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.