Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Should OBU Be OBU? Or Try to Out-Union Union?

In our last post, we noted that OBU recently honored Union University (TN) President David Dockery with the Herschel Hobbs Denominational Service Award.  We can't help but notice that Union has become the darling of the post-Takeover SBC.  Many SBC elites send their own children to Union.  In contrast, OBU fails to attract the children of the SBC's leading men.

As far as I'm concerned, this is great news.

All indications are that Union is a solid Baptist liberal arts university that has absolutely thrived under David Dockery's leadership.  It has more than doubled in size, scope, enrollment, and budget.  My perception is that Union may be somewhat more intentionally conservative than OBU.  Even so, we haven't heard rumblings about unethical firings or unilateral redirection of entire academic divisions based on fundamentalist ideology, as we have seen at OBU and other Baptist universities.  So maybe Union already went through that change.  Or maybe it's just more uniformly conservative and no one protests very loudly.  I don't know enough about Union's history to know whether it was always a happier home for fundamentalists, or whether Dockery has deliberately ushered it in that direction.  Folks who know him praise him and tell me that, while not as extremely right wing as today's SBC, Dockery is a traditional conservative who saw which way the wind was blowing.  Hopefully, for his sake, he didn't have to compromise too many of his own beliefs and principles to win the adulation of post-Takeover SBC leaders.

Somehow, Union has managed to communicate two things.  First, it is a growing, thriving, nationally recognized Christian liberal arts university with a good academic reputation, good professors, and good students.  (Unlike OBU, Union didn't need to add a football program to boost male enrollment.)  And second, Union enjoys a reputation for being a safe place for fundamentalists to send their children to college.

Union's success with this delicate dance must be vexing to OBU's new leadership.  For some reason, the dance has been more difficult at OBU.  When David Whitlock and Stan Norman arrived on Bison Hill, each pointed to Union as a model.  OBU, though smaller, had at least as good a reputation.  But OBU is not as widely considered to be a safe place for fundy kids.  Of course, OBU produces tons of graduates who are fundamentalist, home-schooling culture warriors.  But not as many as certain other Baptist colleges.  At OBU, the chances seem higher that students will end up taking the Bible seriously, not literally.  It has been much more likely that OBU religion and ministry graduates will attend non-SBC seminaries.  As Whitlock and Norman discovered, OBU's relatively moderate reputation has been hard to kill.  At this moment, I do not know of a single SBC seminary professor or high-level agency staffer who has a son or daughter enrolled in OBU.

That's unlikely to change. And frankly, we don't need more once-reputable Baptist colleges descending into fundamentalism.  The SBC elites with children inclined toward religious colleges will continue to send their kids to Union, or, if they don't care at all about academic respectability, to an undergraduate program at one of the seminaries.

It's fine that OBU honored David Dockery.  I intend no offense toward Union.  As I said yesterday, Dockery has done the impossible: kept hardliners happy while also maintaining some mainstream legitimacy.  It's not an easy feat.  Usually you squander much of your institution's legitimacy when you pander to the hardliners.  Just ask Emir Caner (Truett-McConnell), Joe Aguillard (Louisiana College), Don Dowless (Shorter), and Thomas White (Cedarville).  Thankfully, David Whitlock seems less eager to take OBU over that cliff.  I have always believed that Whitlock has it in him to be a great university president, but I doubt any Baptist college president can do what Dockery has done: Pleased the SBC without turning his institution into a joke.

So you have to choose.

While past OBU presidents courageously risked alienating the increasingly fundamentalist SBC as they were building OBU into a top-rated Christian liberal arts university, today's leaders seem too eager to advertise that the Fundamentalist Takeover is, at long last, coming to Bison Hill.  This seems to be the intent of the Hobbs Award.

But the field of schools trying to out-Union Union is already very crowded.  And it's not going well for any of them.  So we will say what we've said all along. OBU should be what it has been for decades: A hospitable home for moderate and conservative faculty and students characterized by academic rigor, academic freedom, and academic integrity.

Monday, August 12, 2013

OBU Honors Union University's David Dockery

We've wondered before about parallels between OBU and Union University, a Baptist college in Jackson, TN.  Longtime OBU President Bob Agee came to OBU from Union and retired to Jackson.  Union's president, the Reverend Dr. David Dockery, is widely considered to be the dean of Baptist college presidents.

At the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting in June, OBU honored Dockery for his contributions to Southern Baptist life over the past 20+ years:
OBU presented the Herschel H. Hobbs Award for Distinguished Denominational Service, named in honor of a legendary Southern Baptist pastor and denominational statesman, to Dr. David S. Dockery on Tuesday, June 11, at a reception in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. 
The reception was part of the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. 
Dockery, who serves as president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., received the award from Dr. David W. Whitlock, president of OBU. 
“David Dockery has had a profound impact on Christian higher education, generally, and OBU, specifically,” Whitlock said. “In the providence of God, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities paired me with Dr. Dockery in their first-year mentorship program when I became president of OBU. His wisdom and influence was so important to me in that first year, and I count it a blessing to consider him a friend.”
Forgetting, for the moment, how revisionist (and maybe even offensive?) it is to honor post-Takeover SBC elites in the name of Herschel Hobbs (who fundamentalists booed at the 1980 SBC meeting), now seems as good a time as ever to compare how OBU and Union relate to the SBC and its post-Takeover leadership.  We'll take up that topic in a series of blog posts this week.

Among the few dozen state convention-affiliated Baptist colleges, Union is clearly the darling of the SBC.  I can't even keep track of how many SBC seminary professors and high-level agency staffers have sent their own children to Union in recent years.  Whenever one of them gets married, graduates, or gets a job, the elite SBC Twitterverse becomes a virtual Union Alumni Association meeting.  We have to ask why so many post-Takeover SBC elites send their kids to Union.  Is Union objectively and uniquely better than all other Baptist colleges?  Or that good for these guys' careers?  Or is proximity to Nashville decisive?

Dockery has mastered one of the most delicate dances in evangelical life: keeping hardline constituents happy while also maintaining some mainstream legitimacy.  In addition to his prolific writing, Dockery has served on advisory boards for evangelical institutions, including Christianity Today and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

His involvement with the CCCU is noteworthy as we try to get a sense for where the CCCU stands on the recent spate of fundamentalist encroachments at Baptist-affiliated CCCU institutions.  I'm sure Dockery wants to stay above the fray, and at this point in his career perhaps he's earned the right.  But I can't help but wonder if he smiled or frowned when he heard about the firings at OBU in 2010 and 2011, the wholesale faculty exodus at Shorter in 2012, or the takeover of Cedarville in 2013.

In a future post, we'll look more deeply at how OBU and Union each relate to SBC leadership.  We'll look for answers to the question of why so many SBC elites send their kids to Union while so few (if any) send their kids to OBU.  And we'll consider OBU's prospects for success if it abandons its rich heritage just to try to win over a few dozen guys who are always going to prefer Union anyway.

Dr. Dockery, who will retire next summer after 19 years on the job, will continue to be relevant to SBC life, especially in his role as chair of the Calvinism Advisory Committee.  I, for one, will always eagerly listen to anything Dr. Dockery has to say about Christian higher education.  And I wish him and Union success in this transition period.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer Update & FAQ

Greetings to longtime readers and a warm welcome to the many new people who have stumbled upon this site!

I mentioned in early June that the blog would be quiet this summer.  After a tumultuous 2010 & 2011, OBU's fundamentalist encroachment has subsided somewhat.  Top administrators have made their true intentions known, however.  This means OBU still needs a watchdog. OBU administrators currently lack the political cover necessary to complete their desired transformation.  But as soon as they believe they can get away with it, they will complete the fundamentalist re-orientation of the religion department and move on to other areas of the university.

These days, I'm spending less of my "Save OBU" time and effort on OBU.  Sure, I'm getting emails about various staff and faculty personnel changes.  I hear from a number of prospective students weighing their hopes for a great experience at OBU against the realities of what the administrators' actions have wrought.

Increasingly, however, I'm hearing from constituents of other Christian colleges.  Some are asking why I'm complaining about relatively minor goings-on at OBU when several other Baptist schools are in the throes of full-on fundamentalist takeovers that may result in harm to their reputations, financial ruin, and loss of accreditation.  Others, mostly from evangelical colleges that are not Baptist affiliated, are wondering how the problems at OBU, Cedarville, Shorter, Truett-McConnell, Brewton-Parker, Louisiana College, etc. could even happen at all.

I'll continue to monitor the OBU situation as best I can.  But in a future post, I'll lay out a vision for a collective effort wherein constituents of a variety of Christian colleges will appeal to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) for guidance about how to prevent fundamentalist-inspired trustee takeovers, presidential selections, administrative reorganizations, firings, and incursions against institutional norms and academic freedom.  The CCCU needs to strengthen and enforce standards for its member institutions.  Non-Baptist evangelicals need to understand what fundamentalists are doing to a significant swath of Christian higher education.  And Southern Baptist leaders need to get a clue and stop turning our colleges into their ideological playgrounds, presumably with the CCCU's blessing.  We need to find out: Does the CCCU even care?

Since the site has received hundreds of new visitors this summer and since many of you have written to ask about what's going on, I have responded to some frequently asked questions.

Click here to view our FAQ page.