Friday, August 31, 2012

2012 Convocation: Raley, Jr. Receives Honorary Doctorate

I really enjoyed the video of Wednesday's convocation service.  The hymns, the prayers, and the words spoken were all very beautiful and inspiring.  It was wonderful to see John Wesley Raley, Jr. receive an honorary degree from the institution his parents devoted their lives to building.

Some people think I've been too hard on OBU in my writing here.  Others think I've been too soft.  At the moment, I just want to say that yesterday's convocation reminded me of all that is great, even exceptional (to borrow Mr. Raley's term), about OBU.

This time last year, many people legitimately feared that OBU was on the verge of an all-out assault by fundamentalists.  The faculty seriously considered taking a no-confidence vote in the president.  Yet today, many of us feel at least somewhat reassured that the worst of our fears have not been realized.  Sure, OBU administrators continue their troubling pattern of cozying up to fundamentalist SBC elites.  Sure, it will take time for the faculty's wounds to heal to the point that they can begin to trust President Whitlock and Provost Norman again.  Sure, the religion department bypassed the usual, ethical hiring process and installed a fundamentalist Bible teacher who is also an avowed flat-earther young earther.  OBU continues to be without a legitimate university bookstore that sells mainstream books in history, literature, the arts, and the natural and social sciences.

But given the severity of our fears and the path taken by some other state convention-run Baptist colleges, I think it's safe to say that things are not nearly as bad as they could be.

What has happened to keep OBU from going over the cliff?  What good fortune and grace has come our way to enable even OBU's loving critics to find this week's service not only palatable, but also inspiring?  Let's review a few facts:

  • This honoree is actually deserving.  Whitlock wisely chose to honor someone who actually has a deep and meaningful connection to the university, and who might actually be inclined to support it financially.  Raley, a semi-retired partner in a Ponca City law firm and former mayor of that town, served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma in the 1990s, having been appointed by President George H. W. Bush.  Contrast Mr. Raley to SBC President Rev. Fred Luter (the last honoree), who has absolutely no connection to OBU and would never give OBU a dime.  The Luter move, done off-site and in the summer, was nothing more than an ill-advised power play.
  • OBU has brought in a number of very promising new faculty members, rather than reflexively replacing retiring moderates with fundamentalists.
  • Unlike a growing number of other Baptist schools, OBU does not force its faculty to sign creedal statements.  Doing so would be the end of academic freedom.  OBU's convocation explicitly asked students to open their minds, not to close them (as is the case at the fundamentalist SBC seminaries and colleges like Truett-McConnell and Brewton-Parker in Georgia).
  • Provost Stan Norman, the force behind all the recent problems at OBU, appears to have been completely reigned in.  When he came to OBU, he saw faculty vacancies as his best chance to remake OBU in the mold of SBC fundamentalism.  Either he's had a change of heart, or has been directed to lay low.  Hopefully installing a young earth creationist in the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry will keep him happy for a while and he won't try to wreck any other departments.

In spite of a few pretty serious disappointments, we're looking forward to OBU having a better year than it's had lately.

Friday, August 24, 2012

New Hires at OBU and Elsewhere

Happy new academic year!  You might have come expecting analysis of the Princeton Review report that noted a "glaring complaint" from students: "Lack of communication" from administration.  (Looks like students are unhappy with administrators' answers to questions like "Why are our favorite religion professors disappearing?")  You might also be expecting a continuation of our series on the 2012 Forbes rankings (in which OBU has declined from #109 to #390 during Rev. Dr. David Whitlock's tenure as president).  These posts will be coming soon.

Today we're looking at some items related to new faculty and the search/hire process at Baptist universities.

OBU Announces New Faculty
One of our initial concerns was widespread faculty anger that search committee recommendations based on achievement and promise for future success were being overruled by administrators who prefer to hire based on adherence to fundamentalist dogma.  We received encouraging news in April from sources who predicted that the English department would be able to fill its vacancies without undue pressure from administrators who would impose doctrinal/social/political litmus tests (link to MS Word document) in hiring, which past OBU job candidates faced.

Credit where credit is due: We have received no reports that any of these searches (three in languages, two in teacher education) were tainted by fundamentalist meddling.  Given the outsized impact OBU faculty have on their students, and especially considering the fact that the two English hires are replacing retiring legends, these new Humanities and Social Sciences colleagues have large shoes to fill.  We wish them the best.

Likewise, we were pleased to see three new hires in the Hurley College of Science and Mathematics.  As a person who studied religion, I'm particularly sensitive to the kinds of litmus tests new Bible, theology, and ministry faculty face with Mark McClellan as dean and Stan Norman as provost.  But let's not forget that science faculty could be the next targets.

There was an announcement about new faculty in nursing and fine arts as well.

In the coming weeks, we'll have more to say on the new Hobbs College hire and the process (or lack thereof) used to select him.

Shorter Begins Filling a Bazillion Vacancies
At Shorter University in Rome, GA (about which we've blogged here before), the situation could not be more different.  Shorter is filling dozens of vacancies due to the mass exodus of faculty this year in protest of the university's "lifestyle statement."  The devastation there is the work of Dr. Don Dowless, the puppet president installed to appease the increasingly fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention.  I'll let our friends at Save Our Shorter explain the new hires.  Short version: A lot of adjuncts and part-timers got promoted, at least one lesser fundamentalist college faculty got raided, and several handfuls of desperate and/or fundamentalist junior professors signed on.  The accrediting body will let the lifestyle statement slide.  But it might not smile on such an amateurish faculty.

Looking at Shorter and other Baptist schools helps us remember two sobering and related facts:

  1. Things could get worse.
  2. They probably will.

Yet as some Baptist schools begin their year with elaborate ceremonies where new faculty are forced to sign creedal statements, we can take comfort in the fact that OBU is still a place where students are free to learn and teachers are free to teach.  But we are mindful of the recent problems and the threat of future encroachments.

Best wishes to everyone on Bison Hill for a great 2012-13 academic year!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Would I Still Choose OBU?

Hello, my dear friends! I am so glad to be back with you.

As Jacob already said, I left you for a while because I was getting married! In some ways (marrying a Baptist at age 22) I suppose I am very much a typical OBU girl. :) For those of you interested in pictures, some of the teasers are here.

I write this post for fairness (Jacob got to brag about his beautiful new daughter) and also because, believe it or not, my wedding reminded me about some of the things I love about OBU.

It has been asserted that I hate OBU or that I have turned my back on OBU. That may be true in some ways. But on my wedding day, I could not help but notice how much OBU has given me. OBU will always be a special place in my heart-- it is the place I met my husband. And not only that, it is the place I met the majority of my bridal party. Actually, now that I think about it, there was only one person in the wedding party who was not either family or a friend from OBU.

OBU really was a great place for me. I received an excellent education and met some of the best friends that anyone could ask for. Together, all of us questioned, discussed, learned, and grew. As I have said before, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think that sometimes I forget the huge hand that OBU has played in who I am today. And for that, I am extremely grateful.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that students like me will not be going to OBU much longer. And the ones that do go are much less likely to have my same experience.

When I was a junior in high school, looking for a place to spend my college career, I was not the typical person who might generally be looking to OBU. I was not a Baptist and I was not an Oklahoman. But I was drawn to the school because I had a friend who loved it there and saw that it was recognized across the board for spectacular academics.

My parents, believe it or not, did not want me to go to a faith-based school. Outside of the "Bible Belt" it is not uncommon to hold the assumption that faith based schools do not have as good academics as their secular counterparts. When it came to choosing a college, my parents were far more concerned about academics. The point of paying for an education is to get an education-- not to become a better Christian.

I think that this is still a pretty fair argument. But I wanted to study religion, and my heart was set on OBU. In the end, my parents were convinced by OBU's excellent rankings and both of them really enjoyed the visit that the three of us made to campus. Believing that the educational investment would be worth the money, they happily sent me to Shawnee, where I believe none of us were disappointed in what I got.

Now, at OBU, I learned that perhaps getting an education and growing in your faith are more related than my parents were willing to believe during my college search. But, as I learned from Arthur Holmes during welcome week, a Christian college is not a church. The primary goal must still be education-- although one may be surprised to find that even in pursuit of that goal Christ is King. At OBU, I saw the beauty of joining a community honestly seeking both God and truth.

I am unsure that if I were looking for schools now if my parents would be convinced by OBU. If you haven't seen Jacob's post on OBU's falling rankings, the numbers are startling. When I chose OBU, my parents trusted that although they disagreed with the school ideologically, I would still get a fantastic education.

But is that still true today? Or has OBU lost sight of its vision? In an effort to protect its "Christian-ness," I fear that OBU has stopped being an excellent institution of higher learning. The problem is that its excellence is part of what made OBU Christian. Each of us was encouraged to study as a means of encountering God-- and to do so with excellence for that is the highest calling of Christ.

Now, I am afraid that OBU is trying to be safe. But encountering God has never been safe. And so instead of good, Christian education, OBU is offering pat answers and certainty.

My parents would never have been willing to pay for that-- and I'm sure I wouldn't have wanted it.

Those of us who are vested in OBU's future need to consider what kind of students we will be attracting with this new path the institution has taken. If we continue in this way, I fear that our story may be similar to the SBC seminaries-- which it seems many OBU grads are avoiding. We will no longer be able to attract the best students; they will find their education elsewhere.

Please continue to help us bring OBU back to the place that made me first fall in love with it. I know I am not the only one.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Welcome Week 2012: The Idea of a Christian College

Welcome Week continues for more than 500 incoming OBU students who moved in Saturday.  Our thoughts are with them, and with all the students, faculty, staff, and administrators preparing to begin a new academic year.

If you've been on Bison Hill during August the past 8 or 10 years, you probably know about a little book by Arthur F. Holmes called The Idea of a Christian College.  I know the faculty has held the book in high esteem for some time -- perhaps since its publication in 1975.  I don't know when it became required reading for Welcome Week.  But for some number of years, a small-group faculty-led discussion of the book has been a critical component of the Welcome Week experience.

Such is the case again this year.  Eleven faculty and staff from across the university are leading new students in a discussion of The Idea of a Christian College.  From every indication we have, these professors are all outstanding.  Given the composition of the list, I'd say there was absolutely no way Provost Norman or any of the new fundamentalist deans had anything to do with putting Welcome Week together -- and that can only be a good thing.  No need for the indoctrination to begin before the first day.  Let's at least wait til the freshmen get to "Apologetics" 101.

Actually, Holmes makes a compelling argument that the Christian college is not the church and thus does not have a role to play in "defending the faith."  The emphasis is on how to integrate faith with learning.  Holmes thus allows for not only empirical knowledge, but also revelatory knowledge.  Christian professors should model and strive to help form a faith that can withstand the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny.

Considering his thoroughly conservative outlook, Holmes offers a strong defense of academic freedom.  With freedom comes responsibility, of course, but it occurs to me that the new sheriffs at OBU would probably have preferred to use a book with a watered-down definition of academic freedom that the new SBC elites could approve to give the illusion of legitimacy to the SBC's "academic" functions and institutions.

Faculty are discussing Holmes's book this week and emphasizing three key concepts: the integration of faith and learning, academic freedom, and Christian worldview.  We've already pointed out how the concept of "Christian worldview" can be easily manipulated into a naive fundamentalism.  But given the extremely high quality and integrity of the people involved and the apparent fact that the faculty and student life staff are still steering the ship (at least as far as Welcome Week is concerned), we're encouraged.

As Welcome Week gives way to the first semester of college for the Class of 2016, our hope is that "all truth is God's truth" is more than a slogan at OBU.  We know that against vocal opposition, the new administration has imported trappings of the overly dogmatic post-Takeover faux-academic fundamentalism to Bison Hill.  But as long as OBU can remain the kind of college Art Holmes envisioned, that fundamentalism will not take root.  If we're lucky, those who propagate it will soon realize that they are unwelcome.  Let's help them realize it sooner rather than later so that the early Whitlock years will be remembered as a sad but short chapter rather than a decisive turn toward ignorance and irrelevance.

And let's hope that President Whitlock cares more about his legacy in the eyes of OBU students and faculty than SBC elites.  But make no mistake: he can't have it both ways.  The new fundamentalists have made that impossible.  Whitlock will have to choose.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Welcome Week 2012: Move-In Day

Dear New OBU Students and Parents,

It's hard to believe move-in day has finally come!  Congratulations to each of you on your decision to commit significant time, effort, and money to Oklahoma Baptist University.  The OBU experience can be life-changing, and we're hopeful that it will be wonderful for you.  We are a diverse coalition of students, alumni, and other OBU stakeholders whose own lives have been greatly enriched by OBU's tradition of distinctively Christian liberal arts education.

Some of you won't have heard of Save OBU before, so we'd like to introduce ourselves.  In the past two years, two extremely dedicated and well-loved professors were forced to resign from OBU though they had done nothing wrong.  Because they were not accorded rights guaranteed by the Faculty Handbook, their colleagues, students, and a host of OBU alumni and friends became concerned about the administration's unprecedented actions.  Students' protests were largely ignored, and they remained very confused about what this turn of events meant for OBU.  Faculty morale sunk to an all-time low and last fall, the president barely dodged a no-confidence vote in the Faculty Council.  Concerned alumni circulated a petition.  A group of retired faculty and staff (who had collectively committed many hundreds of years of service to OBU) demanded an explanation, but none was forthcoming.

Last December, the Save OBU blog emerged.  We've reached tens of thousands of people with our concerns about OBU.  Some things have improved.  For example, the provost (chief academic officer) was finally forced to undergo a performance evaluation that included faculty input (which was no doubt scathing).  Most departments have been allowed to fill faculty vacancies without undue administrative meddling, which had become a huge problem.  And a lot of other things on campus are going well. OBU's athletic programs are stronger than ever.  Enrollment continues to be strong.  An ambitious capital campaign is underway.

But many concerns remain.  Faculty morale continues to be low, and this will not change until there is change in the Provost's Office.  While the president is trying to mend fences with the faculty, there is obviously a huge amount of distrust.  The bookstore, though visually appealing, is inadequate for a university.  It does not sell any books from mainstream publishers in the areas of history, literature, social science, natural science, etc.  OBU administrators have spent unprecedented time and effort cozying up to elites within the Southern Baptist Convention, many of whom prefer indoctrination over education and have been extremely hostile toward Baptists who happen to be moderate rather than fundamentalist.

Though hugely unpopular in the executive suite, Save OBU will continue to cast a shadow over Bison Hill until our concerns are acknowledged and resolved.  Many current students (as well as hundreds of alumni) are part of our coalition.  But faculty are not.  They could be fired for publicly supporting Save OBU.

We believe many of the problems are the natural result of broader changes in Baptist politics at the national and state levels over the past 30 years.  But when it comes to OBU specifically, we believe Provost Stan Norman is primarily at fault and President David Whitlock is primarily responsible for the unethical dismissals and chipping away at academic freedom.  Under their tenure, OBU has dropped from #109 to #390 in the Forbes college rankings.  Whether your six-figure OBU tuition bill is being paid by cash or credit, you should be concerned about the downward trajectory that could devalue the degree you will earn.  Other Baptist schools with extreme administrators are already flirting with loss of accreditation.

Fortunately, OBU still has wonderful and caring professors and a great student body.  We want you to be aware of the problems detailed above.  But above all -- today and every day -- we are so grateful that you are now a part of the OBU family.

-Save OBU

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Can OBU Avoid SBC Seminaries' Influence?

As most of you know, the SBC's six seminaries have changed dramatically over the past 25 years.  Fundamentalists typically believe that the seminaries had been adrift, promoting liberal theology and even secularism, steering Baptists away from a plain, literal reading of Scripture.  The "Conservative Resurgence" helped return the institutions to their sound Biblical roots.  They are now among the best seminaries in the world.  Moderates typically believe that the seminaries were among the best, until the "Fundamentalist Takeover" used political tactics to oust all moderates, end academic freedom, institutionalize creedalism, authoritarianism, and fundamentalism, and turn the seminaries into indoctrination camps for aspiring preacher boys.

We're not going to settle that debate today.  Although I do hope to find guest writers who can do a series of posts describing how each seminary went through the change.  Who knows, there may be important parallels to the Baptist colleges' experiences with fundamentalist takeovers.

The point for today is this: When it comes to circling the wagons, deciding who's in and who's out, excluding moderates, insisting that being on the "right" side of once-secondary disagreements is now primary, exercising power, wielding influence, engaging with the media and the public, and eroding historic Baptist distinctives, the SBC seminaries have been absolutely central.  What's worse, I'm afraid that as the victorious SBC fundamentalists flexed their muscles in the 1990s and 2000s, they looked to the state conventions and Baptist colleges and said to themselves, "We've taken over the largest Protestant denomination in America.  I wonder what else we can conquer."

There's plenty of evidence that some of today's leaders in Baptist higher education actually see the post-Takeover seminaries as models.  In Georgia, college presidents Don Dowless, Emir Caner, and Mike Simoneaux have all instituted policies requiring all faculty (and in some cases, staff) to sign various faith statements.  This practice has long been a hallmark of post-Takeover SBC seminary administration.  I recently found out that Southern Seminary actually has a solemn ceremony every time a new professor signs its Abstract of Principles.  Everyone sits around and watches the guy sign a piece of paper and applauds when he's done.

A new SBTS professor signing the school's
"Abstract of Principles" in a public ceremony

Fortunately, very little of the Georgia Baptist craziness has taken root at OBU.  And even though OBU's academic reputation is presently in decline, we are far ahead of the GBC schools, which aren't really even pretending to be legitimate liberal arts colleges where professors are free to teach and students are free to learn.  They've all been bought and paid for and are now just feathers in the fundamentalists' cap -- a resume line for college presidents aspiring to a higher rung on the ladder of SBC politics.

Still, it's relevant to note where SBC seminary influences are present at OBU -- and where they are absent.

I've already commented that it's a tremendous blessing that we have a president who did not attend a SBC seminary.  Given the alternative -- someone who spent close to a decade (M.Div. + Ph.D.) being formed in a post-Takeover SBC seminary -- this is one case where nothing is definitely better than something.  Now, you can't necessarily tell a lot about a person by where they went to school -- neither Dowless or Caner hold SBC seminary Ph.D.'s -- but I'd say we definitely dodged a bullet here.  Things could be so much worse.  We could have a true-believer, cultural warrior, lifelong SBC climber in the executive suite.

Religion Department
Well, it's not really correct to refer to OBU's "religion department."  For good or ill (or perhaps some of both), the religion and philosophy faculty have been together with the ministerial preparation faculty for two decades.  Some of OBU's newer religion professors have come from SBC seminaries and some have not.  Fortunately, there does not seem to be excessive fondness for the SBC seminaries in the department.  I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but it seems that most people realize a vastly superior graduate theological education can be had elsewhere.

In the case of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry, I'm actually less interested in where the faculty earned their degrees than where OBU graduates go on to earn theirs.  For aspiring pastors, missionaries, and youth ministry directors, there's a pretty strong pipeline to the SBC seminaries, particularly Southwestern in Fort Worth.  This makes sense and is to be expected.  In terms of OBU graduates who want to do graduate work in theology or biblical studies, however, I'm not sure that any of them go to SBC seminaries.  Why would they?

OBU actually produces a number of graduates who do well at a variety of very fine seminaries and divinity schools.  When I was there, we were sending several top students to Princeton Theological Seminary.  I went to Boston University School of Theology, having been rejected from Harvard Divinity School.  But I know we sent students to Harvard, Duke, Notre Dame and Wheaton in those years.  In the past couple years, I know of students who have gone to these schools and others, including some in the U.K.  I also know that students -- including some of the very best students -- preparing for parish ministry have eschewed the SBC seminaries, choosing instead places like Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Brite (TCU).

I would absolutely love to see data on where OBU religion, ministry, and philosophy (or "apologetics")  students go for grad school.  But OBU could never release the data because it would make the BGCO's head explode.  Even in its new incarnation where moderates are an endangered species, the Hobbs College faculty is not exactly a SBC Seminary Fan Club.

The new library dean came to OBU after working at Southern Seminary.  So far, we've heard only good things about him, but it's a little early to tell.  Just remember, that statue of James Ralph Scales has eyes in the back of his head, and he's watching!

Back in the day, when churches had organs and choirs and the like, I'm told the SBC seminaries had great sacred music programs.  I know the current and former fine arts deans had experience with SBC seminary sacred music programs.  Though I'm told they're as different as night and day when it comes to how to run a Christian college fine arts program.  Another story for another day...

Which Direction Does the Pipeline Run?
While it seems generally fair to say that the SBC seminaries influence OBU less than they probably influence a lot of other Baptist colleges, things could be changing.  The normal pattern used to be that Baptist college professors in certain areas (religion, sacred music) would have earned their degrees at SBC seminaries, but would teach their whole careers at the college level.  A few would return to the seminaries to teach later in their careers.

At OBU, we're seeing an influx of recent hires who, whether they attended SBC seminaries or not (most did), they are coming to Bison Hill after having worked at the seminaries.  This is true of the fine arts and library deans, Provost Norman, and the newest religion professor.  As we get more of these kinds of people, we need to watch out.  Whereas most of us think academic freedom is normal and forcing university professors to sign creeds is not normal, these people have been in the ever-more insular world of SBC seminaries.  In that world, it's perfectly normal to force people to sign faith statements.  Academic freedom is not just a novel idea, it's a dangerous one.  Everyone agrees on almost everything.  They think the same, believe the same, and vote the same.  Now, I hope each of these people has something positive to bring to Bison Hill.  My concern is that the more people we get from the SBC seminaries, the less resistance we will muster when administrators decide that a Shorter-style purge is what God wants for OBU.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Resurrecting Excellence

With the 2012 Olympic Games now in the history books, I'd like to share a few thoughts on the games and what meaning and aspirations they provide for me.  I'll also apply these reflections to my concerns about OBU and our work going forward.

I'm not a huge Olympics junkie.  I spend a lot more time every four years following the presidential election campaign than the Olympic games.  In fact, the only sport I regularly follow, baseball, has been dropped from the Olympics.  I do love the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony, but to be honest I like the idea of it more than actually sitting down for several hours and watching it on television.  The one thing I absolutely love about the Olympics is the music.  The Boston Pops released a CD in advance of the 1996 Atlanta games (which I attended with my dad).  I remember listening to that compilation of Olympic-themed music on my portable Walkman CD player (remember these?).  I've enjoyed those recordings many times over the years.

To me, the Olympics exemplify the pursuit of excellence.  The athletes' feats of skill and athleticism are absolutely inspirational.  But what we don't see are the years and years of daily preparation -- practice, nutrition, strength training, etc.  Out of the world's 7 billion people, these few thousand athletes best demonstrate what the human body is capable of.  Maybe some of it is genetic.  But I believe most of their success is due to preparation, rigorous intentionality, and a near-obsessive commitment to excellence.

Too often in too many other areas of human work and achievement, too many of us settle for less than our best.  I have to admit that I'm the worst about this!  Sometimes I catch myself essentially sleepwalking through life, unwilling to give my best effort for fear of failure or disappointment.  Then, when things don't go my way, I can say, "Well, it's because I didn't try that hard."  Christian people can sometimes be pretty bad about this.  After all, if I'm going to heaven to live with Jesus any day now (or, in any event, as soon as I die), why strive for earthly excellence at all?  In the end, I guess most thoughtful Christians will resolve this dilemma by believing that striving for excellence somehow brings glory to God.  The title for this post comes from a book I read in 2007 that lays forth a "theology of excellence" for clergy and lay ministry leaders alike.  Maybe its lessons and insights extend to other areas.

By now, you'll see where I'm going with this.  My underlying concern in starting this blog is my belief that OBU has, in vitally important ways, strayed from its pursuit of excellence in Christian liberal arts education.  Obviously, I believe it is a symptom of a much larger disease: the Fundamentalist Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I think fundamentalism is intellectually dishonest and lazy -- the absolute antithesis of excellence.  To the degree that we succumb to fundamentalism, we abdicate our pursuit of excellence.

I'm concerned that some of the people making policy and personnel decisions at OBU in the past few years have taken us down a bad path.  For eight months, we've been presenting qualitative and quantitative evidence that excellence is missing in parts of OBU's life and administration.  Our hope and prayer is that if you believe God calls us to excellence, you will be shocked and offended by what has happened at our beloved OBU, and that you will join our effort and encourage others to do likewise.

Just as Olympians need an elaborate support system of family, school, friends, and coaches to encourage their pursuit of excellence, so do college students.  They need a university committed to bringing the absolute best and brightest faculty -- to every department.  They need to be free to learn from professors who are free to teach.  They need to know it's okay to ask questions and explore tensions between faith and knowledge.  They shouldn't be encouraged or enabled to settle for pat, spoon-fed answers to questions that have vexed philosophers and theologians throughout the ages.

If we want them to be excellent, or at least have a chance at excellence, we have to be excellent, too.  But in important ways, we've put ideology ahead of competence, conformity ahead of questioning, and created confusion by speaking the language of liberal arts while enacting the policies of a fundamentalist Bible academy.

Let's return to excellence!

Best Wishes, Veronica and Scott!

Exciting news: Contributing Editor Veronica Pistone was married Saturday night in Kansas City!  Since a lot of Save OBU's support comes from recent alumni/ae, many of you already knew this.  Some of you were there!  The wedding and reception were held in the Kansas City Public Library, and the pictures are absolutely breathtaking!

I know I speak for the entire Save OBU community when I say: Our very best wishes to Veronica and new husband Scott for a beautiful and joyful life together.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

2012 Forbes Data (Part 2): OBU's Decline in Context

Earlier this week, I reported that OBU had fallen to #390 in the Forbes college rankings.  While Forbes (methodology here) has improved on U.S. News & World Report (which dominated the college rankings game for many years), I would be the first to admit that these rankings are imperfect and it is impossible to perfectly quantify the experience/quality/outcome these magazines are trying to rank.

Still, these rankings are enough to reveal all kinds of problems with the current direction of OBU and in Baptist higher education across the board.

First, the ugly picture:
The defenders of OBU's new fundamentalist regime really can't argue with this.  The best they can do is say, "Hey, the rankings go from 1 to 650!  By only showing 100 to 400 on the y axis, Jacob is making the slope of the line look worse than it actually is."

Fair enough.  But is this really any better?
When you consider that the 400s and 500s are populated by schools like Oral Roberts and Liberty, this shouldn't make you feel any better.  This is a stunning decline.

How are other Baptist schools faring?  I wondered the same thing.  The chart below shows OBU's decline in bold along with the rankings of several other state convention-affiliated schools.  Some of these peers are relatively fundamentalist, while others are relatively moderate.  But it's clear that OBU's decline is unique, even among Baptist peers:
Samford dipped but is doing alright and Baylor is on a clear upward trajectory.  Ouachita and Union are holding their own.  Southwest Baptist University has never been ranked.  (For what it's worth, Southwest Baptist is also the school from which David Whitlock came to OBU.  Coming to OBU was a huge professional leap and the opportunity of a lifetime for Whitlock, as I'm sure he would be the first to acknowledge.)

The picture above presents a different narrative about what was going on in 2008 and 2009 than what we usually hear.  We were in an enrollment crisis!  We had to make tough financial decisions!  Maybe so.  But for all the hand wringing, it turns out that OBU was actually in much better shape at the end of the Brister presidency and during the Parrish interim than it is today.  Remember, as opposed to U.S. News, Forbes is trying to measure quality and outcomes, not just reputation.  One can only wonder how much better off we'd be if Whitlock, Norman, and McClellan had never come to Bison Hill.  Or if President Whitlock had made it clear from the beginning that he would not abide a fundamentalist takeover instead of letting it happen with his blessing.

I don't know exactly how Whitlock can undo the damage his hatchet men have already done.  But I'm afraid it will take more than a capital campaign, a football team, and a few new degree programs.  He could start by apologizing for past missteps (why is that so hard for people to do?), urging his friend the provost (who long ago lost the faculty's confidence, if he ever actually had it) to find another job, and doing more to address faculty concerns about past and present problems than having an occasional lunch with a few faculty leaders.  Some search committees have been able to bring top-rate junior professors to OBU.  But in other departments (Theology and Ministry being the most egregious but perhaps not the only example), the process is a joke and the administrators bring in whoever they want without even consulting relevant faculty colleagues.  Speaking of jokes, the bookstore restricts access to all books not produced by Tree of Life's approved list of fundamentalist publishing houses.  The list of books you can't find in OBU's bookstore is mind-boggling.

Anyway, back to the rankings.

Later in the week, I'll speak specifically to how OBU is faring with respect to other evangelical colleges, as well as institutions that were formerly affiliated with Baptist state conventions.  Also, if I have time, I might build a data set that includes the Forbes rankings of every CCCU institution.  I have a feeling that doing so might provide a compelling visualization of the fact that maintaining a Christian identity does not have to mean sacrificing quality.  It might also help reveal the fact that Christian institutions that are controlled by fundamentalists are destined for mediocrity (if not outright ruin), while those run by moderates (or at least people who are sensitive to the importance of rigor, quality, and ethical/professional standards) can continue to achieve excellence.

More on all that later in the week.  Please keep your friends, classmates, and interested colleagues informed about the work we are doing here at Save OBU.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

OBU Prof Attends Baptist World Alliance Meeting

Last month OBU's president, the Rev. Dr. David Whitlock, approvingly tweeted that an OBU religion professor represented OBU at the Baptist World Alliance's annual gathering.  This may seem innocuous enough.  But it actually reveals quite a lot about a) how out-of-step today's fundamentalist SBC elites are with the Baptist tradition throughout the world, b) how David Whitlock is still finding his way among that elite, and c) the delicate and difficult balancing act Rev. Dr. Stan Norman, with Whitlock's backing, has created for faculty to actually do legitimate scholarly and ecumenical work while also staying in the new regime's good graces.

The SBC and the BWA
As the Takeover progressed into the 1990s, hostility toward the Baptist World Alliance among SBC power brokers increased.  I have tried to stay away from secular politics on this blog, and the SBC pullout of the BWA had a lot to do with the convention's new commitment to conservative politics.  Please pardon me for not delving into the whole back story in this post.  Perhaps I (or someone else) will tell the story in another post or series.  But you can read about it here, here, and here.

Long story short: The BWA was formed in the early 1900s, largely through SBC support.  During the 20th century, the BWA participated in the worldwide ecumenical movement through the World Council of Churches and other organizations.  The BWA came to stand for ecumenism, social justice, the separation of church and state and unity in diversity.  As all Baptists used to be, the BWA opposes creedalism.  So, as you might imagine, the SBC's new powerful men hated pretty much everything the BWA had worked nearly a century to champion.  The fundamentalist SBC machine launched a smear campaign, making the BWA a liberal/communist/socialist/secularist bogeyman.  Messengers to the 2004 SBC meeting voted to sever ties with the BWA.

Whitlock Still Finding His Way
Given all that, I sure was surprised to see President Whitlock so enthusiastic that one of OBU's junior professors was attending the BWA gathering (held last month in Santiago, Chile).  Anyone paying the least bit of attention to SBC life over the past 15 years would know that the BWA is anathema to the new SBC.  For instance, Baptist college presidents like Union's David Dockery and Truett-McConnell's Emir Caner would know this.  The good news is that Whitlock apparently did not know.

It turns out there are have been a lot of things Whitlock did not know.  Current and former faculty have described him to me as "theologically naive" and "theologically, an infant."  Several people recalled that, while appearing at the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, Whitlock seemed innocently clueless about why relations between that congregation and the BGCO have been so tense over the years.

Now, under normal circumstances, you would not want words like "clueless" and "naive" to apply to a college president.  But when you consider that we're dealing with a post-Takeover state convention-run Baptist college, it's actually a huge blessing for us. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we would have ended up with a Takeover henchman as OBU president when David Whitlock was elected in 2008.  I would have expected a true believer like Stan Norman -- someone who knew well why the BGCO hates FBC OKC and why the SBC elites hate the BWA.

The fact that we got someone who may actually be more interested in the competent administration of an institution than taking the Baptist wars to Bison Hill is a huge blessing.  Or maybe the BGCO colluded to get a naive figurehead at the top and a hatchet man like Stan Norman to do the dirty work.

In the past two years, and certainly at the past two SBC annual meetings, Whitlock has gotten a taste for what it means to be an SBC elite man, an insider.  Lets hope he doesn't find it intoxicating.  But I'm afraid they've seduced him.

The Trouble They've Created
The absolute last thing I want to do is create any trouble for the assistant professor who went to the BWA gathering.  For all I know, he could have been going an as observer to write articles in third-rate fundamentalist "journals" about how evil the BWA is.  Or he could have been doing legitimate scholarly research.  Or he could have attended out of personal or professional commitments.  I simply don't know and don't want to speculate.

But it does raise an important issue.  How has the new regime affected the kinds of scholarly work OBU faculty members conduct?  Once the news about this professor's attendance at the BWA gathering gets around, will College of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark McClellan institute rules about what kinds of conferences OBU religion faculty can attend with university funding?  At this point, nothing would surprise me.  I just hope these capable scholars will continue to pursue their vocation, either at OBU or somewhere more supportive of academic freedom, open inquiry, and commitment to the scholarly enterprise.

Credit Where Credit is Due
I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I've received a lot of flack from supporters and friends for being too easy on Dr. Whitlock.  I can't even remember how many people have said, essentially, "Even if Provost Norman is the culprit in institutionalizing fundamentalism at OBU, Whitlock is complicit.  He's the president and he has the power to reign Stan in, tell Stan it's time to move on, etc.  If he wanted to, Whitlock could stay out of SBC politics and claim the mantle of Raley, Scales, Cothen, Tanner, Hall, and Agee, all of whom stood for academic freedom and all of whom would be aghast at what has occurred under his watch.."

If we reject the naivete hypothesis and take President Whitlock at his word, then we simply have a leader who expressed pride that a junior faculty member took part in a gathering of Baptists from around the world.  But in doing so, Whitlock publicly repudiated every single SBC power player of the past 15 years -- from Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson on down the line -- all of whom are on record as absolutely loathing the Baptist World Alliance.

And if Dr. Whitlock has what it takes to stand up to that crowd, then maybe there's hope.

Monday, August 6, 2012

2012 Forbes Rankings (Part 1): OBU Falls off a Cliff

This is one post I definitely did not want to write.  But given the events of the past few years, no one will be surprised at the embarrassing news I am reporting.  The annual Forbes rankings of America's top colleges came out last week.  OBU's precipitous decline is not only continuing, it is accelerating.  As recently as 2009, Forbes ranked OBU #109 on its list of top colleges, just behind Wheaton, Duke, Cornell, and Georgetown and ahead of Carson-Newman (TN), Bates (ME), Wake Forest, and Southern Methodist, not to mention literally every other Southern Baptist-affiliated college in the United States.

In the Whitlock-Norman era, OBU has gone from elite to embarrassment, at least as far as these rankings are concerned.  In 2010, OBU slid to #233.  By 2011, we were down to #299.  This year, we're all the way down to #390.  At the rate we're going, we won't have to worry about the slide in another 2 or 3 years because -- like the other Baptist colleges the fundamentalists have destroyed -- we simply won't be ranked at all.

I waited until this week to draw attention to this disappointing news because I was curious how the OBU P.R. shop would try to spin it.  In past years, there were gleeful press releases gushing with pride and joy about OBU faring relatively well in the Forbes rankings, which emerged in 2008 as an alternative to U.S. News, which had been publishing college rankings for years that relied more on reputation than actual outcomes.  If you want to see a sampling of past OBU press releases boasting of our placement in the Forbes Top Colleges rankings, click here.

At this point, it looks like there will be no attempt to spin this embarrassing news.  As a good friend of mine often says, "You can't polish a turd."  And OBU's devastating decline is definitely a stinker.  So much for being the "top college in Oklahoma," or even the highest rated private college.  Now we have been eclipsed by the University of Tulsa, OU, and OSU.  We're barely ahead of crazy-ass Oral Roberts University.

In January, I wrote a short blog post about the rankings decline from 2009 to 2011.  My original fears ring even more true in light of the 2012 rankings:
Friends, sliding wholesale into fundamentalism has its costs in terms of academic respectability.  At this rate, we will soon struggle to attract the best and brightest students and faculty.  And once word gets out that professors are being fired for ideological reasons and that philosophy (a core discipline in the liberal arts) is being gutted in favor of Christian apologetics, the decline is only going to get worse.  In a few short years, OBU is devolving from one of the most desirable small liberal arts colleges in America (religious or otherwise) to just another fundamentalist Bible academy.

I hope OBU does not have to slide even further before people start to realize that the BGCO's fundamentalist stranglehold on OBU has grave consequences for students, faculty, and alumni.  Not only is the current trend robbing students of the balanced, moderate Christian liberal arts education that made OBU great.  It is also devaluing their expensive and hard-earned diplomas.  Unless we demand that OBU return to its proud liberal arts heritage, I'm afraid this trend will continue.
Later in the week, I'll be presenting some data showing that a robust commitment to a Christian identity does not have to involve an institution's descent into fundamentalism.  Other Christian colleges -- Baptist and otherwise -- including a number of CCCU members, have managed to maintain reputations for excellence and thwart state conventions' plans to strip their colleges of academic freedom, respectability, and integrity.  But in Oklahoma, this devastating decline is only gaining steam.

Until then, I think it's well past time for us to let OBU administrators and trustees know that we are concerned.  We've been saying that Rev. Dr. Whitlock and Rev. Dr. Norman owe apologies to the professors they wrongfully dismissed.  But now it's clear that the new fundamentalists are doing serious damage to OBU.  They owe everyone in Bison Nation an apology.  This fate could have easily been avoided.  The sad thing is, they're not sorry.  And I don't think they even care.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Our Recent Hiatus

Greetings to friends and foes alike!  Our regular readers will by now have noticed that there have been no new posts in almost three weeks.  I wanted to take a break from blogging this summer, but I should have let everyone know what was happening.  I was pleased to leave my interview videos with Bruce Prescott on the front page, but I didn't realize so many of you would be wondering what happened to Save OBU after more than 7 months of almost daily blogging.

To answer your questions: No, the BGCO's lawyers have not threatened me.  It's still a free country, after all.  No, I'm not ill.  Veronica is also doing great.  In fact, she is getting married a week from Saturday!  For my part, I have been enjoying time with my 3 1/2 old daughter, Amelia.  We are presently in Florida introducing Amelia to many friends and relatives, including her great-grandparents!

In the weeks to come, I'll be releasing the results of our survey of Oklahoma Baptist pastors and church ministry leaders.  We'll also be unveiling Save OBU's new Advisory Board.  With any luck, this month will end the first summer since 2009 that OBU did not unethically force out a professor.  With your help, we'll continue to stand for excellence in Christian liberal arts education and expose and oppose all attempts to thwart academic freedom and the institutionalize fundamentalist-inspired personnel practices or policies at our beloved Oklahoma Baptist University!