Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stories We're Following (Please Circulate)

Last week, I mentioned that, after a quiet spell earlier this spring, we're actually monitoring quite a few issues at the moment.  Through mid-May, I'll try to keep this post at the top of the blog's front page and link to more detailed content as we're able to post it. Here's a brochure detailing what we're all about. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Student Journalism at OBU
Though the writing is very good and the production value is high, The Bison simply isn't what it once was in terms of journalistic inquiry into serious campus issues.  There are lots of impressionistic columns, general debates, and personal advice features, but there is no investigative reporting.  Editorial pages (with real editorials) have disappeared.  Journalists go berserk if you accuse them of censorship, but I don't know what else to call it.  I'll say it as nicely as possible: The gaps in news coverage and editorial content could lead a reasonable person to speculate that there is a) censorship, b) fear of censorship, or c) blow-back that creates self-censorship.

Of particular note here is the fact that The Bison recently decided against printing an open letter to "the OBU Family" (edited for length) in response to a chapel sermon by an "ex gay" evangelist on the grounds that Save OBU endorsed the letter (which is simply not true) and that we tried to bully the paper into printing the letter.

More on this soon.  We've addressed this issue before, and will tread softly.  But I feel strongly that aside from being an important educational experience for journalism students and other relevant majors, a campus newspaper has an obligation to its community to fill a vital need for rigorous inquiry and debate of campus issues that is, arguably, not being met.

Fine Arts Fiasco
Last month I wrote two posts about a perceived reorientation of the Warren M. Angell College of Fine Arts.  But before I could finish the series, several people asked me to hold off because (unbeknownst to me) a student was collecting opinions from other students and attempting to present them to college administrators.  Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well.  The student lost his or her on-campus job and endured some unfortunate treatment from administrators.  We've been down this road before.   It's amazing how one small, innocent act can unleash such a disproportionate reaction.  God forbid anyone actually have a legitimate disagreement with these people!

Finances & Priorities
New coaching hires and football scholarships have been big news on Bison Hill this year.  The incoming freshman class will be the biggest ever, which is wonderful.  Yet some people are concerned that the administration is scrimping in basic core area courses by increasing class sizes rather than approving departmental recommendations for additional faculty.  Of course, these challenges are not unique to OBU and don't necessarily impinge on academic freedom or ethical administration.  But more paying students should mean more paid professors.  Almost all alumni agree that small classes and top-notch professors are what made OBU great.  Let's not renege on those cornerstones of OBU's greatness!  And, as an adjunct instructor myself, I have to say: It's not the same.  If there are more adjuncts than ever teaching basic courses, that will be a shame.

Kentucky Baptist Convention/Colleges
Even as many non-denominational and non-Baptist evangelical colleges are doing quite well by rank, reputation, and recognition, what remains of Baptist academia is struggling -- almost across the board.  Kentucky Baptists will soon have a unique opportunity to either kick out or fully take over one of its colleges, Campbellsville University.  We've been so focused on following the fundamentalist power grabs at Shorter University and Cedarville University that we've lost sight of what we know to be the source of that power: the precise legal relationship between Baptist colleges and their state conventions.  More on that story as it unfolds.

OBU Chapel/Ideology
We spoke recently about what a sensible person might perceive as a lack of ideological, theological, and political diversity among the speakers who are invited to the Raley Chapel pulpit.  My co-editor, Veronica Risinger, wants to weigh in on the issue... As soon as she finishes the coursework for her seminary degree.

Christian Spirituality
Believe it or not, I've had a resurgent interest in spirituality of late.  It's very personal to me and may be of little interest to anyone else.  But I might, from time to time, share resources that I've found compelling.

At the present time, blog readership is high and interest seems high as well.  But I do plan on taking most of the summer off.  We'll have some book reviews and respond to significant OBU and Baptist news, of course.  But fewer people pay attention, and I need a break.  Until then, however, we're going full force!  I expect the next few weeks to be some of the most exciting in Save OBU's history.

God bless all of you.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Who Are You Sleeping With?" Sex at Evangelical Colleges

[Ed.: Welcome to our new visitors. This post is getting a lot of attention. See here and here (a brochure) for summaries of our concerns, as well as here and here for a digest of past blog posts. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Keep sharing, emailing, and retweeting! -j-]

Once or twice I considered a blog post on the subject of sex at OBU.  But it always seemed ill advised.  Sexuality is serious, mysterious, controversial and, at best, only tangentially related to our constellation of concerns.  In my day (1999-2002), Bison Hill was a swirling mass of sexual confusion and repression.  Have things changed?  Sex was considered the worst sin.  Seemingly the primary way we expressed our Christianity was to be abstinent.  We heard about Bible verses such as Micah 6:8 and James 1:27.  But it seemed that as long as you kept yourself unstained by the world, it didn't really matter whether you cared for the fatherless and the widows in their distress.  Jesus taught that purity was a matter of the heart.  But our parents and churches taught that it was mostly a matter of the genitals.  Unsurprisingly, many of us got married very soon after graduation or, in a stunning number of cases, even before.  Of course, no OBU students get married at extremely young ages in order to have church/family/community/cultural approval of the sex they want to have.

Of course.

Luckily, on our wedding nights, when sex went from shameful to beautiful, all the confusion cleared up instantly.  Our sexual functions were blissful for the rest of our lives.  None of us got divorced, realized we were gay, or struggled to shake unhealthy coping mechanisms we adopted in our adolescent years to deal with the religiously-inspired repression/shame complex.  After all, we had read with great interest many Christian books on the subject.

Polling data indicate that much has changed since then: grad school, later marriage, moving away from "home," less shame and social stigma about premarital sex, etc.  But evangelical culture has come up with some pretty innovative ways to double down on the shame and to control the passion burning in youths' loins: abstinence pledges, "purity balls," "secondary virginity," etc.  So maybe conservative Christian college campuses today aren't so different from back then.

Anyway, consider this article, where the author recounts asking the Reverend Dr. Tim Keller (a Calvinist mega-church pastor in New York City) about obstacles to revival in the church:

Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication.
Then it gets interesting.
Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.
If you read the whole article, you will see how the author, a lay minister in Orange County, CA, tries to  draw a causal arrow from premarital sex to losing faith, arguing that the churches would see revival if more people abstained from non-marital sex.

As a person who grappled very seriously and honestly with my faith at OBU while remaining a virgin, I found this to be a bizarre idea.  Don't get me wrong, I was very interested in sex.  I remember a particular chapter in a Christian ethics anthology by a mainline Protestant seminary professor that presented an ethic of "appropriate vulnerability" which, at the time, convinced me that premarital sex might be permissible or even healthy, and was, in any case, not the Worst Sin in the Book.  (Disclaimer: This was one article in one book.  Most of the rest of the anthology presented conservative, traditional, and orthodox ideas.  So don't use this to say, "See, OBU teaches liberalism."  My experience of the School of Christian Service was that we were encouraged to read and study different perspectives on ethical, biblical, and theological matters.)

But I was also very serious about my faith.  There were science questions.  There were theology questions.  There were philosophy questions.  One of my biggest struggles was, essentially, whether I should understand belief in the supernatural to be continuous or dichotomous.  In other words, was it okay to say that Jonah didn't really get swallowed by a fish as long as you believed in the virgin conception of Jesus and his bodily resurrection?  Or was it an all-or-nothing proposition --- either all the miracles in the Bible were literally true or none of them were?  It was a thrilling pursuit to study and grapple with how to find a faith I could believe honestly and with integrity.

I am surprised by Tim Keller's suggestion that "the prior issue" to young people thinking for themselves is "a troubled conscience."  My conscience had never been clearer.  My faith grew, though not in the direction fundamentalists would find acceptable.  The struggles were honest, rigorous, and intense.  And it had nothing to do with sex.  These pastors' line of reasoning implies that if college students were being good little Christian kids, they would not think for themselves.  Taking legit, non-dumbed-down philosophy and science courses is implied here to be some kind of rebellion.  I get the feeling that many in the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma share that view, and that it motivated their design for the "new" OBU, which the new administrators have faithfully carried out.

The author I quoted above says that "the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more 'doubtful' for [young people] once they’d had sex."  I frankly don't see the relationship.  If anything, I would speculate that the causal arrow points the other way: perhaps once people cast literalist dogma aside, they may be less likely to adhere to premarital sexual abstinence.  Thus, I would think pastors would focus their energies on preventing young people from deviating from their childhood faith.  But evangelical pastors' bizarre obsession with young people's sex lives comes through loud and clear.  So does their lack of awareness that what they parochially call "the Christian worldview" is perilously threatened by pesky things like facts, knowledge, and people thinking for themselves.  Sex is not the issue here.

But is sex ever not the issue for these holy men, who seem to think they have such a vested interest in your "purity?"

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reflection on Calvin College (and Other Non-Baptist Evangelical Schools)

I've spent the past three days attending a conference at Calvin College.  Calvin's Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Religion and Politics hosted the Seventh Biennial Symposium on Religion and Public Life on the school's Grand Rapids, Michigan campus.  (Outside my involvement with Save OBU, I am a political science Ph.D. student with research interests in the area of religion and politics.)  I had occasion to talk with many professors who work in evangelical higher education, all of whom were very interested in Baptist schools' recent lurches back toward fundamentalism.

Lately, our blog has focused attention on happenings at colleges that are, like OBU, affiliated with Baptist state conventions:
  • The coming split between the Kentucky Baptist Convention and Campbellsville University
  • The transformation of Cedarville University from a liberal arts college to a fundamentalist Bible academy
  • The ever-bizarre goings-on at Louisana College
  • The Georgia Baptist Convention's shameful assault on Shorter University
  • The GBC's support for fledgling fundamentalist schools like Truett-McConnell and Brewton-Parker
  • Ongoing problems at my own beloved alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University
Considering the all-out assault on OBU's liberal arts heritage from 2009-2001, it has been very disheartening to learn that, with respect to academic freedom and ethical administration, OBU actually has it better than a lot of Baptist colleges.

But we have talked about non-Baptist evangelical schools before.  Last summer, when the new round of Forbes rankings came out, we saw that non-Baptist evangelical colleges not only have fewer restrictions on academic freedom, but also better reputations than Baptist colleges.  (We've also talked about how, before the changes, OBU was regarded as the best Southern Baptist CCCU-affiliated college.  Now it is quickly losing ground to Union, Ouachita, Samford, and others.)

We also speculated about how the purported "Evangelical Renaissance in Academe" is likely not to include Southern Baptists as long as their rightful heritage as legitimate liberal arts colleges is continually under attack from fundamentalist forces.

Baptist power brokers want you to think that if they don't exercise control over colleges, the colleges will quickly abandon Christianity.  That idea is laughable to people affiliated with schools like Wheaton College in Illinois and Gordon College in Massachusetts which, in spite of having no denominational ties, manage to sustain a strong Christian commitment and identity.

Calvin is a bit of an anomaly.  The denomination that controls it, the Christian Reformed Church in America, is not nearly as fearful or dogmatic as today's Baptist state conventions.  Yet in spite of having a rigorous faith examination as part of new professors' hiring process, Calvin does not seem interested in imposing restrictions on academic freedom.  Calvin faculty hires must produce a letter of affirmation from a pastor, commit to joining a Reformed congregation within two years, and appear before a committee of faculty and administrators to discuss matters of faith and the meaning of Christian education.  Yet no one is being run out of the Calvin philosophy and theology departments for doubting  that Jonah was really swallowed by a fish or that the earth was created in 6 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago.

Also to Calvin's great credit, it attracts academically talented students.  Just as a team is only as good as its worst player or an orchestra is only as good as its worst instrumentalist, there is a sense in which a university is only as good as its least academically capable student.  Let's be honest.  OBU has a HUGE problem in this area.  OBU admits almost everyone who applies, often probationally.  Calvin (and many of the top-tier evangelical colleges) are more selective in admissions and less willing to compromise academic rigor and quality.  If OBU truly wants to be a peer of Wheaton, Calvin, and Gordon, it needs to be more intentional about attracting (and retaining) better students.

When I tell evangelical professors about the worsening state of Baptist undergraduate education in certain quarters, they are almost universally sympathetic.  They cannot fathom seeing colleagues dismissed for the reasons OBU (and so many others) has given.  They cannot believe how much power is concentrated in fundamentalists' hands.  They are frankly offended at the notion that fellow evangelical scholars/professors cannot be trusted to sustain an institution's Christian identity without heavy-handed administrative intervention and denominational oversight.  They are perplexed by the dismantling of philosophy departments and the increasing trend toward dumbed-down "apologetics" and bizarrely defensive "Christian worldview" classes.

For the record, these people are NOT liberals, let me assure you.  They are people who believe in Christ as their personal savior, trust the Scriptures as authoritative, and go to theologically conservative churches every Sunday.

The more I reflect on the massive variation in academic freedom among Christian colleges, the more I think the CCCU needs to get involved.  We've expressed our qualms about the CCCU before.  But for better or worse, it is the institutional representative of these conservative Protestant schools -- Baptist, nondenominational, and otherwise.  Obviously the CCCU lacks an incentive to meddle in member institutions' internal affairs.  But the quality of the schools that have academic freedom starkly contrasts with frankly embarrassing turn of events at Cedarville, Louisiana College, Shorter University, OBU, and elsewhere over the past few years.

The fundamentalists won the Takeover fight in the SBC -- we get it.  "To the victor goes the spoils."  But now that the Takeover has moved from the state conventions to the colleges, we have to ask, when is enough enough?  There are many fine examples of academic freedom, ethical administration, and the responsible integration of faith and learning at so many evangelical institutions.  Baptists can do better.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Save OBU Brochure (to print and circulate)

Click here for the file in *.pdf format on Google Drive.

If sharing with your church group, you may want to add context by directing interested persons to a digest of Save OBU blog posts old and new.

While Save OBU supporters are virtually unanimous in our concerns, we have not articulated our goals as precisely.  I long advocated for OBU's independence from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, but that seems legally impossible and highly unlikely in any event.

So, for now, let me make it simple.  Here is what we want.
  1. Acknowledgement of harm done: to individuals as well as to OBU's norms, heritage, and reputation.
  2. Apologies to all who were wronged by violations of academic freedom and by unilateral decisions to depart from long-honored institutional norms.
  3. Assurances: that OBU will be run from Thurmond Hall, not the Baptist Building; that academic freedom will be preserved; that faculty contract rights will be honored; and that OBU's core mission as a Christian liberal arts college (not a fundamentalist Bible academy) will never be compromised, regardless of what has happened to other institutions affiliated with the BGCO or the SBC.
God bless OBU!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SBC President Speaks at OBU --- Significant or Not?

We've often noted the spectacular lack of theological diversity among OBU chapel speakers, especially in recent years.  In Save OBU's realm of concerns, however, chapel has always been a secondary problem.  There are unfortunately much bigger issues at OBU.  Plus, "to the victors go the spoils" --- it's the leadership's prerogative to bring in who they want.  The fundamentalists have their men on Bison Hill now, and there's nothing we can do about it.  Complaining about the exclusion of moderates will do nothing.  This problem will persist until students vote with their feet and simply boycott chapel until some balance is restored.

OBU's all-white, all-male (would God have it any other way?) post-Takeover religion administrators probably congratulate themselves, thinking that having one lady and two black men per semester is going above and beyond in terms of diversity.  They hope no one notices that the dozen so so speakers all represent almost the exact same point on the theological spectrum.  At the fundamentalist end.  Well guess what?  People notice.  And some people expect that a well-rounded Christian education demands more rigor, more diversity of thought, and a faith unafraid of new perspectives because it can withstand the most stringent intellectual scrutiny.

Given the parade of far-right speakers we've heard this spring, I really don't have anything to say about SBC President Fred Luter's sermon yesterday.  What could be more appropriate than a Southern Baptist college hosting the SBC President?  Interestingly, however, I don't think it's happened before at OBU, at least not since before the Takeover.  (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)  We've had past SBC presidents (Bobby Welch in 2007; Tom Elliff in 2010), as well as many famous mega-pastors and the intellectual leaders of the convention (Al Mohler in 2007; David Dockery in 2009).  I don't have the entire chapel archive handy, but you can see all the chapels since 2005 here.

Having the SBC president is symbolic, of course.  But it's worth noting that the president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is much more the public face of the SBC than the convention presidents who come and go every two years.  It was a much bigger deal when Richard Land spoke at OBU in the early 2000s than it would have been if then-SBC President James Merritt had spoken.

We've commented elsewhere about OBU's over-the-top attempt to curry favor with Luter, as well as what it must be like to be the president of the SBC.  Last summer, OBU awarded Luter an honorary doctorate in spite of a complete lack of connections to OBU.  There seems to be an unprecedented effort among top OBU administrators to cozy up to this SBC president.  Judging from the opening part of the chapel sermon, it seems that OBU's Dean of Spiritual Life, the Reverend Dale Griffin, has been the administrator working to secure Luter's appearance.

I just think it's worth remembering that there was a time when OBU made an effort to keep the often-ugly politics of the Southern Baptist Convention as far away from Bison Hill as possible.  In the 1980s, for instance, students were as likely to hear a sermon by someone who opposed the Fundamentalist Takeover as by someone who supported it.

Those days are over.  Today's OBU leadership, though too young to have participated in the Takeover directly, hail it as the best thing that ever happened to the SBC.  By their actions --- and by their silence --- they celebrate people like the Reverend Dr. Tom Elliff, who boasted that he had scraped all the "barnacles and parasites" (referring to moderates) off the Ship of Zion.

Congratulations, Drs. Jordan, Whitlock, Norman, McClellan, and Griffin.  You can now definitively say that you have scraped all the barnacles and parasites off the Raley Chapel pulpit, too.

With no exceptions that I have seen, moderates (let alone liberals --- if you can actually find any in Baptist life) are unwelcome to preach under the new regime.

Given that Luter avoided controversy and preached a well-received sermon, I see no need to be critical.  There have been plenty of questionable chapels this spring --- a Tea Party politician, a Calvinist celebrity preacher on a book tour, and a "pray the gay away" evangelist.

Please take note of a recent Bison story on the process by which chapel speakers are selected.  We'll analyze that article soon enough.  We may even editorialize about it, since editorial content has all but disappeared from The Bison's pages in recent years.  But that's another topic for another day.

Rather than keeping SBC fundamentalism at a distance, as OBU did under President Bob Agee and, to a lesser extent (though it hardly felt like it at the time), under President Mark Brister, the new OBU makes no mistake about where its true loyalties lie.  Hosting the SBC president is icing on the cake.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What's Going On at Campbellsville University (KY)?

We began the Save OBU project concerned about one university.  But we have seen that dozens of other evangelical colleges have been down some version of our path.  As crazy as this may seem to those who have seen OBU's great liberal arts tradition threatened in recent years, OBU is actually in much better shape than a number of Baptist state convention-affiliated schools, some of which have essentially given up their heritage as liberal arts colleges and become fundamentalist Bible academies, throwing away their histories, their reputations, and perhaps ultimately, their accreditation in the process.

The debacle at Shorter University in Georgia was covered elsewhere, though we definitely spent time agonizing over Shorter's decline here.  Recently, we considered the situation at Cedarville University in Ohio.  Many Southern Baptists are watching with (depending on their perspectives) glee or horror as Louisiana College stumbles along.

No Baptist state convention has been as blatant as Georgia's about its desire to jettison academic freedom and respectability in favor of turning its colleges into fundamentalist Bible academies.  I sense that Tennessee may be next, having already parted ways with Belmont and probably wanting to cast Carson-Newman aside in order to further bolster its flagship school, Union University (and perhaps eventually fund the fledgling Tennessee Temple University).

We haven't assessed the situation in Kentucky, where, in the shadow of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the state convention has a relationship with a few small liberal arts colleges.  Last fall we noted Georgetown College (KY) President Bill Crouch's retirement.  But we haven't yet offered much analysis on the situation in Kentucky.

That will have to change.

This week, the Kentucky Baptist Convention's executive director, the Reverend Dr. Paul Chitwood, has been dealing with calls to to de-fund Campbellsville University over a tenure decision in the university's theology department.  Chitwood's statement was very diplomatic, calling for patience as facts are investigated:
Recent news that the university will not tenure a popular professor in their school of theology has solicited both an outpouring of support for the professor and swirling accusations about the university. For most Kentucky Baptists, a personnel matter at one of our nine agencies or institutions is a matter that should be handled privately by the administration without interference by the public. 
Claims, however, that CU retains other professors in the school of theology who reject biblical authority and professors in other disciplines who affirm evolution, are difficult for many Kentucky Baptists to swallow. This is especially true when well over $1 million of their missions offerings are helping pay the salaries of those professors every year. 
As I peruse emails I have received calling for the defunding of CU and threatening to defund the Cooperative Program if the KBC does not take action, I understand the concerns but am equally concerned that we do not rush to judgment. I earnestly pray that accusations regarding one institution will not be used to undermine all that Kentucky Baptists support, including the education 16,000 Southern Baptist Convention seminary students and more than 10,000 missionaries and church planters taking the gospel to Kentucky, North America, and the ends of the earth. 
I am, however, genuinely troubled by the testimonies of some current and former CU students. 
Tenuous and fragile are words that describe the relationships between most state conventions and their liberal arts universities. Higher education, by its very nature, requires the kind of academic freedom and exploration that is sometimes difficult to envision being funded by missions offerings. But if academic freedom is no longer afforded to those who hold to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) and teach a high view of Scripture (2Tim 3:16), the time for church support has clearly passed.
Chitwood, for the moment, still has to try to be fair to the fundamentalist lay and clergy leadership of the convention as well as the college's constituents.  But I suspect that if KBC leaders think seriously and strategically about this issue, they will realize it's time to part ways.

Separation is obviously the better course of action for both entities.  We'll speak to insiders and offer more nuanced perspectives in the weeks to come.  But for the moment, let us hold out OBU's experience with the BGCO as evidence that, if the KBC and its colleges continue their tenuous relationship, the pain and agony far outweigh whatever modest benefits each entity thinks it gets from the other.

Campbellsville students, faculty and alumni: If your beloved university decides to stick it out with the KBC, you can expect doctrinal witch hunts, fundamentalist-inspired meddling in personnel and policy decisions, a precipitous and irreversible decline in reputation and national rankings, and ultimately the end of legitimate liberal arts education on your campus.  In ways visible and invisible, you will see consequential decisions made out of the Baptist Building, not your administrators' offices.  Tears will be shed, careers will be disrupted, and pain will be widely felt.

KBC pastors and laypeople: If your convention decides to "fight for biblical authority," "return to biblical roots," or whatever you want to call your decision to flex your muscle at Campbellsville, you can expect a long and drawn-out battle that will exhaust your resources, divert needed funds from other vital mission and ministry efforts, and frankly distract you from your core mission.

More on this later.  Prayers for all involved.  We've been there.  It hurts.  It's ugly.  Sometimes we can both be most faithful to our missions apart rather than together.  Consider that such a time may now be at hand.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Multiple Storms Brewing on Bison Hill

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Our run of good fortune/divine blessing may be ending.

Regarding academic freedom and respecting the institution's norms and heritage, the past year has been pretty great at OBU compared to the 3 years before that.  Last April, Provost Stan Norman finally underwent a performance evaluation that included faculty input.  (And notice how quiet he's been since then...)  Last spring, most departments were allowed to hire their candidates of choice for faculty positions.  As far as we know, the candidates did not face the provost's fundamentalist litmus test questions that previous years' job candidates reported facing.  There were no ideologically-motivated firings last summer.  The new trustee leadership seems as great as the last.  This winter, a well-respected professor was granted senior faculty status --- a victory, given that some faculty feared that the administration may use the tenure decision as a weapon.

But the news has not been all good.  OBU continues to fall in the Forbes rankings, losing ground to Southern Baptist peers and to other evangelical colleges.  And we were disappointed that the usual faculty search procedures were once again ignored in the College of Theology and Ministry, this time so that a young-earth creationist could be brought in from Southwestern Seminary.

Two current developments:

College of Fine Arts
As we began to see encouraging signs last spring, I thought it best not to open yet another line of criticism against the administration.  But there was widespread student and faculty anger about goings-on in the Warren M. Angell College of Fine Arts.  Last week, I explained why I neglected to bring these issues up last year and began writing about some of those concerns.  It looks like there may be some developments to report soon, so I'm holding off on finishing the "Fine Arts Fiasco" series.  The Angell College of Fine Arts has a hard-earned reputation for excellence, and it's heartening to see people standing against unasked-for changes that threaten to degrade the College's quality and reputation.

Alumni Respond to Christopher Yuan Sermon
A group of several dozen alumni wrote an open letter to the OBU community in response to "ex gay" evangelist Christopher Yuan's April 3 chapel sermon.  The letter can be found here.  Note that Save OBU has not and will not endorse any outside issues or causes.  I suspect our supporters hold a wide diversity of opinions about human sexuality and the place of homosexual persons in the life and ministry of the Church.  We remain committed to two issues and two issues only: 1) Preserving academic freedom at OBU and 2) Insisting that the institution's norms and heritage be honored.

A recent poll indicates that 51% of white evangelicals aged 18-34 support same sex marriage rights.  Given those numbers, it follows that a significant number of students were troubled by Yuan's message.  I figure a campus-wide conversation is underway about how OBU should treat the gay and lesbian members of its own campus community.  The alumni letter speaks to that issue.

I hope all is well with each of you,

P.S. I have been very busy with work lately, and have not been able to devote much time to Save OBU.  I have family in town this weekend as my bride and I celebrate our daughter's first birthday.  I'll try to keep you updated on OBU happenings as I'm able.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fine Arts Fiasco: Getting What We Didn't Ask For

Fine Arts Fiasco Series
Part 1 -- Intro
Part 2 -- Getting What We Didn't Ask For

Previously, I introduced the series and offered an explanation for why Save OBU didn't sound an alarm about concerns in OBU's Warren M. Angell College of Fine Arts when those concerns first arose.  I  sincerely hope some of the wounds from recent conflicts have healed.  The aim here is simple: to add to the large body of evidence that there is a new authoritarian streak at OBU and an agenda promulgated from the top down to re-orient the mission and purpose of OBU.

The new guard, of course, denies there's any agenda at all.  "We are a Baptist college.  We are just bringing our programs, personnel, and values in line with Southern Baptist principles and priorities."  This isn't an exact quote, of course, but it's obviously the message the new administrators convey when they are asked about their departure from long-established norms and commitments.

The not-so-subtle implication behind their incredulous denial of any new direction is clear: Even at the height of its recognition for rigor and excellence, OBU's programs, personnel, and values were somehow not in sync with Southern Baptist principles and priorities.  Of course, that idea is offensive, untrue, and hurtful to many OBU students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

In the fine arts area, the crux of the situation is this: There exists a wide perception that the Angell College has a mandate -- from the president and provost, from the BGCO, or from somewhere else -- to tailor its programs to what the BGCO's churches are doing, even if this means backing away from what made the fine arts programs at OBU great in the first place.  One widespread fear is that the theater major -- the least wholesome fine art? -- will eventually be reduced to training for church-based "drama ministry."  Students in art and music fear that the studio/conservatory-like atmosphere of their departments could be watered down.  These days, apparently few (if any) Oklahoma Baptist churches have a real demand for the kinds of skills OBU's amazing music department has developed in thousands of students over the decades: organ, piano, voice, composition, choral conducting, etc.  Sorry, but it doesn't take a college degree in sacred music to run a volunteer praise band.

Maybe the BGCO is upset that so many OBU music graduates seek sacred music training in mainline Protestant seminaries instead of what remains of the once-outstanding church music programs at the SBC seminaries.  Or that many of our graduates end up using their outstanding talents in the music ministries of mainline Protestant churches.  Maybe there is a sense that too many fine arts students end up going into "secular" vocations.  (Though I would note that almost every issue of the alumni magazine trumpets the accomplishments of a non-fundamentalist Fine Arts graduate who has found success in the secular world.)

Many people view the new(ish) Fine Arts dean, Dr. Ken Gabrielse, as the personification of this change in orientation.  He came from a lengthy tenure as a graduate student and faculty member in sacred music at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  Before coming to OBU, Dr. Gabrielse was the Music and Worship Specialist for the BGCO for several years until the Angell College's longtime dean, Dr. Hammond, retired.  Many candidates applied for the fine arts deanship, of course.  But this was a case where the administration intervened to raise up someone over the search committee's preferred candidate -- in this case, someone in the mold of Dr. Hammond who had significant administrative experience.

Given his close ties to the SBC seminary world and to the BGCO, it's obvious why the administration preferred Gabrielse while some other stakeholders preferred someone else.  As with too many faculty positions at David Whitlock's OBU, here we have another case where the new administration in its wisdom circumvented the usual process to get their man -- this time at the decanal level.

Aside from the disservice of bringing in someone who was not the search committee's first choice, top administration (and/or the BGCO) burdened the new dean with having to implement a change in vision that no one asked for.  After some bumps in the road that we'll discuss in subsequent posts, I truly hope that things are going better for the dean.  By now, Dean Gabrielse should have enough institutional knowledge and understanding to know that OBU's outstanding fine arts programs were actually doing fine before he got there and that a change in orientation is simply not needed and certainly not wanted.

The sooner he realizes it, the better off OBU will be.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fine Arts Fiasco: Intro

Fine Arts Fiasco Series
Part 1 -- Intro
Part 2 -- Getting What We Didn't Ask For

In 2010 and 2011, when anger about OBU administrators' unethical actions and obvious lurch toward fundamentalism was building to a crescendo, most of the focus was on two forced dismissals of religion professors.  There were also widespread concerns about the provost's over-zealous glee in attempting to remake OBU in his own image.  We were concerned about academic freedom and the quality and integrity of OBU's core strength -- its rigorous Christian liberal arts curriculum.

But there have been other problems festering in the background.  One involves widespread student and faculty anger over the treatment of a well-loved administrator who found herself demoted to make way for the new provost.  We've been silent on that situation because that administrator is still at OBU and we simply don't want to make things worse for anybody.

Another problem concerns OBU's Warren M. Angell College of Fine Arts.  Here we find evidence for many of our criticisms of the administration: ignoring search committee recommendations, low faculty morale, censorship/academic freedom concerns, and a vision/mission imposed from above, against faculty and student wishes for the department.

After getting off to a pretty rough start, I sincerely hope Fine Arts Dean Ken Gabrielse is doing better.  Like Provost Norman, he quickly alienated a lot of people.  But with experience, new administrators can avoid repeating rookie mistakes.  When they are brought in as part of a dramatic overhaul agenda, they naturally feel pressure from above to enact the agenda swiftly and efficiently.  If they are wise, they soon realize that the agenda is actually quite out of step with the character and legacy of the institution.  Hopefully their misplaced zeal subsides.  In fact, my hope for this kind of improvement is what convinced me to hold off on telling this story.  A year ago, some students and faculty were not happy with how things were going in the Angell College.  But Save OBU had hit hard on a number of other fronts and were hoping for encouraging signs, some of which came to pass and others of which did not.  It just didn't seem like the right time to introduce another broad set of concerns.

But we are committed to being a watchdog for ethical administration and academic freedom at OBU.  We haven't documented problems in the fine arts area until now.  Many of our concerns have been related to the religion and philosophy areas.  But students in music, theater, art, and communication also deserve excellence.  Their experience should not be degraded by a change of orientation and mission that no one asked for.  While some students in the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry are themselves fundamentalists and are quite pleased with changes like the promotion of creationism, biblical literalism, apologetics, etc., relatively fewer students in the fine arts are quite so dogmatic.  Most of them came to OBU for its studio/conservatory-like atmosphere and/or its outstanding music/arts education program. Thus the problems in the Angell College may seem even more strange, out-of-character, and unnecessary to fine arts students than to other students in the university.  Also, fine arts alumni will want to know what is going on at their alma mater.

In the days to come, we'll report on recent happenings.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

OBU Doubles Down on Far-Right Ideology in Spring 2013 Chapel Lineup

Thankfully, things have been quieter on the fundamentalist encroachment front at OBU than at any time in the past 4 or 5 years.  It's hard to undo the harm that has already been done, but perhaps the administration has scaled back its ambitions -- or at least its timetable -- in this regard.

Chapel: An Important Symbol of Where OBU Stands
Unfortunately, one area of campus life that remains as controversial and polarizing as ever is the roster of speakers invited to Raley Chapel.  The Wednesday chapel hour is an important representation, in symbol and in fact, of where OBU stands.

For many years, great care was taken to make chapel a unifying experience.  Administrators invited speakers who would not tack strongly to the far left or far right.  During the SBC's Fundamentalist Takeover years, President Bob Agee avoided embroiling OBU in the controversy.  Yet both fundamentalists and moderates regularly gave invited lectures and sermons at OBU.  On the rare occasions when politicians were invited to campus, OBU welcomed both Democrats and Republicans.

Those days are over.  More than ever before, OBU's religion administrators are dividing the campus community, offending students and faculty, and pushing down a fundamentalist and political agenda with their choice of chapel speakers.

At least some of the time, there has been a student committee to suggest chapel invitees.  I don't know if that's still the case, but even if it is, it is completely devoid of moderate representation and/or vetoed altogether.

Given the wide availability of moderate preachers, theologians, historians, evangelists, and other speakers in Baptist life, OBU's wholesale exclusion of them is inexcusable.  The BGCO's outsized control over what OBU does is scarcely as evident as in the chapel lineup.  Can you imagine the flack President Whitlock would get if OBU had a chapel speaker Anthony Jordan didn't like?

To further prove this point, we may examine past semesters' chapel preachers in the weeks to come.  But since a controversial "ex gay" evangelist is speaking in Raley Chapel today, let's take a moment to look at this spring's lineup.

Jackson Dunn
Earlier this spring, Focus on the Family staffer Jackson Dunn came and promoted the idea that Christian college students should get married very young.  While there is currently an encouraging public debate about the economic, social, and relational advantages and supposed costs of later marriage, OBU does not need someone pushing early marriage so explicitly.  Can't we agree that this idea is already prevalent enough in OBU culture?!

T.W. Shannon
On the political extremism front, OBU welcomed Tea Party politician T.W. Shannon, Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.  While a number of staunchly conservative politicians have spoken at OBU in recent years, I cannot even think of the last time a politician with moderate or liberal political views -- Democrat or Republican, fundamentalist or moderate -- spoke at OBU.  Gov. Brad Henry, a moderate Democrat, spoke in chapel in 2006.

Tulian Tchividjian
In March, the Rev. Tulian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, brought his book tour to OBU. Tchividjian is a noted Calvinist affiliated with a fundamentalist Presbyterian split-off denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.  He followed the Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy in the pulpit of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida.  While somewhat less overtly political than his predecessor, Kennedy and Coral Ridge were long influenced by the most extreme form of Christian theocratic politics, dominionism.  Tchividian's sermon was, I'm sure, well received.  But it does seem curious that OBU so actively promotes Calvinists' book projects.

Christopher Yuan
Today, an "ex gay" evangelist named Christopher Yuan is speaking.  Yuan holds a M.A. in biblical exegesis from Wheaton, an identical credential to many 23 year-old OBU alumni/ae.  Yet Yuan is on faculty of the Moody Bible Institute.  He has a compelling personal story about how God saved him from his unwanted same-sex attraction.  Promoting the "ex gay" movement is now extremely controversial, even among evangelicals.  Yuan's invitation is perhaps most alarming off all, given how angry many students, faculty, and alumni will be.  While Dunn, Shannon, and Tchividian may come from the far right fringes of evangelical culture and Republican politics, at least their sermons could do no harm.  The same may not be true for Yuan, given how many OBU students are gay and struggle mightily with how to come to terms with it, given their church, family, and community background.

Fred Luter
Later this month, SBC President Rev. Fred Luter will speak.  In retrospect, OBU might rather have invited the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.  Moore, as with Richard Land before him, will be the public face of the SBC even more prominently than the convention presidents who come and go every two years.

Ideally, the Wednesday chapel hour would be a uniting experience for OBU students and faculty.  But the current lineup, as with recent ones, indicates a conscious decision to double down on far-right ideology in terms of theology, culture, and politics.  It would be one thing if there was some balance.  But there is very little.  (Tom Terry's address this winter is a notable exception to the complaints registered above.)  Instead, chapel is an ever-more divisive and disappointing experience for a large plurality, if not an outright majority, of OBU students and professors.