Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Kinder, Gentler Save OBU?

This has been a big week for us! In terms of site traffic, it's been our biggest week ever -- even bigger than when Veronica took up the issue of gender and when I wrote about the process (or lack thereof) by which OBU's newest religion professor came to Bison Hill.  In addition to high alumni and faculty interest, more and more students are reading the blog and educating themselves at what has happened over the past few years at OBU.

This week, both Veronica and I reported on homecoming.  We also discussed last Sunday's Save OBU strategy meeting.  As the BGCO convened in Moore Monday and Tuesday, we wondered whether some within the convention could help OBU stand strong academically.  We also reported on the wreckage at Shorter University in GA, a year after its president declared war on academic freedom and abandoned any pretense of ethical administration.

Many perceptive readers have asked about the subtle change in tone.  This comment was typical of the emails I received:
The sudden change to a more positive tone fascinates me as a (very) casual member of SaveOBU. I am not sure I understand why it is warranted. What has changed? A brief pause in an agenda pursued by a president and provost does not indicate a turnaround, nor does it cancel out the latest professorial appointments. It might be a useful tactic on the part of an advocate or activist to give their quarry a moment of relief before sharpening their attack, or it might be that some direct communication from credible sources confirms that some redress of grievances is forthcoming. Absent of either, I am not sure why SaveOBU has become a cooperative venture.
So I'd like to reiterate my response to that comment and speak a bit more about how to most effectively move forward.

These are all good points. 
What has changed is that the administration has come to an awareness that it severely alienated the faculty with the botched dismissals and bizarre actions of the past few years, especially its attempts to unilaterally re-orient the aims of entire academic divisions. Whatever Whitlock's, Norman's, and McClellan's long-term intentions, people on the ground are satisfied that the triumverate now knows it can't just come in and wreck shop without a lot of blowback. Norman seems to be almost completely neutralized for the time being. Current faculty do not believe the same hostility exists today that was everywhere apparent just a year or two ago. Faculty leaders are open to repairing relations with Whitlock and Norman. They now have a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which will hopefully provide some legal and other support if another unethical dismissal is attempted, or if the tenure process is used as a weapon. Our feeling (reflected in the comments of current and retired faculty, as well as students and alumni/ae last weekend in Shawnee) is that we could undermine efforts at peace if we are throwing bombs all the time. So there is some consensus that we need to be more of a watchdog and less of an attack dog, at least for now. 
Are we still angry about what happened to John and Jerry? Of course. Are we disappointed that faculty are being shut out of hiring decisions for decanal and certain faculty positions? Yes. The model of trust, academic freedom, and faculty-administrative collaboration that existed at OBU for decades has suffered a severe breach. But many on campus are hopeful that the breach can be repaired. Some people on campus are satisfied that there are pastors in the BGCO (mostly OBU grads) who can be counted on to make sure the board of trustees is not dominated by fundamentalists. And we know that there are a number of people who share our concerns but who reject that BGCO separation is even possible. But both active and retired faculty have said that the existence and persistence of Save OBU has helped make the administration think twice before they pull any of this crap again (although it did not stop them from going full steam ahead with shutting the faculty out of the most recent religion hire, and that is still extremely troubling).
Personally, I am less hopeful. I agree that we're in a lull right now, but at some point, the provost will assert himself again and/or the fundamentalists will ratchet up the pressure on the president. It's in their nature. They can't help themselves. As for the ones who talk out of both sides of their mouths -- saying they champion academic freedom and want OBU to be a legitimate academic institution but still love to play nice with the fundamentalists -- I wouldn't trust them any farther than I could throw them. But that's just my personal view. As someone coordinating a movement, I have to defer to the people on the ground and try to build consensus around how we can help protect OBU most effectively. 
To date, we haven't asked people to write a letter, withhold a donation, dissuade a prospective student, or do anything other than raise awareness about what has happened. For now, there is a consensus that we should continue as a watchdog, build ties with constituents of other institutions who are fighting different versions of this same battle, be a resource for students and alumni who want non-fundamentalist avenues for graduate study and ministry service, and let faculty pursue redress of grievances through their own channels.

In the long term, we'll need get the trustees off the fence and find out whether they are going to be cheerleaders for or defenders against a fundamentalist takeover.  The fact that Stan Norman still has a job makes me think they don't realize how serious the breach of trust between the faculty and the administration has been.  The easiest way forward would have been for the trustees to nudge President Whitlock to tell Stan it's time to move on.  Then Whitlock could have hit the reset button with faculty and maybe we could all be confident that things would be different moving forward.  Instead, the inaction (and even refusal to acknowledge harm/mistakes) sends the signal that the trustees and administration either don't get it or don't care.  Neither attitude inspires much confidence.

Even so, a consensus is emerging around a wait-see attitude.  Faculty seem confident that their junior colleagues will be tenured based on ability and achievement.  We can't imagine that the administration would attempt another unethical dismissal, given the outrage such an action would cause.  The core of OBU is still intact.  And the faculty in fine arts and theology/ministry will just have to endure the current regime, however joyless it may be at times.

Has Save OBU become kinder and gentler?  I don't know.  I hope so.  I always hope we embody the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).  For me, the fact of meeting Provost Norman (very briefly) and having a (very brief) exchange with Dean McClellan may give me pause about speaking in such strong terms about people I don't even know.  But it's nothing personal, and I truly wish them well on their journeys.  I may not know them, but I do know OBU.  And some of their actions have been very out of place at the OBU so many of us have known and loved through all these years.

As a young Methodist boy who saw pastors come and go, I was taught never to say "I was here long before you came here and I'll be here long after you're gone."  That wasn't the right attitude.  But the truth is, there is a tradition of excellence, rigor, academic respectability, and collaborative decision-making that is woven into the fabric of OBU culture.  Two or three administrators can poke holes in that fabric, but they can never tear it asunder.  Time will tell if OBU will be restored to its former greatness in the vital areas where it's been attacked.

The attack days are never fully over.   There are more sad stories to tell and violations to report.  But I think the reorientation from attack dog mode to watchdog mode is wise at the moment.  I am satisfied that it represents a broad consensus of thinking from many quarters.  And I hope we can all move forward together as we stand strong for academic freedom and ethical administration at OBU.

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