Monday, February 10, 2014

Dub Oliver Elected President of Union University

There is huge news this week in the world of Baptist higher education.  Union University in Jackson, TN announced the election of the Reverend Dr. Samuel W. "Dub" Oliver as its 16th president.  Dr. Oliver, currently president of East Texas Baptist University, will succeed David Dockery, who is transitioning to the role of chancellor.

At first glance, this news seems like a win for academic freedom and respectability in Baptist higher education.  Like OBU President David Whitlock and unlike recent Baptist college presidents that have pushed their schools toward fundamentalism (including Shorter's Don Dowless and Cedarville's Thomas White), Dr. Oliver does not hold academic degrees from post-Takeover SBC seminaries.  This alone may be an indication that he has little appetite for fundamentalist encroachment in academic institutions.

Oliver's ETBU is more moderate than Union and most other Baptist colleges.  Along with a handful of schools, ETBU is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  After the Conservative Resurgence progressed from the national SBC to the state conventions, moderates in two states (Virginia and Texas) successfully resisted the resurgence.  In those states, conservatives formed rival conventions in order to avoid sharing power with moderates.  Today's SBC leaders have a complicated relationship with the BGCT.  The BGCT pours millions of dollars into SBC seminaries and agencies through its Cooperative Program giving.  At the same time, many Texas Baptist congregations contribute to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  The BGCT contributes to organizations that post-Takeover SBC leaders loathe, such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

While solidly committed to distinctively Baptist Christian higher education and employing only believing Christians as faculty, ETBU is nowhere near conservative enough for today's SBC leaders.  They will not be pleased that Union's new president did not personally intervene to prevent ETBU from hiring a female Bible professor.  They will also not be pleased that at Oliver's former institution, the religion department does not employ a single post-Takeover SBC seminary graduate.  ETBU's religion faculty typically present their research at the mainstream American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meetings rather than the Evangelical Theological Society's conference.  The fact that Oliver tolerated moderates will not inspire the confidence of certain SBC insiders.  At least he had the good sense to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate.

However, Union University is a very different environment than the ETBU that Oliver leaves behind.  Union is widely considered to be the flagship of Baptist state convention-affiliated colleges.  Numerous SBC agency staffers and seminary faculty send their own children to Union.  Like Cedarville, the only female employee in Union's religion department is the secretary.  The exclusively male religion faculty is largely composed of SBC seminary alumni.

Union is not a fundamentalist university.  It is a strong, thriving, growing institution.  There is no evidence to suggest that it is on the same trajectory as Cedarville and Shorter, let alone Baptist colleges that are in danger of losing their accreditation.  Like Bob Agee, a former Union administrator who was president of OBU from 1982 to 1998 , David Dockery masterfully earned and kept the trust of two forces in Baptist higher education that, since the Conservative Resurgence, are increasingly at odds with one another.  These tensions will continue to exist at OBU, Union, and many other universities.  I wrote about the two competing forces in my last post:
First, there is a majority among the trustees, faculty, and alumni that wants [the school] to remain academically strong, respected, and rigorous (while, of course, being true to its Baptist heritage).  At the same time, there is a powerful force within Southern Baptist life today that wants doctrinal conformity, is more trustful of authoritarian leadership, and is less tolerant of dissenting perspectives (while also desiring, if possible, academic respectability).
Hiring a president who has never studied or worked in a post-Takeover Southern Baptist institution is a big step for Union.  It proves that Union is ultimately run out of Jackson, not out of Brentwood, Nashville, Louisville, or anywhere else.  Though a few SBC leaders have tweeted out congratulatory messages to Dr. Oliver today, it seems reasonable to assume that some would have preferred a more fundamentalist-friendly president at Union.

Oliver's inauguration service at ETBU in 2009 included greetings and blessings from friends at Baylor and Carson-Newman.  That alone is enough to make today's Southern Baptist power brokers wary.  Presumably his installation service at Union will be more SBC-centric.  The dynamics of relating to the Tennessee Baptist Convention will be different than how Oliver's ETBU relates to the BGCT.  But ultimately Union's trustees have the responsibility to protect and defend Dr. Oliver's stewardship of the institution when he finds himself opposed to forces that would erode academic freedom and encroach upon fragile Baptist freedoms.

Deservedly, Dr. Oliver will begin his tenure with reservoirs of trust and goodwill from both "sides."  He will have an inestimable ally and confidant in Chancellor David Dockery.  There will be plenty of time in years to come to speculate about the role of the Union presidency in the Baptist battles.  For now, it is enough to congratulate Dub Oliver and wish him our best.  Remembering that his election was unanimous, let us be unanimous in our prayers for him for Union, and for all the Baptist institutions we so dearly love.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Changes Coming for Save OBU

Happy 2014 to each of you!

As you may have noticed, the Save OBU effort has slowed considerably over the past 8 months. We got off to a fast start in late 2011 and made our biggest impact in the period from January 2012 to May 2013.  I wrote more than 200 blog posts during that time, and a handful of thoughtful of writers contributed dozens more.  Our blog reached tens of thousands of people and our Facebook and Twitter communities were active.

Lately, things have been quieter.  The primary reason is that (as far as I know) there is less evidence of fundamentalist encroachment at OBU today than there was in 2010 and 2011.  I claim no credit, of course.  I'm just glad that OBU administrators and trustees have wisely chosen to avoid the path of Baptist colleges like Shorter and Cedarville, where newly-empowered presidents forced out dozens of faculty members.

The time has come for new leadership to emerge in our movement.  I was never the right person to lead this effort.  I am too far away.  I am too liberal.  I have never been a Southern Baptist.  My particular background made it difficult to be a credible spokesman for the overwhelming majority of Save OBU supporters -- conservative-to-moderate alumni who value academic freedom at OBU.  I am grateful for the opportunity to publicly stand up for the things I love about my alma mater.  I am proud to have put my name to this effort.  For a while, I tried my very best.  I hope it made a difference.  But I obviously do not have the time or inclination to carry this movement forward.  There are surely people "closer to home" that will do a better job standing up for academic freedom at OBU the next time it comes under attack (a question of when, not if).

Later this month, I plan to feature some guest blog posts that will emphasize the role a Christian college like OBU can and should play in forming a vital piety and authentic spirituality that is true to the best of the Baptist tradition.  Beginning immediately, I call on all of our supporters to be in prayer and discernment about the future of "Save OBU."  (The name should probably change -- I'm not sure the implication that OBU needs to be saved from something is helpful at this point.)

I can share some of my own reflections on what I have learned through this process and offer some ideas about the future.  But I hesitate to say too much -- you have heard enough of me.

There are so many great things happening at OBU.  I want to make sure I acknowledge that.  All I have ever criticized were a handful of policy and personnel decisions that implied an unmistakable break with the parts of OBU's heritage that make it great.  Aside from those few decisions (and their implications), I have great pride and confidence in OBU.  The university has two trajectories that are going to be in tension with one another.  First, there is a majority among the trustees, faculty, and alumni that wants OBU to remain academically strong, respected, and rigorous (while, of course, being true to its Baptist heritage).  At the same time, there is a powerful force within Southern Baptist life today that wants doctrinal conformity, is more trustful of authoritarian leadership, and is less tolerant of dissenting perspectives (while also wanting, if possible, academic respectability).  These two forces will continue to collide.  Those of us who cherish the norms and values that made OBU a first-rate Christian liberal arts university have already lost enough.  We need a strong voice to hopefully ensure that we do not lose even more.

If you wish to confer with me about how you think we should move forward, please contact me.  My email address is my first initial and last name at gmail dot com.