Thursday, November 29, 2012

Student Protest Culture - A Heartwarming Story

As everyone knows, OBU is about the most conformist, authoritarian college out there.  Protesting is definitely NOT part of the student culture.  That's why even very minor things like op-eds and satirical ads in the student newspaper, an underground newsletter, and persistent questioning of the administration seem like heroic acts.

This will come as news to many alumni/ae in their 50s-70s, who attended OBU at a time when students actually protested and this was seen as normal behavior from awakening moral consciences, not as offensive deviations from some Bible-academy norm of conformist behavior.  For instance, OBU men once joined women on the steps of WMU Dorm to protest the women's curfew.  (At one time, women had a curfew and men did not -- ain't the double standard grand?)  Another time, students protested a policy whereby men were allowed to smoke and women were not.  Many alumni/ae of this era remember The Pluralist, the "Heresy Papers," and a never-ending pushback against fundamentalist pastors around the state who chimed in incessantly with their bizarre concerns about godless, liberal OBU.

Today, I want to share a story about another Christian college in another time.  We are not trying to incite a protest (yet), but rather to show that it's okay and even good to stand up for what is right even when it seems to go against the wishes of your parents, your pastor, or you college administrators.  OBU students -- especially those who attend now or attended since the Fundamentalist Takeover -- probably still need to know that this is okay.

The context is a sermon I heard online recently by a pastor in Oklahoma City.  The pastor, Robin, tells a story he heard about his father, Robert, shortly after Robert died last winter (obituary here).  When Robin was a boy, Robert was teaching at Harding College (now Harding University), a Church of Christ college in Searcy, Arkansas.  In the late 1950s, the college president had secured donations from many wealthy donors who happened to be racist, as the president himself was.  Yet students' consciences were awakening to the injustice of this policy on their campus.  One student, who traveled by bus to Little Rock to witness the integration of Central High School, returned to Harding with a passion to integrate the campus.  Students turned to the Rev. Dr. Robert Meyers, an English professor and Church of Christ minister, who drafted a petition that eventually garnered a large majority of Harding students' signatures.  The president told the students that they just didn't get it -- that they should trust their elders, who know how the world works and why things must be the way they are.  Eventually the integration movement died down.  Ironically enough, Harding became the first private college in Arkansas to integrate -- in 1963 and in response to economic pressures, not moral righteousness.  But it truly is a heartwarming story, and the preacher, Robin, tells it beautifully as he recalls his father's moral clarity and heroic activism on race -- a "distinction which God has not made" (the title of the sermon, which you should watch below).

(Side note: The preaching from the pulpit of this particular church is almost always expository in nature. This just happens to be a sermon which uses a lengthy illustration.)

The parallels to OBU's present troubles should be obvious, though they are imperfect.  I certainly don't want to suggest that a few unethical administrative blunders are as morally reprehensible as a policy of systematically excluding qualified students of color from attending a university.  But I do think that, in years to come, students and alumni will look back on this time in history and ask, "How did they think it was right or Christian to deny faculty contract rights, to hire on the basis of ideology above all else, and to unilaterally change the direction of entire departments without collective buy-in?" We certainly look back at those old-school donors and racist college presidents as morally blinded by their own bizarre, unchristian ideology.  But remember, those were the people who were widely honored in their day.  They went to church every Sunday, and yet they were so wrong.

Being in a place of wealth, power, or authority does not make you right.  And being a young person, a student, or someone with a growing moral awareness even without extensive worldly knowledge does not automatically make you wrong or unable to raise your voice.

I am becoming convinced that if history will record OBU's recent problems as a minor blip rather than a dramatic turning point, it will be because students raised their voices in protest.  External forces such as alumni, no matter how ancient and profound our love for OBU is, cannot effect much change on the course of an institution -- especially one where authoritarianism and unilateralism are accepted without much challenge.  Eventually students are going to have to learn exactly what happened, why it was wrong, and what they expect from their beloved OBU in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I hear taps playing. I think save obu is dying. Darn, I enjoyed the entertainment


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