Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shorter Univ. Debacle Goes National

Aside from OBU, Shorter University in Rome, GA is the school we've discussed the most extensively here.  Though Shorter has a history of conflict with the Georgia Baptist Convention foreign to the OBU/BGCO relationship and, unlike Oklahoma, Georgia has two marginal Baptist colleges, OBU and Shorter do share some important things in common.  Shorter is in the lower tier in the U.S. News rankings, but this is because it is now categorized among "National Liberal Arts Colleges."  In previous regional rankings, Shorter has ranked commensurately with its very solid reputation.  Like OBU, Shorter has strong roots in its community, it excels in liberal arts undergraduate education, and it has recently seen leadership changes that have led to fundamentalist-inspired changes.

For now, Shorter exemplifies the worst-case scenario for OBU.  Just this month, news spread that more than 50 employees are leaving Shorter because they did not sign up to teach at a fundamentalist Bible academy.  I encourage you to look at the Rome (GA) News-Tribune's coverage of the situation, as well as the Save Our Shorter website.  It's all quite heartbreaking.

People in Baptist higher education have been watching Shorter ever since President Don Dowless announced last fall that all employees (regardless of tenure) must either sign its belief/lifestyle statements or face termination.  As the deadline to decide came in April and the staggering number of departing faculty became known, a few religion reporters picked up the story.  Now, a number of national mainstream media outlets are reporting on the faculty exodus at Shorter.

My own local paper, The Washington Post, printed a Religion News Service report on the issue.  Shorter President Don Dowless's reaction to losing a huge chunk of his faculty was essentially, "Eh:"
Dowless said Friday that some of those who resigned did not state the reason for leaving.
In a Wednesday statement, Dowless said he and the university board recognized there are “strong feelings on both sides” about the new employment rules but the board decided to “reclaim our Christian roots” even if the consequence was a loss of faculty and staff.
“Our University was at a crossroads to either take steps to regain an authentic Christian identity in policy and practice or we would become a Christian University in name only,” he said.
This guy comes off as arrogant and clueless.  Some who resigned did not state a reason?  Are we supposed to believe that they just don't like the weather in North Georgia anymore?  The implication that without these new faith and lifestyle statements, Shorter is abandoning its Christian roots is demonstrably false and highly insulting.  Shorter was in no danger of becoming a Christian university "in name only," especially since the GBC won lawsuits affirming their control and now elects all of Shorter's trustees.  The truth is, in light of this disaster, Shorter is going to become a university in name only.

I can't wait to find out what kind of people Shorter brings in to replace the several dozen lost faculty and staff.  To aid in the task, Dowless has brought in a new administrator to pick up the pieces and help built the fundamentalist Bible academy Shorter is now destined to become.

Thankfully, OBU's president and current trustees will not be persuaded to allow -- let alone foment -- OBU's destruction.  Here again, there are important differences between OBU and Shorter.  Dowless came to Shorter after the GBC had already stacked the board with fundamentalists.  It was the understanding from the beginning of his tenure that he would shepherd along the institution's transformation.  In OBU's case, it's not 100% clear if the dynamic is a difference in degree or kind.

GBC Executive Director Bob White is fully on board with the fundamentalist transformation of the state's Baptist colleges.  It's unclear whether he shares their vision or is simply powerless to stop them.  In any case, OBU President David Whitlock has every opportunity to guard against fundamentalist encroachment at OBU and he has a Board of Trustees (for now) that would back him up.  Many people have suggested to us that the BGCO's own Anthony Jordan would be delighted to see OBU go in a more fundamentalist direction.  But my impression is that he is sensible enough to know that OBU's reputation is important and that losing accreditation is unacceptable.  We'll know more about where the convention stands after the next slate of trustees is elected in November.

Until then, we'll remain ever vigilant.  This month, a national audience is seeing firsthand that fundamentalist control inevitably leads academic institutions toward irrelevance if not destruction.  Hopefully everyone involved will realize that this is NOT what anyone actually wants for our beloved OBU.

Of course, if OBU was not owned and controlled by the post-Takeover BGCO, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

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