Thursday, November 15, 2012

National Higher Ed Press Covers Shorter Degradation

I've been in touch with Shorter University (GA) alumni for almost a year.  Their situation, as we've repeated, is significantly worse than ours.  They had a hostile state convention pack the trustee board with fundamentalists, and then a new president disregarded academic freedom and institutional norms to purge the college of dozens of faculty and staff.  We've always considered Shorter to be a worst-case scenario for OBU.  But there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful.  While OBU has a president who has to play nice with the fundamentalists and at least two (maybe more) administrators who clearly have no qualms about dramatic policy shifts, we still have some great trustees, as well as higher-ups in the state convention who do not want to see OBU turned into a national joke.

Shorter has not been so lucky.  Their disaffected constituents began mobilizing as soon as the dramatic changes were announced last fall.  They took quite an interest in what we has done, and I believe our blog pre-dates theirs by about three months.  They have also, understandably, pursued a more aggressive media strategy, which we will likewise do if things get worse.

You should definitely follow Shorter constituents' attempts to recover from the wreckage on Facebook and Twitter.  If you follow these issues closely, chances are you've already read some of the news reports.  This week, Inside Higher Education has a lengthy piece on the Shorter situation by noted religious college reporter Libby Nelson.  Last October, after faculty met with trustees for what was billed as a routine meeting,
The trustees told everyone that there would be some additions to contracts for the next academic year -- changes intended to amplify the liberal arts college's Christian mission.  Then the faculty and staff filed out, past the large painting of the Prodigal Son in the hallway.  Within the hour, they received two documents by e-mail.  One was a statement of faith; the other, a list of "lifestyle" expectations. 
Those who wanted to keep their jobs would have to sign both.
One young alum said of Shorter the same thing I have thought of saying about OBU when asked by my friends and colleagues about my alma mater:
He went to a small liberal arts college in the South, the former student now says.  But that college doesn't exist anymore.
You truly should read and consider the entire piece.  And say a prayer of thanksgiving that we have the ability to protect academic freedom and insist on ethical administration at OBU -- before it's too late.


  1. 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.

    1. 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. Whatever Whitlock's, Norman's, and McClellan's long-term intentions (and I do not think they are good), people on the ground are satisfied that the triumverate now knows they 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. 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 deans 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.

      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.

      I think this change-of-tone issue merits its own post. Thanks for being sensitive to it.


We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.