Thursday, June 7, 2012

Save OBU 6 Months Later

I've been busy this week with teaching responsibilities at Georgetown.  But I didn't want to let the day pass by without noting a nice little milestone for our movement: The Save OBU blog has been online for six months!  Our first post (December 6, 2011) is here.

Save OBU was founded on the heels of an alumni petition that circulated last fall.  The alumni effort followed a period of sustained protests from faculty and students against two unethical dismissals carried out by OBU administrators.  In addition to the two botched dismissals, we've raised awareness about restrictions on academic freedom, administrative interference in curriculum matters, preferential hiring of avowed fundamentalists, the installation of a non- (anti?) academic bookstore, and a general tendency to reward ideological purity over professional achievement.  All these issues are new at OBU since the arrival of the Whitlock-Norman regime.  These problems, while tragically common in what remains of Southern Baptist higher education, are blatantly contrary to OBU's proud and distinctive Christian liberal arts tradition.

I remain convinced, as I have been since I first set foot on Bison Hill in 1999, that the root of the problem is OBU's relationship with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.  Without the BGCO to appease, Stan Norman, Mark McClellan, and at least a handful of recent hires would have never ended up at OBU.  Because of the BGCO, however, fundamentalist encroachment is advancing.  Conveniently for the convention, Provost Norman is apparently acting out of his own volition as he works to transform our beloved OBU into a fundamentalist Bible academy.  So it's hard to point fingers at the Baptist Building.  But as long as the BGCO calls the shots, there will always be a Stan Norman-type figure (or figures) trying to remake OBU in the BGCO's own post-Takeover self image.  Fundamentalism is simply incompatible with true, honest, and rigorous education.

Six months into our effort, let me respond briefly to the two major criticisms I have received.

Don't you know that OBU and the BGCO cannot be separated?
Yes.  Of all the legal arrangements between Baptist colleges and state conventions, OBU's is unquestionably the absolute worst.  Not only does the convention elect all the trustees, it literally owns OBU.  OBU is completely at the mercy of the BGCO.  Thankfully, a generation of BGCO leaders (Joe Ingram and Bill Tanner) and a generation of OBU leaders (James Ralph Scales, Grady Cothen, Tanner, Eugene Hall, and Bob Agee) managed that relationship quite well.  But in the 1990s, the BGCO leadership was taken over by fundamentalists and even turned on Joe Ingram.  Since Anthony Jordan became executive director-treasurer, OBU has had reason to worry.  The Brister years had their ups and downs, but ultimately Mark Brister realized that Anthony Jordan was not his boss and refused to aid and abet fundamentalist encroachment at OBU.  With David Whitlock, the fundamentalists have had a field day.  It's as if Whitlock agreed to abide the fundamentalists' long-awaited transformation of OBU as a condition of his election.  We're looking into the search process as deeply as we can to get as much insight as possible.

As I said on day one, at a minimum, OBU needs to be allowed to select a majority (if not all) of its trustees.  Short of that, we'll lose this fight.  In that case, I only hope that the professors who I count as mentors can finish their careers satisfactorily and that their pensions will be paid before OBU descends into irrelevance and ruin.

Following the pattern of fundamentalist domination of Baptist colleges, we can expect an all-out takeover of OBU's Board of Trustees in the coming years.  Now, while we actually have a really good board, OBU needs to take action to protect itself.  In the coming months, we'll talk more about what that might look like.  And we'll finally be in touch with the trustees in a formal way.

Why do you give David Whitlock a free pass?
Whitlock is going to be the president of OBU for quite a few years -- maybe for as long as he likes.  He will personally have a decisive impact on whether OBU remains a leading Christian liberal arts college or faces a fate like Shorter or any number of other Baptist colleges that the fundamentalists have destroyed.  If Whitlock left OBU, it's a near certainty that we would end up with someone much, much worse.  The best thing about Whitlock is that he doesn't have a Ph.D. from a post-Takeover SBC seminary.  He wasn't modled and formed in the trenches of the Takeover.  In fact, some professors have described him as theologically naive or "theologically an infant."  Multiple people recounted an instance where he appeared at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City and seemed genuinely perplexed about why that congregation had a troubled relationship to the BGCO (something that any insider would know and understand very well).  Most people have the impression that he is more of a politician/manager than an ideological warrior.  If we didn't have David Whitlock, the odds are overwhelming that we'd have someone who is a committed Takeover activist who has been formed and molded over many years in one of the increasingly insular and ever more fundamentalist SBC seminaries.  Think Stan Norman.  If not Whitlock, we'd probably have someone very much like Norman.  I know a lot of you are angry at President Whitlock.  But I would still submit for your consideration that it could actually be worse.

Now, it's true that Whitlock has been able to hide behind his hatchet man.  Occasionally, he's had to clean up messes.  But in general, Whitlock does not seem to have the inclination to fight the fundamentalists' battles for them.  Which is why if Stan Norman left OBU, everyone keeps telling me things would be much better.  But I must concede the point so many of you have made in your emails, comments, and calls: David Whitlock has sat idly by while good men's careers were needlessly disrupted and while Stan Norman has begun to undermine generations of greatness at OBU.  And from what I can tell, Whitlock has not lifted a finger to protect academic freedom in any of the several instances where it is being undermined.  I agree that this is unacceptable.  But sometimes there's no way to hold people at the top accountable.

Looking Ahead to the Next 6 Months
We have plans to release our survey of BGCO pastors and church staff in the coming weeks.  We also plan on featuring a handful of new guest writers.  As I've mentioned, we're compiling a dossier to send to OBU trustees.  And we'll closely monitor the trustee selection process, or at least the election of 8 new trustees in November.  We'll also continue to form relationships and forge alliances with constituents of other Baptist schools whose great traditions are being eroded by fundamentalists.  Eventually, I plan on doing some writing for higher ed trade publications to help raise awareness about the plight of Christian liberal arts in the context of post-Takeover Baptist schools.

I also have a family to love and a doctoral dissertation to write.  So I'm going to scale back my involvement as we bring on a new, broader leadership structure.

A Personal Word of Thanks
I am so grateful to each of you for indulging my outspoken voice these past six months and supporting me to the extent you are inclined and able.  I've certainly made a few mistakes.  But I stand by the work we've done together as vital and hopefully decisive in protecting the OBU we all love so dearly.  I'm especially grateful to Veronica Pistone for adding her voice and passion to our effort.  But I'm also grateful to all those whose activism paved the way for Save OBU: Chris Jones who spearheaded the alumni petition effort, the faculty who pushed back hard against the botched and shameful dismissals, and the students who courageously spoke out against negative policy and personnel changes.

I've learned a lot about Baptist higher education -- more than I ever thought I'd know!  I'm grateful for the new knowledge and (I hope) better perspective I now have.  But mostly, I'm grateful that I reconnected with old friends and made many new ones.  It's been a joy.

God bless OBU!

Looking forward to the next 6 months!


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