Saturday, May 5, 2012

OBU's Peers: Union University?

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

If you've been following the series, you know what we're trying to accomplish.  We're looking around the world of Christian higher education to see how well or how poorly peer institutions are doing with respect to academic freedom issues.  Shorter University in Rome, GA has a lot in common with OBU but, unfortunately, its administration, trustees, and state convention are actively running it into the ground.  I'm open to suggests for schools that are genuinely similar to OBU, but upon reflection, one of the closest parallels I see is Union University in Jackson, TN.

The Agee/Union Connection
While in recent years there's been an administrative pipeline between OBU and Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO (SBU's president came from OBU and OBU's president and provost did stints at SBU), OBU also shares an administrative connection to Union University in Jackson, TN.  Longtime OBU President Bob Agee came to OBU from Union in 1982 and retired to Jackson.

In his day, Agee was known as one of the most prominent Baptist college presidents (and is still an elder statesman in that distinguished fraternity).  In addition to working hard to earn and keep the trust of faculty as a defender of faculty rights and academic freedom, President Agee worked even harder to maintain good relations with local churches and the state convention.  He regularly preached in as many as 40-50 Oklahoma Baptist churches a year.  Agee had a knack for defending academic freedom and OBU's true liberal arts tradition without offending a sometimes skeptical, even hostile, Oklahoma Baptist constituency.  Of course, when the legendary Joe Ingram and former OBU President Bill Tanner headed the BGCO, relating to the state convention was not as difficult as it is in today's post-Takeover reality.  But Agee did a very difficult job and he did it well.

Any Baptist liberal arts college president should like to model his (I doubt they're ready for a "her") career after Agee's.  Union University President David Dockery certainly seems to have done so in his 17 year tenure.  Like Agee, Dockery has spoken fluently and published widely on the subject of Christian higher education.  I have not read Dockery's books yet, but I know some of our readers have.  For now I'll trust that he advocates an authentically open, fearless, and searching brand of Christian scholarship, and not just fundamentalism dressed up in academic/intellectual-sounding language.  Also like Agee, Dockery has managed the difficult task of upholding academic freedom and maintaining the trust of faculty while also staying in the fundamentalists' good graces.  (I admit this may be more perception than fact, but I trust readers will correct me where I'm wrong about the situation at Union.)

This is not to make figures like Agee and Dockery into heroes.  Their jobs are difficult and have becoming increasingly so, especially in light of how dramatically the state conventions have swung toward the fundamentalist end of the spectrum.  But make no mistake: they are compensated handsomely for their efforts.  Standing up for academic freedom might make them feel good about themselves, but at the end of the day, pleasing convention power brokers is how they stayed in their jobs year after year.  Both men care deeply about the ideal of Christian liberal arts education and have devoted their careers to that end.  Agee, for his part, seems to have regressed somewhat in his later years, as we'll discuss below.  Perhaps Dockery has done likewise in order to survive as long as he has.  We are piecing together Pat Taylor's and Agee's roles in David Whitlock's journey to the OBU presidency.  But for now, let's focus on the most successful and prominent Baptist liberal arts college president in the U.S. right now, Union's Dockery.

Save OBU's Questions about Union University
Even when I was a student at OBU, Dockery had already made a name for himself in Baptist higher education.  He spoke in Raley Chapel in the early 2000s, and I'm sure he's returned since.  Union and OBU have a lot in common, although there are some differences.  Union is almost twice as large as OBU (by enrollment).  Union is ranked lower according to Forbes, but does somewhat better in U.S. News, though it still ranks below Stetson, Samford, Belmont, and Mercer.  Union is less selective in admissions, but its draws students with markedly higher SAT scores than OBU.  Union's (all male) theology faculty is highly qualified, and while it's hard to place a department on the ideological/theological spectrum by the professors' CVs, Union's faculty seems to be mostly evangelical but not fundamentalist.  Many of the religion professors who graduated from Baptist seminaries did so before the Takeover, which is reassuring.

While we know a lot about the problems OBU has had as administrators have sought to turn from our heritage, we won't know if Union is truly a good parallel to OBU until we know more about the school and how it relates to its moderate constituents (most faculty, many students) and its fundamentalists (more students, most of the Tennessee Baptist Convention).  If you have inside information, comment below or email

  1. Is academic freedom protected at Union? Do professors or students have to sign creedal statements?
  2. Does Union have latitude to select its own trustees, or does the TBC have absolute control?
  3. What conflicts involving academic freedom have arisen at Union during Rev. Dr. Dockery's tenure?  How have they been resolved?
  4. If it came down to it, would Dockery stand for the school (like William Jewell's President David Sallee [OBU '73]) or the convention (like Shorter's President Don Dowless)?

Can OBU Administrators Learn Anything from Union/David Dockery?
We don't know if OBU administrators have learned anything, but we know they've tried.  David Whitlock looked to Dockery (and Agee) as models when he began his tenure at OBU.  In the Fall of 2010, Whitlock dispatched his struggling provost to Jackson in the midst of the fallout from the first forced dismissal debacle.  Stan Norman shadowed Union's provost and got some on-the-job training, presumably on how not to alienate the faculty.  Unfortunately, when Norman returned, OBU faculty were not impressed.  He immediately delivered what became known as his "On Mission" speech.  Everyone at Union, he said, was unified in adhering to the university's mission.  The reaction of the OBU faculty was, of course, "You mean to say we're not 'on mission?'"  No, he didn't mean it that way, he said, but his tone and phraseology indicated his desire for lockstep.

How presidents relate to students and churches are fairly public, while relationships with trustees and faculty are less so.  Their relationships with state convention elites, however, are almost completely private and usually quite a bit less inspiring.  We can't help but wonder if Whitlock's relationship to the BGCO comes from the Dockery/Agee model.  Consider that before David Whitlock's hiring, OBU's School of Christian Service professors had to endure an hourlong meeting with Agee in which he did not ask a single question nor did he dialogue.  He spoke for the entire hour telling them what they were doing wrong and how they needed to change to satisfy the BGCO.  The entire department was completely dejected after the meeting because they could see what was coming: The new president was to take the university in a fundamentalist direction as the BGCO cheered him on all the way.  Whitlock and Norman even told some members of a local church in a meeting that there were some professors in the religion department they needed to dismiss somehow but Whitlock told the group, "We must do it in a winsome way." This story can be corroborated by a number of individuals.

By now, President Whitlock has learned that it's hard to appease fundamentalists and that there is no "winsome way" to supervise the reversal of a tradition that students, faculty, and alumni hold dear.  But like Dockery (and Agee), he does have a winsome personality and many of the tools needed to have a similarly long tenure and lasting impact.  The question is, does Union retain the support of fundamentalists and moderates because Dockery can effectively and authentically relate to both constituencies?  Could the same be done in Oklahoma, or has the convention moved so far that no president can bridge the gap?  Or have we misread the Union parallel completely?

I trust we'll hear from people with inside knowledge.  And I'll report back soon.

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