Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bison: Legit Journalism or Good News Sheet?

Many of you have asked for a follow-up to our lingering concerns about the absence of investigative and editorial content in OBU's student newspaper.  Last month, in a list of concerns we're following, I mentioned The Bison:
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 not 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.
A campus newspaper is more than an exercise for a handful of journalism and graphic design majors.  A free student press is widely considered to be vital to the transparency, health, and flourishing of any university community.  For much of OBU's history, The Bison has met that need.  In the early 1980s, The Bison editorialized strongly in response to the "heresy papers" controversy.  In the early 2000s, The Bison was a forum for a campus discussion in response to a chapel preacher's contemptible (or merely regrettable, depending on your perspective) comments about rape.  These are just some examples I know off the top of my head.

In spite of at least two Bison faculty advisors clashing with administrators, most people report to me that the journalistic and editorial quality remained high throughout the 2000s.  In fact, as recently as 2010 and 2011, The Bison printed letters of dissent against the new administration's policies and reported on the alumni petition.

Around that time, the investigative reporting and editorializing stopped.

Coincidence?  I don't think so.

I have corresponded via email with two Bison staffers from the last several years.  One complained that the paper is censored and the other swore up and down that the paper has complete editorial freedom.  Obviously, both can't be true.  So let's get to the bottom of this.

Either the issues we've discussed on this blog are not newsworthy or OBU's student journalists are being suppressed from reporting on and editorializing about them.  Perhaps every issue we've addressed may not be front-page above-the-fold news.  But at least some of the faculty, student, and alumni concerns about academic freedom and ethical administration are newsworthy by any standard.

The Bison's Twitter account (@BisonNews) has been inactive for over a year.  But on January 26, 2012, it asked what people thought of the Save OBU blog.  That's the closest Save OBU got to the paper's news or editorial pages.  For 18 months, Save OBU has sustained a popular blog that has discussed dozens of campus issues.  We've had 5 guest writers.  We have active Facebook and Twitter communities.  There have been more than 260 blog posts.  Yet nothing we've said or done is newsworthy?!

Look, we don't need the publicity.  This blog gets more readers each week than The Bison, anyway.  Of course, we would welcome more student interest and involvement.  But most of all, we would like to know whether or not students at our alma mater are still allowed to investigate and discuss important campus issues and policies.

Bison staffers already missed their chance to do right by the people who have been fired and demoted.  You could have asked the hard questions, and you didn't.  And you may not be able to prevent the next egregious over-reach.  But you --- perhaps more than anyone else --- can help maintain a culture of transparency and responsiveness on campus.

Start small.  Ask what happened with the bookstore's botched orders last fall.  Ask whether OBU's agreement with Tree of Life is working out the way faculty and students had hoped.  Ask what role faculty search committees have in hiring decisions, and what circumstances the deans and provost believe justify over-ruling a committee recommendation.  With all the coaching hires and athletic scholarships announced this year, ask whether OBU's largest-ever freshman class will face a higher teacher-student ratio or more courses taught by adjuncts.

If The Bison is now a good news sheet that only prints stories and opinions that the administration deems safe for consumption, that's fine.  Just be honest about it.  And if that's The Bison's mission at the new OBU, I suggest the student journalists P.R. staffers start submitting invoices to the Public Relations Office.  Other people earn a decent living to present the polished, official image of an OBU devoid of controversy.  You should, too!

If, on the other hand, The Bison is a still news and opinion organization, I, for one, would like to see a little more courage and truth-seeking.  It's only a matter of time until another religion professor gets fired unjustly.  Then it will once again be too late to make a positive difference on campus by insisting on truth, transparency (to the greatest degree possible), and adherence to institutional norms when it comes to the most important issues.  Even Cedarville University, a fundamentalist school, still apparently has a student paper with editorial independence.  If the same is true of The Bison, we wouldn't know it by the lack of investigative pieces that uncover issues and provide the news foundation for editorials on consequential issues.

"The Norm," the alumni petition, and Save OBU can only do so much.  Administrators can ignore Save OBU.  They can deal with the alumni petition by sending out a private email with talking points for trustees.  When students protest, as with "The Norm," they can simply wait until those students graduate and hope that new students never learn of the violations of academic freedom and assume their way of doing things is normal when, in fact, it is a significant departure from institutional norms.

But they can't ignore you.  Sure, administrators can refuse interviews.  They will, of course, decline to comment on personnel matters.  But it reflects very poorly on them if they never give any answers or explanations for their decisions and actions.  After all OBU has been through lately, it's clear that administrators either haven't been pushed very hard or they are censoring the paper.

Maybe the difference between the year past and previous years wasn't related to censorship.  Maybe The Bison had a fundamentalist yes-man student editor who chose not to pursue important news stories or run real editorials.  I simply don't know.

But I hope next year's Bison staff will receive this message with humility, grace, and a sense of journalistic responsibility.  If your hands are tied, that's understandable.  It would surprise no one to know that Dr. Robinson, Dr. Norman, or Dr. Whitlock are blocking the paper from being anything more than a good news sheet.  Just say so, and your readers can lower their expectations accordingly.  But if you have editorial independence as you should, you need to step up your game.  Simple as that.  The entire OBU community deserves better.

In an upcoming post, I'll share the story of how The Bison blamed Save OBU for its decision not to publish a letter to the editor in response to a controversial chapel sermon this spring.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring Trustee Meeting Report Looks Promising

In case you missed OBU's press release from Graduation Day, it looks like the Spring trustee meeting went very well:
During their spring meeting on the Shawnee campus May 17, the OBU Board of Trustees approved the expansion of the OBU Graduate School, a change in OBU’s fiscal year and faculty promotions and contracts.
According to the report, the board took up a number of routine business items.  Particularly noteworthy is the effort to expand OBU's graduate programs.  In addition to enhancing a school's profile and providing needed training for the professions, master's degree programs can be real cash cows for universities.

Of course we would be concerned if OBU lost focus on its bread-and-butter, which is its rigorous liberal arts curriculum for undergraduates.  At this point, we find little evidence for that.  We will be monitoring the use of adjuncts, which, if it increases, would be a sign that resources are being diverted away from OBU's core programs.

We also see little evidence of unusually high faculty turnover, one concern raised in the 2011 alumni petition.  From what we can tell, OBU continues to attract promising candidates.  With an over-supply of wannabe professors and a shortage nationwide of tenure-track faculty positions, OBU should have the cream of the crop.  So far, we've heard no complaints of bizarre interventions by you-know-who in the selection of the four new faculty contracts the trustees approved.

As late as last fall, some faculty had feared that the administration would use the tenure process as a weapon against insufficiently fundamentalist professors.  That fear proved unfounded in the winter.  Once again, we celebrate that a small but deserving crop of professors was granted Senior Faculty Status in spite of not being fundamentalists.  Any large-scale effort to remake the faculty in the image of the post-Takeover SBC remains a distant dream in the Provost's Office and not something we have to worry about (except in the College of Theology and Ministry, obviously).

Though I have learned a lot of sad things as I've delved into the world of Baptist higher education over the past 18 months, OBU's 32-member board has been one of the bright spots.  Unlike some Baptist-affiliated institutions where the trustees do the bidding of a few powerful fundamentalists, OBU's board has proven itself to be a surprisingly independent voice.  Quite the progressive group, they even ended the antiquated ban on dancing!  OBU's trustees -- or at least a majority of them -- have the university's best interests at heart.

I still maintain that the ideal situation would be an independent, self-perpetuating board like almost all private colleges (Christian or otherwise) have.  But that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Given the legal and institutional framework that exists, I'd say things couldn't be much better.  All of that could change in a matter of about 2 years, though, if the BGCO ever decided it wanted to foment a fundamentalist takeover at OBU.  It's happened elsewhere, and it could happen here.

But I have come a long way in my views on this subject.  In spite of the fact that the board is ultimately controlled by the BGCO, I trust our trustees.  I trust that they do not want to see OBU's reputation suffer.  I trust that some of them intervened when faculty anger peaked in the fall of 2011 and when Provost Stan Norman needed to be reined in.  I trust that they are not happy that OBU has fallen from #109 to #390 in the Forbes rankings.

Being a trustee of a Christian college is an act of service.  It does not have many perks like, say, serving on certain corporate boards of directors.  These are clergy and lay volunteers who have full-time jobs and families.  They sacrifice some of their evenings and weekends to read reports, consult with administrative leaders and with one another, and to do their best to make a solid future for OBU.

Eighteen months ago, I assumed that a lot of them were fundamentalist yes-men.  A year later, I speculated that the BGCO could be a partner in saving OBU from a fundamentalist future.  I assumed the worst.  I'm happy to say that I was wrong.

Thanks, trustees, for your service. God bless OBU!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Did Sin Cause the Tornadoes? OBU Dean Says Yes

It has been gratifying to read and hear about the great work Oklahoma Baptists have done since devastating tornadoes struck Central Oklahoma last Sunday and Monday.  For those who have not heard, the BGCO's disaster response team has, as usual, responded effectively and compassionately.  OBU opened its dorms to people whose homes were destroyed and to many out-of-state volunteers.  Everyone has been pitching in.  For a few days, at least, it did not matter whether your organization was fundamentalist or moderate, Protestant or Catholic, religious or secular.

OBU Theology Dean Mark McClellan has a piece in the Huffington Post that purports to offer a Baptist perspective on "what" to do following deadly tornadoes, as well as "why" they happen.

First, the "what:"
We weep with those who have lost loved ones, especially these precious children and we will help lay some of them to rest, seek to bring comfort, friendship, material provision, and spiritual counsel to those who have suffered loss. Our message is one of hope for the temporal future and for eternity. We seek to do this with our hands, our hearts, and our words.
Amen! Amen!

McClellan's "what" to do is innocuous enough.  "It is our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord which propels us provide, serve, love, and give counsel to those in this devastating tornado."  Even so, many people who don't believe anything in particular about Jesus nevertheless summoned the goodwill to do likewise.  McClellan's statement implies that, apart from faith in Jesus, Christians would not do anything at all to help.  I think that paints us in a pretty bad light.

Unsurprisingly, I can't get on board with McClellan's brief discussion of the "why:"
We seek to speak with both confidence and humility about the "why." We believe that God created all things from nothing and His creation is good. In Genesis 3 sin entered into God's creation and it had a cosmic impact. Sin has devastating effects on human life and all creation. We live then in a Fallen world where the daily provision of the good things from God's creation upon which we all depend are received along with earthquakes, hurricanes, and yes, tornadoes, to name some. We do not know "why" God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities. "Why" they occur, we believe is natural evil in a fallen creation. Romans 8:20-22 explains to us that creation will someday be set free from corruption and that it is presently groaning until that moment.
For starters, McClellan might consider using "I" instead of "we."  Who does he think he's speaking for?  All Oklahoma Baptists?  That is definitively not the case.  I don't often see Genesis 3 invoked in explaining bad weather.  Do all or even most Baptists believe that tornadoes happen because of sin and Fallenness?  Do all or even most Baptists believe that God uses storms to kill his innocent children?  Do they believe that God intervenes (selectively or indiscriminately) to rescue some and let others die?  Do all or even most Baptists invoke a theology of evil to talk about weather patterns?  Do they explain natural disasters by appealing to Paul's description in Romans 8 that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now?"

The column follows a strategy that a lot of fundamentalists employ to make their theology seem more palatable.  They don't want to sound like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9/11 on liberals.  So, unlike Falwell, they try to say some nice things to temper the worst parts of their theology.

In this case, McClellan sandwiches his apology for why a presumably omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God killed those people ("We do not know 'why' God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities.") between statements that are soothing, kind, and pastorally effective.  To McClellan's credit, at least he does not claim to know why "God has permitted these to occur."  But he still attributes the deaths to God.  Both Falwell and McClellan explicitly state that God lifted a curtain of protection and allowed evil to destroy, kill, and maim.  Whereas Falwell blames the evil of 9/11 on specific sins, McClellan merely blames the tornadoes ("natural evil") on sin in a general sense.

The difference is more one of style than of substance.  Dean McClellan is theologically closer to the late Reverend Falwell than to any minister I would want to hear preach on a Sunday morning or theologian I would want to hear lecture in an OBU classroom.

For my part, I do not know what causes tornadoes.  According to the internet, they are caused by unusually warm and humid conditions in the lower atmosphere, along with a difference in wind speed and direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere.  I'm not sure where sin (Adam's, Eve's, mine, or sin's "cosmic impact") figures into the equation.

Just as Baptists have traditionally held that good government needs separation of church and state, I submit that good theological discourse needs separation of God and weather.

Maybe Dean McClellan can speak for the men who hired him and the men he's hired as part of the "changes that have been going on the past couple of years" at OBU.  But I suspect there are many professors, students, alumni, and Oklahoma Baptists who would say, "With respect, sir, you do not speak for me."

Speaking just for myself, I would add: I don't even want to know your god.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

OBU Unscathed as Storms Slam Central Oklahoma

Just a quick update tonight.

As our friends in Oklahoma know all too well (and as our friends around the country and around the world are finding out via news reports), several life-threatening tornadoes have touched down in the Midwest.  State and national media are providing extensive coverage.

OBU President David Whitlock reported that all students who remain on Bison Hill are safe and that the buildings and grounds were not damaged.

Here is a litany that is sometimes used in the wake of natural disasters, adapted from the Book of Common Prayer.  Grace and peace to you all.

A Litany in Response to a Natural Disaster

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, One God
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ our offenses, neither reward us according to our sins.  Spare us, good Lord, spare your people, whom you have redeemed by your cross and passion, and by your mercy preserve us forever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all natural disasters, from hurricanes, fires, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and floods,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all disease and sickness, from famine and violence,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all times of sorrow, in all times of joy; in the hour of death and at the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Hear our prayers, O Christ our God,
O Christ, hear us.

For the + repose of the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died in this disaster, that your holy angels may welcome them into Paradise,
O Christ, hear us.

Console all who grieve: those whose loved ones have died, whose families are torn; whose homes have been destroyed, whose possessions have been ruined, who are now unemployed.
O Christ, hear us.

Heal those who suffer from injury and illness, emotional and spiritual distress. Give them hope and encouragement to meet the days ahead.
O Christ, hear us.

Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.
O Christ, hear us.

Give rest to the weary and peace to the restless.
O Christ, hear us.

Give strength to the governments of affected regions and all others in authority and leadership; grant them wisdom and power to act in accordance with your will.
O Christ, hear us.

Bless the clergy and people in areas of danger and destruction who strive to do your service in the midst of their own grief and pain.  Give them fortitude to serve as you would serve.
O Christ, hear us.
Grant your people grace to witness to your word, to open their hearts in love, and to give generously from their abundance, that they may bring forth the fruits of your Spirit.
O Christ, hear us.

Forgive us Lord, for all negligence and hardheartedness, for an over-reliance on technology and a lack of preparedness that result in bitterness and strife, in injury and death.
O Christ, hear us.

In the midst of loss, grant us eyes that see, ears that hear and hands that work so that we may discern how you would have us respond.
O Christ, hear us.

We give you thanks, Lord God for all agencies and individuals who assist in relief efforts; continue in them the good work you have begun, through them your presence is made known.
We thank you O, Lord

You are our refuge and strength
Our very present help in trouble

In you Lord is our Hope
And we shall never hope in vain

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever.

O merciful Father, you have taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of your people [especially _______, for whom our prayers are offered]. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance upon them, and give them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Congratulations, Class of 2013!

To the Class of 2013:

On Friday, OBU conferred degrees on 255 graduates in its annual spring commencement ceremony in Raley Chapel.  We wish to add our voices to the chorus of congratulations you are receiving from friends and family members.  Well done!

When your class entered in 2009, things were very different.  OBU was at the pinnacle of its national recognition for excellence, peaking at #109 in the Forbes college rankings.  Declining enrollment was a challenge, but it was being competently addressed by internal committees and outside consultants.  Difficult choices had been made in terms of budget cuts, but OBU's commitment to its core strength -- its rigorous Christian liberal arts curriculum -- was as strong as ever.

In 2009, the ideological gamesmanship in hiring had not started, no moderate professors were being forced out of the School of Christian Service, and OBU was in the upper echelon of evangelical colleges in America.  In comparison to other Baptist-affiliated colleges, to schools that have ended their affiliation with Baptist state conventions, and to non-Baptist evangelical colleges, OBU was absolutely outstanding.

Yet somewhere in Thurmond Hall (and maybe in the Baptist Building in Oklahoma City), a handful of people didn't think OBU was doing well at all.  Ask yourself: What was so wrong with OBU in 2009 and what makes them think it is so much better today in spite of its decline?  Class of 2013, this is what they did to OBU during your four years:

When you were freshmen and sophomores, members of the classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012 stood up.  Some of you stood with them.  Others did not know what the fuss was all about.  Maybe you weren't in departments where professors were terminated without cause or faculty morale was noticeably low.  At least a handful of you courageously spoke your minds and stood up for academic freedom and ethical administration at OBU.

Fortunately, things have been better at OBU since about the spring semester of your junior year.  Yet many alumni feel that a watchdog is still necessary.  This is especially true in light of the many other Baptist colleges across the country where administrators are squandering their institutions' reputations, effectiveness, and even risking accreditation in the name of fundamentalism.

Though they obviously got off to an unfortunate start, we trust that President Whitlock and Provost Norman want the best for OBU.  We believe that they have learned something from their mistakes, even though -- to our knowledge -- they have refused to acknowledge them to anyone.  And we know that OBU still has great trustees, alumni, and a network of Oklahoma Baptists who will insist on excellence and who will not tolerate ideologically-motivated games that disrupt professors' careers, denigrate academic quality, and devalue graduates' diplomas.

Our prayer is that things will continue to get better on Bison Hill.  But do not be deceived: a degree from OBU is probably worth a little less in grad school admissions, in the job market, and in terms of any objective assessment of rigor and quality than it was in 2009.

We trust you had an amazing experience at OBU.  Most of us did, which is why we feel so passionately about these issues.  But in spite of all the positives, you have been done a disservice, and your investment has been devalued.  For what?  So that a handful of OBU administrators can boast about their fundamentalist credentials to elites in the Southern Baptist Convention.

We find that unacceptable, and we welcome you to join our movement and stand up for academic freedom and ethical administration at OBU -- our alma mater and yours.

Congratulations and best wishes!  We send our prayers for God's abiding presence and guidance along your journey.

-Jacob Lupfer
OBU Class of '02
Silver Spring, Maryland

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Kentucky Situation...Resolved. For Now.

A couple weeks ago, we asked, "What's going on at Campbellsville University?"  Last month, Campbellsville, a liberal arts college affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, had its quiet existence disturbed.  Reports reverberated throughout the Baptist blogosphere about a professor's contract being non-renewed, ostensibly because he believes every word of the Bible is literally true, even with respect to history, science, geography, etc. -- you know, the whole fundamentalist schtick.

This seemed pretty shocking to us, because at OBU we're used to seeing faculty dismissed, silenced, or sidelined for not being fundamentalist enough.  So it seemed like good news!  Finally, a Baptist college had the sense and sanity to say, "We take the Bible seriously, not literally.  If you believe the earth was created in 6 24-hour days 6,000 years ago, take a hike, fundy!"

But alas, there was more to the story.

For starters, this young professor's fan club (unsurprisingly, he's a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) cried foul and started making noise about all the other profs at Campbellsville who allegedly don't take the Bible literally and manage to hold on to their jobs.  They flooded the inbox of KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood, and many started calling on the KBC to de-fund Campbellsville.  (Like OBU, the KBC schools receive a tiny percentage of their operating budgets from the convention -- money the convention might spend on evangelism and missions but chooses not to.  Instead, the convention directs scarce offering plate dollars to institutions that raise tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue on their own.)

It was about to get ugly.

The Reverend Dr. Paul Chitwood, however, handled the situation masterfully.  Please take the time to read his blog updates on the situation herehere, and here.  Leaders from Campbellsville and from the KBC came together and re-affirmed their historic partnership.

Since we hadn't heard much noise from the KBC colleges in the cacophony of Baptist college disasters over the past year or so, I (very erroneously) assumed they must be pretty fundamentalist.  After all, they are in the shadow of SBTS which has its own undergraduate arm, Boyce College.  I had ignorantly assumed that, of necessity, the KBC colleges would be locked into a race with Boyce as to which has the most unforgiving doctrinal litmus tests and which loves the BFM 2000 the most.

Not so.

I'm amazed at how much freedom Campbellsville profs seem to have.  If you teach there, the default assumption seems to be that you are a believing Christian, but one who takes the Bible seriously (and thus not literally).  Yet in the spirit of Christian unity, cooperation, and openness, literalists are welcome, too.  So you might have a young-earth creationist from time to time.  But most profs are evidently moderates.  The KBC may not like it, but there seems to be little desire among the fundamentalists to remake the school in their own image.  This is a lot like the OBU I remember in my student days.

Today's OBU seems to start from the opposite assumption with respect to faculty: you are (or ought to be) a literalist who believes in young-earth creationism and the historicity of every miracle.  But, in the spirit of not being able to fire everybody all at once, we'll let it slide if you are a professing Christian and active church member who happens to erroneously believe that maybe Jonah didn't get swallowed by a fish and perhaps some variant of theistic evolution is more convincing than flat earth young earth creationism.

We'll look more closely at trustee dynamics at the KBC schools in the weeks to come, as we search for parallels and points of departure with OBU's relationship to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

As legitimate media outlets report on the happenings, we'll share the news articles on our Facebook and Twitter accounts.  The SBC's public reliations shop, Baptist Press, unsurprisingly obfuscates the situation.  Their writeup quotes Dr. Chitwood as saying, "Everyone who teaches at Campbellsville is a professing Christian and believes God created the world."  But notice what Baptist Press says on Twitter: "Ky. convention, college affirm partnership (all Campbellsville profs are Christian creationists)."  Lots of people believe God created the world, but would not call themselves creationists.  Presumably most Campbellsville profs would fall into this category.  (But then again, no one but the most ardent SBC Takeover loyalists have taken Baptist Press seriously since 1990.)

How grateful Campbellsville must be to have a state convention whose senior leadership realizes that while having a few biblical literalists on faculty is important to many in the churches, the academic (and frankly, spiritual) integrity of the college depends on having devoted Christian faculty who take the Bible seriously, not literally.

I hope we have that in Oklahoma.  We certainly have some great trustees and some prominent pastors who support OBU's great liberal arts heritage.  But after the past four years, it would be nice to have some Kentucky-style assurances that OBU's lurch backward toward fundamentalism is something one or two over-zealous administrators came up with on their own, and not some grand design hatched in the Baptist Building.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rep. James Lankford Named 2013 Commencement Speaker

[Ed.: Evidently the Lankford adress is a no-go. The OBU website is reporting, as of 5/8/13, that a well loved faculty member will give the address.]

In light of our mentioning the overtly rightward political tilt of OBU's invited chapel speakers, several readers sent in this item yesterday:
U.S. Rep. James Lankford will return to Oklahoma to bring the Spring Commencement Address to OBU’s graduates on Friday, May 17. 
Rep. Lankford was elected to the United States Congress on Nov. 2, 2010, representing Oklahoma’s Fifth District. The Republican legislator serves on the House Committees on Budget and Oversight and Government Reform, where he is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care, and Entitlements. He also was elected chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee for the 113th Congress.
Apparently there are at least a handful of -- shudder -- Democrats among the Save OBU faithful.  All three of them (!) sent me notes yesterday expressing dismay.

I told them to chill out.

Rep. Lankford represents Pottawatomie, Seminole, and most of Oklahoma County in Congress.  He has deep ties to Baptist life in the state, having been the director of the Falls Creek camp for 13 years before resigning in 2009 to enter the Republican primary to replace retiring Rep. Mary Fallin, who ran successfully for Governor of Oklahoma in 2010.

It's pretty typical to invite governors and members of Congress to speak at college graduation ceremonies.  Graduation speakers are also, I would argue, qualitatively different from chapel speakers.  Yes, this will mark the second Tea Party politician to speak at OBU this spring.  Maybe OBU students should have the opportunity to hear from a moderate Republican (Mickey Edwards, where are you?) or a Democrat from time to time.

But for now, let's just file this away and keep a tally.  If it truly is the case that Democratic politicians are systematically excluded from ever being invited to campus, then yes, we need to protest OBU's ideological rigidity.  But all 5 of Oklahoma's U.S. representatives and both senators are Republicans.  So it's not like there are any Democrats to choose from at the moment.

In the meantime, however, it may be worth considering that some OBU students may want to hear from speakers whose Christian commitments lead them to political and social views that are not in lockstep with the Religious Right.  Even Cedarville University, which recently completed its fundamentalist transformation, recently invited both Shane Claiborne and the Reverend Jim Wallis to speak.  These liberal evangelicals are less enthusiastic about translating their faith commitments into unconditional support for the Republican Party.  Perhaps it would be a helpful educational and spiritual experience for OBU students to consider the ideas of at least someone who is not a footsoldier of the Religious Right political movement.

As for Rep. Lankford, he will be speaking at a graduation ceremony, which even at a Christian college is not technically a service of religious worship (though there will be some hymns and prayers, as there should be).  When former Rep. J.C. Watts spoke about 10 years ago, there was some hand-wringing among the moderates that it would be an overtly partisan political speech.  Most people recall Watts giving a good commencement address.

Also, we may see Rep. Lankford moderate some of his more extreme positions as he develops his career in Congress.  Like his colleague, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), Lankford will find that he can have more influence if he works as a partner for the common good rather than a cheerleader for a platform that has no chance of passing.

Already, he may be moderating from the far far right to the merely far right.  As recently as March 29 of this year, Lankford had "liked" a page on Facebook called Outraged Patriots.  You can see the "patriots'" page here:

What could be more patriotic than noose imagery...?  I'll leave it to your imagination what this image connotes to many Americans.

Here's Representative Lankford's Facebook page, "liking" the Outraged Patriots as of March 29 of this year.

After some people expressed concern and asked him to clarify his position, the congressman "unliked" the page, indicating that he does not, after all, endorse the rhetoric and imagery of lynching.

So don't worry, OBU students and faculty.  At least your 2013 graduation speaker is on record opposing lynching.  Practically a moderate!

So chill out.

[Ed: If it matters, I've voted Democratic and Republican.  Presently, I'm not registered to vote and I did not vote in the 2012 presidential election.  Pretty bad for a political scientist, I know... And, to reiterate: Save OBU is completely uninterested in secular politics and supports no outside issues or causes.]

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"You're Fired!" Are Students Routinely Fired from Campus Jobs for Disagreeing w/ the "New" OBU?

We've heard two very disappointing stories this week from students who were fired from their on-campus jobs for expressing disagreement with administrators at the "new" OBU.

Is this what it's come down to?  So they're under orders to purge certain departments... I get it.  But do they really need to fire students who are working part-time at minimum wage jobs to help put themselves through college?

The Questionable Faculty Dismissals
Until recently, we had only heard of three questionable firings on Bison Hill (in recent years).  People had concerns (many privately and some publicly), but only three had lost their jobs over it.  The first was a well loved and pretty conservative philosophy professor who had the audacity to believe that maybe, just maybe, the earth wasn't created in 6 24-hour days 6,000 years ago. All administrators will say, aside from "We can't comment on personnel matters," is that student demand for philosophy classes was declining.  The truth is that they want to replace philosophy, an ancient and core discipline in the liberal arts, with "apologetics" -- itself a legitimate branch of Christian theology that, in evangelical circles, has sadly become a Sunday-school like line of reasoning popularized by insecure, defensive fundamentalists.

Next out the door was another religion professor.  This one had tenure, but that apparently was insufficient to overcome the strikes against him.  First of all, he was a moderate in an academic division they are trying to turn fundamentalist (either of their own volition or under orders from the BGCO).  Second, as Faculty Council Chair, he stood up against the unethical actions taken against his ousted colleague the previous year.  And third, he was just too nice a guy to play hardball (get a 7-figure settlement, sue the university, drag it through an embarrassing public spectacle, etc).

The Questionable Student Worker Dismissals
There was a close call in 2010.  President Whitlock went ballistic when a 21-year old student committed the unpardonable offense of writing an honest, thoughtful letter to the editor of The Bison in October 2010.  But even then, the student did not lose his campus job.

Though infrequent and relatively small in scale, student protests have been effective.  "The Norm," an underground newspaper published twice in 2011, was particularly insightful in connecting the dots between the ever-rightward drift of the BGCO and the unprecedented changes at OBU.

So, even in the very rare instances when students did protest against the unprecedented policy and personnel changes, at least their on-campus jobs were safe.  But that apparently is no longer the case.  In recent days I've heard from two students who can trace their disagreements with the "new" OBU directly to their being terminated from campus jobs.

I hope there aren't others, but maybe now they will come forward, too.

The message is pretty clear.  If you disagree with us, well, shut up and smile anyway.  We don't want unhappy workers.  Maybe this works in business and the church.  But a Christian liberal arts college isn't a business.  And it isn't the church.  Freedom of thought, belief, and expression is a cherished value.  Freedom is bigger than the person exercising it.  You can try to "win" by stamping out an individual or two.  But you can't really stop freedom from being exercised in a university.  And the harder you try, the worse it makes you look.  Until you squelch all freedom of expression and you cease being a university at all.  Is this really where you want to take OBU?

New administrators: Play your ideological games with faculty if you feel you must.  But please, don't make students victims any more than they already are.  God knows students have suffered enough these past few years: seeing beloved professors cast aside inexplicably; experiencing the effects of all-time low faculty morale (I trust it's getting better, but still...); seeing their $100,000 investment lose value before their eyes as OBU has plummeted from #109 to #390 in the Forbes college rankings.

The BGCO and the upper echelon of administrators are hoping you won't notice or care.

We hope you will.

Pray for OBU.  It may look good on the outside, with a football program and gleaming new buildings.  But all is not well.