Conflict over ‘power and theology’ ensues at Southwest Baptist University
When Dwayne Walker went up for tenure this past academic year at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, he was invited to a luncheon with members of the Board of Trustees. There, he says, trustees questioned him on new faith statements adopted last year by the university.
The trustees asked how he taught creationism in his classes. Walker, an assistant professor of social work, replied he did not teach the topic, as it was not relevant in his discipline.
What about homosexuality, the trustees asked. Is it always a sin? No, Walker told them, not necessarily. He further “suggested it may be that categorizing all ‘homosexual behavior’ as a sin is not a productive way to reach people for Christ,” as he recalls in a written statement he submitted as part of a complaint to SBU’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.
“One of the trustees stated that my answer was ambiguous,” Walker wrote in the statement. “I agreed and stated there is much ambiguity in this area in our culture right now.”
Things Walker said he was not asked about include “my tenure packet, my profession (social work) or anything else related to the service to my university.” Letters from his tenure packet that he submitted as part of his HLC complaint show that the faculty vote in favor of his tenure was unanimous (23 in favor, zero against, three abstentions), and that he was highly recommended for tenure by his dean and department chair based on his strong record of teaching, scholarship and service to his university, community and church.
The strong support from colleagues and supervisors was apparently not enough. A March 11 letter from interim SBU president Brad Johnson says that Walker was denied tenure because “concerns existed regarding the effectiveness in ‘carrying forth the mission of the university,’ … particularly in your alignment with the University Statements of Faith and University Principles and Expectations.”
Walker was floored.
“I’ve been a Southern Baptist my entire life, I’m a deacon in a Southern Baptist church, but I am no longer aligned with the faith statement of the university simply because of that one belief,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe that everyone who is gay or lesbian or non-heterosexual is living a sinful life. That apparently is enough for them not to grant me tenure.”
The denial of tenure to Walker is not an isolated story. It’s part of a much broader dispute about theological orthodoxy at SBU and alleged efforts by the Missouri Baptist Convention to bring the university under closer control.
Last year the board approved new governance documents that name the Missouri Baptist Convention as the sole corporate member of Southwest Baptist University, a member being defined under Missouri corporation law as an entity that has the right to vote for the election of a corporation's director or directors.
The changes to the governance documents — which are being challenged in court — also narrow the range of acceptable religious beliefs for professors and administrators, stipulating that the university “employs faculty and administrators who affirm, teach, and live in a manner consistent with and not contrary to” the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
Theology, ministry and philosophy faculty must separately affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says “the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God”; the Danvers Statement, which affirms distinct, divinely ordained gender roles for men and women and man’s “headship” in the family and in church; and the Nashville Statement, which holds that God designed marriage to be between a man and woman and states that “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism.”
The changes in governance documents, coupled with the promotion and tenure decisions, have raised questions about the relationship between SBU and the MBC and implications for faculty and for academic freedom.
A former trustee — and a current one — have sounded alarms about what they variously described as a "takeover" or the "packing of the SBU board" by the MBC, which provides just 2.02 percent of SBU's annual operating budget.
The Higher Learning Commission made an off-cycle, “focused visit” to SBU earlier this month to examine issues of governance at the university. As part of the visit, faculty members were asked for their input about the institution's compliance with various criteria for accreditation, including criterion 2C ("the governing board of the institution is autonomous to make decisions in the best interest of the institution in compliance with board policies and to ensure the institution’s integrity"), 2D ("the institution is committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning"), and 5A ("through its administrative structures and collaborative processes, the institution’s leadership demonstrates that it is effective and enables the institution to fulfill its mission").
The Faculty Senate at Southwest Baptist passed a resolution in March saying the body is "gravely concerned" about the process the Board of Trustees used in making promotion and tenure decisions this academic year.
Word & Way, a publication that covers Baptists in the Midwest region, reported that three faculty members, including Walker and his wife, Debbie Walker, a psychology professor, were denied tenure, and two others were denied promotion. Two of those decisions were reversed, but the tenure denials for both the Walkers stood, as did the denial of promotion to a tenured faculty member.
The tenured faculty member who was denied promotion said she was told by the president and provost that the reason related to the church she attended — even though, she said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, it was the same church she attended at the time she earned tenure. The faculty member, who asked not to be named so as not to affect future opportunities, suspects it may be because the church, which is not Baptist, is affirming of gay people.
As in the case of Walker, the official reason she was given for the decision was that concerns existed regarding her commitment to the mission of the university and alignment with its Statements of Faith and Principles and Expectations.
Eddie Bumpers, chair of the Board of Trustees, said in written responses to questions that the board "always has had and continues to have the final decision related to tenure and promotion. We have the responsibility to ensure these decisions reflect and preserve the mission and identity of the University."
Brian Kaylor, the editor in chief of Word & Way, which has covered the conflict at Southwest Baptist most closely, described developments at Southwest Baptist over the last several years as "a conflict over power and theology."
“I do think that theology is driving it, but to win the theological dispute you also have to have the governance fights,” he said. “In a simple way, you might say it’s a shift rightward theologically, but I’m not sure that really captures it, because it’s much more exclusionary. It's not just that there’s an attempt to push the theology of the school one direction or another, but also to define the parameters of what’s allowed or not allowed.”
Critics say there has been a concerted effort in recent years by the MBC to “pack” SBU’s board with trustees loyal to the MBC.
Donald Jump, an alumnus and former trustee who is challenging the revisions to the university's articles of agreement in Missouri Circuit Court, described changes in the process for electing trustees in a court document: "As a matter of historic practice, SBU had produced a slate of nominees that the MBC’s messengers voted on until the 2018 MBC Annual Meeting, when the MBC’s Nominating Committee sent its own nominees to the floor for a vote," the document alleges. "The MBC then elected its own slate of nominees in 2019 and 2020 as well."
A document authored last fall by Robert Ingold, then the acting chair of the Board of Trustees, backs up this chain of events and outlines what Ingold describes as the "packing of the SBU board."
Ingold wrote of a plan involving convention leadership “to remove all trustees from the SBU Board and replace them with trustees they regarded as doctrinally pure and loyal to the MBC.”
“SBU has now had eight new trustees added to its board under the Convention’s plan to replace all trustees — three were added in 2018, five in 2019, and now we will receive six new trustees,” Ingold wrote in the document, which was circulated during the MBC’s annual meeting last year. “The identity of these new trustees has not been revealed to SBU nor has SBU been permitted to participate in the vetting process.”
In the document, Ingold bemoaned SBU's lack of input and wrote that some of the trustees had been poorly qualified. He warned that if the MBC leadership "continues to force poorly qualified trustees" upon its affiliated colleges that they would risk losing accreditation, donors and qualified faculty members and staff.
Ingold, who is still on SBU’s board but is no longer the acting chair, declined to comment through a university spokeswoman. However, the spokeswoman shared an article Ingold subsequently wrote for a MBC publication, Pathways, in which he apologized for suggesting new trustees were spiritually unqualified and said he had shared incorrect information in the document about a former employee being terminated due to poor student reviews.
The current board chair, Bumpers, said the document about the trustee selection process was Ingold’s “own opinion and did not reflect the actual decision-making process.” Bumpers added that the document “contained multiple inaccuracies” and said Ingold “was reprimanded by the Board and withdrew the statement and issued a letter of apology on November 30, 2020.”
Bumpers disagreed with the notion that anything fundamental had changed in the trustee selection process.
“Since 1975, all of SBU's trustees have been appointed by the Missouri Baptist Convention through a nominating process facilitated by the Convention. SBU has had and continues to have input in that process,” Bumpers said in written answers to questions.
John Yeats, executive director of the MBC, also said there was not a change in the methodology for selecting trustees for SBU and other entities affiliated with the convention. But he said there was a big increase in the number of people who want to serve as trustees.
“The [MBC] nominating committee receives information from the presidents of our six entities as to the types of trustees they wish to have and the nominating committee uses that information as part of their vetting,” Yeats said in written answers to questions. “If the president wants a particular person to serve on the board, then he, like any other Missouri Baptist, encourages that person to fill out a ‘profile’ or he/she helps the potential nominee fill out the information. In the past, there were years that the only profiles received were those persons the president of an entity or the chairperson would encourage. However, since 2017 over 150 people have filled out profiles requesting to be considered for the SBU board.”
Conflict, and a Conservative Turn
Conflicts between state-level Baptist conventions and Baptist-affiliated universities are not new. If anything, Southwest Baptist is late in entering into open conflict with the state convention, according to Bill J. Leonard, professor of divinity emeritus at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he formerly held an endowed chair in Baptist studies.
Leonard describes a 40-year trend toward fundamentalism within the state conventions and the affiliated Baptist seminaries and colleges.
“All six seminaries and then the state-controlled Baptist colleges were confronted with whether they wanted to remain in their state conventions, where they were getting fewer and fewer dollars from the state conventions anyway, or whether they wanted to move out on their own,” he said. “The larger ones, from Richmond to Waco, including Wake Forest and Furman [in South Carolina] and Stetson University in Florida and Mercer University in Georgia and Samford University in Alabama, found ways, often literally in the dark of night, to change their charters in order to have a self-electing board of trustees.”
Other smaller colleges retained their affiliations.
“The tightening and the use of tenure to monitor doctrinal beliefs has happened at many of these smaller Baptist schools,” Leonard said.
One factor in the conservative religious turn that has occurred at Southwest Baptist seems to be an uproar that ensued over the 2018 firing of Clint Bass, a former theology faculty member who had reportedly been meeting with Missouri Baptist Convention leadership about what he viewed to be the theologically unorthodox beliefs of certain colleagues in SBU's Redford College of Theology and Ministry.
The dismissal seems to have rallied Missouri Baptists who feared SBU was drifting from its Baptist mission. More than 1,400 people signed an online petition calling for Bass's reinstatement.
"Dr. Bass is genuinely aligned with the doctrine of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC)," the petition states. "Unlike many of his colleagues, Dr. Bass embraces with enthusiasm the Baptist Faith & Message (BFM) 2000."
“I certainly think that if Bass had not been fired, it wouldn’t have precipitated this huge backlash,” said Rodney Reeves, the former dean of SBU's Redford College of Theology and Ministry. Reeves resigned from Southwest in 2019 to take up a position as pastor of a Baptist church in Arkansas.
“Honestly, I was kind of hoping that I would be a scapegoat for those who had raised questions about the theological integrity of Redford College, because I had become the target of those attacks because of the dismissal of Clint Bass,” Reeves said. “I was hoping if I left it would placate these people, but it didn’t. Evidently, it’s become apparent their designs were much bigger than just seeing me removed. They have designs to recreate SBU into a school it’s never been, bluntly. They want a much more narrow approach to theological education as well as education in other disciplines. I use the phrase ‘hostile takeover.’”
The document from Ingold, the former board chair, says that SBU trustees had directed the now-former president, Eric Turner, “to take measures to move the theology program in a more conservative direction.”
Ingold wrote, “Two faculty members with documented views to the left of mainstream Missouri Baptist doctrine have been removed, in one case by resignation and in another case by elimination of the philosophy department at the end of the year.”
The choice to eliminate SBU’s philosophy department — and terminate its sole tenured professor, Zach Manis — raised alarms well beyond Southwest Baptist’s campus. A letter from the American Association of University Professors about Manis’s termination cites Ingold’s statement as reason for concern that Manis may have been fired for reasons other than the financial reasons that were cited by the university.
"If this report is true, the action against Professor Manis would appear to have been taken in disregard of his academic freedom rights," the AAUP letter says.
Bumpers, the board chair, said the decision to eliminate the philosophy program was “part of a more comprehensive plan to address the sustainability of the University amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.” The plan, he said, included the elimination of seven faculty positions — six of which were eliminated by attrition — and 17 staff positions, eight of which were eliminated by attrition.
Bumpers said head count in philosophy courses declined 80 percent, from 173 students in fall 2010 to 36 students in fall 2019. In the spring of 2020, he said, only one student was majoring in philosophy.
But Manis said a newly developed, revamped philosophy major had not even been launched at the time the university announced the elimination of the philosophy program and his position. Manis said historical enrollment numbers for what was previously a religion and philosophy major were not relevant to what was a newly designed philosophy major. The new major was designed to draw students from the honors program, he said, while the former major drew from the pool of students who were studying religion and ministry.
Manis said he believes the real reason he was fired was because he “was one of the professors targeted by this group in the Missouri Baptist Convention” and by Bass.
“After Rodney Reeves left, I was at that point the most targeted professor remaining at the university,” he said. “It seems like quite a coincidence that I just happened to be the only tenured faculty position eliminated.”
‘Sole Member’ Status
Critics of the direction the institution is headed say the changes to the procedures, if not the protocols, for electing trustees and the recent changes to the governance documents have enormous consequences for the university and its accreditation.
In the court petition he filed seeking to block changes to SBU's articles of agreement, Jump, the former trustee, argues that “the new governance documents effectively take all that SBU held as a corporate entity (including property, buildings and money) and gives control of it to a wholly separate corporate entity — the Missouri Baptist Convention — for free! This was not a reorganization; it was a takeover. The MBC gave no consideration — no additional thing of value — to the University in exchange for becoming ‘the sole corporate member’ of SBU.”
A separate petition filed jointly by a professor and a student identified in court papers only as John and Jane Doe argues that approval of the new governance documents "seriously threatens SBU’s accreditation with the [Higher Learning Commission]" by, among other things, "removing the autonomy of the governing board" and "interfering with academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning."
The university argues in a responding court document that the challengers' petitions are based on a faulty premise about the existing relationship between SBU and the MBC. Southwest Baptist argues that under Missouri law the MBC is already effectively “the sole member of SBU” because it already has the right to vote for trustees.
"The amended articles submitted with SBU’s current application do nothing more than state an existing reality, the existing reality being that MBC is already the sole member of SBU," the university argues in court documents. "SBU applies a corporate definition to its long-standing practice of requiring that its trustees must be elected by the MBC."
"The language declares that MBC is the member of the corporation but has limited rights," Yeats said. "In each entity’s governing documents, those rights include the right to select trustees and the right to approve any changes in the governing documents. In 2001 there were entities that denied the MBC that right, and the MBC spent almost 17 years in litigation before the courts clarified the convention’s rights. The sole-member language dissolves any opportunity for a board to go rogue and become a self-perpetuating institution."
Yeats said that Missouri Baptists are proud of SBU.
"Many of our pastors and churches continue to send their undergraduate and graduate students there," Yeats said. "This institution is one of the most missionally engaged universities in the world. But you must understand, on the whole, Missouri Baptists are a biblically oriented people, and they want their institutions to reflect that worldview in unequivocal terms. As a result, none of our institutions can become lackadaisical about being an institution that reflects clear biblical orthodoxy and, at the same time, a university with the highest level of professional degrees."
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