Thursday, September 26, 2013

Recognition for Excellence in Science -- Good or Bad for OBU?

Earlier this month, a U.S. Navy officer was on campus to invite OBU students apply for the Navy's Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program.  The program recently designated OBU's physics and math majors as the only "tier one" undergraduate majors in Oklahoma and North Texas.  What a fine honor!

Or is it?

Not so long ago, it wouldn't have surprised me if certain administrators in Thurmond Hall were upset or embarrassed that a secular government institution like the U.S. Navy recognized OBU for excellence in science.  After all, most fundamentalists approach science with suspicion at best -- and usually with fear and loathing.  They like science when it offers solutions to problems or prolongs and enriches their lives.  But they are constantly having to figure out how to convince themselves and others that science poses no threat to cherished religious ideas like young earth creationism or the literal historicity of the miracle stories recorded in Scripture.

Fortunately, the administrators cited in the article affirmed the value of rigorous academic preparation in science and mathematics at OBU.  The Reverend Dr. Stan Norman, OBU provost, said:
"We are pleased the Navy has designated these academic programs as their one majors for the NuPOC Program.  The success achieved by our physics and mathematics graduates is evidence of the high level of academic excellence provided by our faculty in the Hurley College of Science and Mathematics . . . The recognition of these programs by the Navy is further validation of that academic quality."
Let's hope this attitude prevails throughout the university.  Especially in the College of Theology and Ministry, it will be important for students to realize that excellence in science does not threaten excellence in theology, philosophy, biblical studies, and ministry.  And, as news of OBU's continued excellence in science education spreads, it will be important to protect the Hurley College faculty from colleagues and BGCO pastors and laypeople who would prefer to replace them with fundamentalists.

There's a lot of credit to go around.  The students should be commended for their hard work in some of the most rigorous majors on campus.  Our thanks to the president and provost for their commitment to legitimate science education and for resisting what must be rather intense pressure from friends and colleagues in post-Takeover Baptist higher education to water it down.  Not lost in all this are the contributions of an administrator closer to the students and faculty -- a well-loved former chief academic officer who now serves as dean of science and math.  Finally, our deepest thanks to Hurley College faculty, old and new.  They are the best in the business!

Monday, September 23, 2013

OBU Sues USA Over "Abortion Pill Mandate"

As we speculated last week, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group, filed a lawsuit Friday against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on behalf of OBU and three other Christian colleges in Oklahoma.  The suit alleges that an administrative rule the HHS issued in January 2012 violates the universities' First and Fifth Amendment rights.

The HHS Mandate, one of many bureaucratic rules across the government related to the implementation of the health insurance reform law, immediately met fierce resistance from the Catholic hierarchy and a number of Protestant religious liberty advocates.  Both before and since the HHS made accommodations so that insurers, rather than employers themselves, would bear the costs of contraceptive measures that might violate certain employers' religious beliefs, dozens of lawsuits representing several hundred plaintiffs have been filed.

Personally, I see some compelling reasons to oppose this action.
  • For one thing, it is needlessly divisive.  While many alumni/ae are no doubt supportive of OBU's lawsuit, many alumni/ae will be disappointed and angry.
  • Second, this a giant slap in the face to employees, particularly women, who up to this point have believed that they, not the president or the trustees, should decide what contraceptives they can access through the university's group health insurance plan.
  • Third, there's no real upside for OBU.  There are already more than enough cases working their way through the federal courts on this matter. If this was really important, OBU should have had a conference call with trustees and launched this action in early 2012.  At this point, it's just piling on.  There is no chance that this lawsuit will ever be decisive or relevant to the ultimate legal or political resolution of the HHS Mandate.
  • Furthermore, it's ridiculous to assume that all, or even most, Southern Baptists believe the morning after pill is ethically identical to, say, an abortion at 6 or 8 weeks gestation.  Along these lines, it's dubious at best and egregiously dishonest at worst for OBU's PR office to try to sell this as opposition to the "abortion pill mandate." [EDIT: OBU's website changed the headline to "OBU Joins Fight for Religious Liberty." I wonder who else complained...]
  • Since this action comes so late in the public political and legal debate over the HHS Mandate, many will interpret this action as blatantly partisan and ideological rather than arising out of a legitimate religious or theological concern that has any kind of consensus among OBU stakeholders, and particularly among the faculty and staff who will be affected.
Even so, after consulting with several people who have shown the most interest and involvement in the Save OBU project since its inception, I do not think Save OBU should take a position on this matter and I do not intend to condemn it or the administrators and trustees who advocated for it.  This matter is substantially different from the kinds of concerns we have raised about academic freedom and ethical administration.

Institutions have a right to preserve their own autonomy and prerogatives.  While it seems to me that most religious moderates are satisfied with the cumulative accommodations the federal government has made since the initial outcry over the HHS Mandate on January 20, 2012, I am sensitive to the criticism that the original mandate was tone-deaf to religious liberty concerns.  I understand why President David Whitlock and the OBU trustees took this action.  But I hope there will be a healthy debate among students, staff, and alumni about precisely what interest OBU has in the case and, specifically, whether an "abortion pill mandate" actually exists.

Coincidentally and for the sake of full disclosure, I have a professional and scholarly interest in evangelicals' attitudes regarding contraception.  If you are interested, you can read some of my thoughts in this recent Associated Baptist Press commentary.

I realize that many will disagree with the decision not to oppose the administration and trustees in this matter because there will be significant overlap between people who support Save OBU's efforts and people who would prefer that their alma mater did not join a late, irrelevant lawsuit over the "abortion pill mandate."  This lawsuit will divide OBU constituents, but I hope those of us who want OBU to remain a legitimate liberal arts university will be continually united against our alma mater's very real and ongoing threats to its heritage and identity.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Brief Revival for Save OBU

As I noted a few times over the summer, I've deliberately scaled back the Save OBU effort.  For one thing, I believe it would be counterproductive to keep hammering OBU's now veteran administrators for offenses that occurred 2-3 years ago.  We made our point.  The last thing I want is to make things more difficult for the students and professors who are still trying to engage in rigorous, intellectually honest Christian higher education on Bison Hill.  Another fact is that I spent too much time on an issue that is near and dear to my heart, but not very relevant to my personal or professional life.

We certainly celebrate the university's many recent successes.  But we hopefully trust that things have stabilized.  Unless the situation at OBU takes another turn for the worst, you won't see daily updates and commentary on every OBU news release here.

Even so, there are a few developments I would like to keep before our friends and supporters.  The most recent Forbes list indicates that OBU's slide in the rankings has, mercifully, stopped.  The Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry has a new faculty member this year.  And sources confirm that OBU is planning to follow the lead of several other Catholic and evangelical institutions and sue the United States in federal court over an administrative rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last year.

I'll report on each of these matters in the days to come.

I also want to say more about an idea I considered over the summer.  The several Southern Baptist colleges that have reverted back toward fundamentalism in recent years should band together and petition the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.  Ideally, other evangelical colleges would join us in solidarity.  The CCCU should give guidance about how to protect academic freedom and ensure ethical administration when fundamentalists threaten and obliterate long-standing norms of institutional behavior.  Or, alternatively, the CCCU should give its blessing to these takeovers and say publicly that it does not care about what many Christian colleges have experienced in recent years.

Let's stay informed and stay connected.  Given that another unethical firing or any number of fundamentalist-inspired violations could potentially occur at any moment, we need to keep our movement active so that we can mobilize more easily when the next crazy thing happens.  Has the war already been lost?  Perhaps.  But if we truly want to be "loyal to our alma mater," the least we can do is stand up for what we know is right.

Save OBU is not dead yet!