schools which do not only guide a student in his studies but also care about his values and how he deals with the problems in college.

    online christian colleges


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