Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bob Agee Returns to Bison Hill

Thanks for helping make last Friday's post, on an OBU dean going around faculty to fill a vacancy.  The post made the rounds on hundreds of computers, tablets, and smartphones in Shawnee and OKC, of course.  But it was also seen by alumni and friends in 2 dozen U.S. states and many foreign countries.

This week, we turn to a happier subject.  OBU President Emeritus Bob Agee is speaking in Raley Chapel this morning.  His sermon text is the 91st Psalm ("He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.")  Given that, there's no reason to assume Dr. Agee would publicly address the problems that faculty, students, and alumni who care about academic freedom, integrity, and respectability have been concerned about over the past two years.

We can only hope and trust that Agee brings a message of inspiration, challenge, and encouragement to the OBU community.  Considering that Baptist higher education has been his life's work, the speech should be a treasure.

Yet we wonder what advice Agee might offer President Whitlock, Provost Norman, Dean McClellan, and the few others who have abided the recent fundamentalist encroachment at our beloved OBU.  Previously, we've held out Agee's presidency as a golden era of excellence at OBU:
The 43-year old president found faculty morale to be low when he arrived in 1982 (though nowhere close to how low it is today).  He forged personal relationships with faculty and made three brilliant appointments to the position of chief academic officer (Shirley Jones, Pat Taylor, and Joe Bob Weaver, respectively).  These gifted leaders each earned and sustained the faculty's trust and confidence.
Significantly, President Agee kept OBU safe from the denomination's Fundamentalist Takeover even as he maintained good relations with the increasingly fundamentalist BGCO.  Though the BGCO's subsidy (as a percentage of OBU's budget) was cut in half over Agee's tenure (a fact we will revisit later), Agee managed the university's relationship to the convention skillfully.  He befriended Rev. Joe L. Ingram, who was BGCO executive director from 1971-1986.  It was Agee who announced with pride that OBU would name the religion department in Ingram's honor.  (Sadly, fundamentalists later formally censured Ingram months before his death for "consorting with moderates.")  Agee also worked well with Ingram's successor, Rev. Dr. Bill Tanner, a former OBU president.  By the time the Rev. Dr. Anthony Jordan took over the BGCO in 1996, it seems the young gun (Jordan) had to defer to the elder statesman (Agee) somewhat.  Obviously, in time Jordan would learn to work behind the scenes to wield power in OBU governance and affairs. 
President Whitlock owes his election, in large part, to two traits he possesses (along with Agee) that his predecessor (Rev. Dr. Mark Brister) lacked: a background higher education administration and a natural ease with Oklahoma's Baptist clergy and laypeople.  Yet for all his considerable talents, we must hope that Whitlock will be willing to learn from Agee's example.
Agee remains close to Bison Hill.  His consulting company has helped with OBU's pending acquisition of our Yellowstone Retreat Center Campus.  As a senior advisor to Union University President David Dockery, Agee surely has aided Dockery become the Baptist university president who is widely acknowledged to be the best at an increasingly impossible task: mediating between the needs of faculty and students at a legitimate educational institution and the wishes and demands of increasingly fundamentalist SBC and Baptist state convention leaders.

(Incidentally, Dockery's Union is where Whitlock reluctantly dispatched Norman to learn how to be a provost after faculty incredulously complained in 2010 about Norman's meddling in personnel decisions.  Upon returning to Bison Hill, Norman annoyed and insulted faculty even more.  He kept talking about how everyone at Union was "on mission," implying that somehow OBU faculty were not.  Frankly after all these problems -- and finally and reluctantly performance evaluations that included faculty input -- it's a wonder Stan Norman is still working at OBU.  But that's another story for another day.)

Whitlock set out to be a Baptist college president in the mold of Agee and Dockery.  But times have changed.  He isn't dealing with your grandfather's BGCO, and Agee knows this better than most.  Agee saw the proportion of the BGCO's subsidy to OBU's operating budget drop off significantly.  Painfully, he also saw his friend, legendary BGCO Executive Director-Treasurer Joe L. Ingram, censured by the BGCO for exercising his conscience and expressing reservations about the Fundamentalist Takeover.  But in the end, Agee held the line, stood up for faculty, assuaged Oklahoma Baptists' misguided fears about liberalism at OBU, and retired a hero to many.

Once a tireless defender of academic freedom in Christian higher education, many perceive that Agee has shifted somewhat along with the times.  After all, Dockery's Union may have figured out how to play nice with the fundamentalists, but it's not nearly as moderate as OBU was during the Agee years.  Apples and oranges, perhaps.  Agee met with the OBU religion faculty before Whitlock's election and told them that they needed to change to satisfy the BGCO.  Of course, the faculty left the meeting dejected because they could see what was coming.  So Agee is clearly singing a different tune today than in the 1980s and 1990s.  But who can blame him?  In Southern Baptist life, you have to go along with the big boys or become irrelevant.

Insiders are divided on the degree to which Whitlock owes his presidency to Agee.  It it beyond dispute that Agee and his friend/protege, Dr. Pat Taylor (former OBU VP and Whitlock's boss at Southwest Baptist University) helped pave the way for Whitlock.  Did Agee help convince Anthony Jordan that Whitlock would do what President Mark Brister would not completely do -- essentially change OBU to reflect SBC fundamentalism?  Some have suggested it and it seems likely, though it is impossible to prove because Agee and Jordan are the only ones who know for sure.

Of course, Whitlock largely outsourced the project of turning the School of Christian Service into a fundamentalist preacher boy camp to Norman and McClellan.  Dismissing faculty "in a winsome way" (Whitlock's words) has been more difficult and politically costly than he probably anticipated.  The blowback in terms faculty morale and support were (and still are?) a huge challenge for Whitlock.  Indeed, Dr. Whitlock disrupted two mens' careers and angered literally thousands of students, faculty (current and former), and alumni.  I hope it was worth it to put a smile on Anthony Jordan's face.

I'm sure the presidency can be a lonely place.  And Whitlock will undoubtedly confide in Agee this week.  With age comes wisdom, and we can only hope that Agee dispenses wisdom based on his tenure at OBU and not the politics and ideological rigidity of today's SBC.  If President Whitlock wants a legacy anything like President Agee's, he'll heed his counsel.

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