KANSAS CITY (ABP) — Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees will meet Feb. 10 in a special session to discuss the leadership of President Phil Roberts, Associated Baptist Press has learned.
Trustee sources said the board’s executive leadership will recommend that Roberts be terminated for financial irregularities and his treatment of faculty and staff. Other trustees supportive of Roberts countered with plans to preempt his firing by voting out the current board officers and committee chairs en masse.
Roberts declined to be interviewed for this story. Trustee Chairman Wayne Lee of Southlake, Texas, who called the special meeting a month ahead of the next scheduled board meeting at the request of executive leaders, could not be reached for comment.
Ongoing questions about Roberts’ leadership took on a more serious tone recently when the board delayed completion of the school’s annual audit in order to conduct a “forensic audit,” a more detailed inspection of financial records by an outside consultant conducted to the standards of a court of law.
Trustees critical of Roberts have questioned the accuracy of his financial reports to the board, alleged misuse of government Pell grants for students and blamed him for a budget crisis. They call Roberts a “micromanager” who intimidates or fires employees who don’t agree with him, pointing out the seminary has had 11 chief financial officers during Roberts’ 11 years as president.
Richard Baker, chair of the trustee committee that commissioned the special audit, acknowledged the special meeting concerns a personnel matter but would neither confirm nor deny that Roberts and his financial dealings are the agenda.
“Our counsel has given us the opinion that we are not supposed to talk to anyone who is not a trustee,” said Baker, a financial adviser, Midwestern graduate and former home missionary from Nixa.
Meanwhile, Roberts’ supporters forced a preliminary meeting earlier on Friday during which they will try to oust the executive team before the president’s leadership can be challenged. Seminary rules state 10 of the school’s 35 trustees can force a called meeting.
Rich Hastings, one of the trustees supportive of Roberts, was critical of the effort to oust him.
“Yes, I support Phil,” said Hastings, a retired hospital administrator from Kansas City. “I don’t see the report as negative in the sense you have stated it. But I also know that [confronting Roberts] is the purpose of the meeting.”
Gene Downing of Oklahoma City, who as trustee chairman in 2007 led an unsuccessful attempt to remove Roberts, said he will support such a recommendation again. “I hate to go on public record before the meeting but, based on the information that I have, the testimony that I’ve seen, I know Phil Roberts,” he said. “So I would support the executive committee.”
This would be at least the third time during Roberts’ presidency that the board has considered removing him. Trustees say the board has been reluctant to fire Roberts because of the stigma it would create. His predecessor, Mark Coppenger, also was terminated by the board in 1999.
The latest confrontation over Roberts is considered the most serious in part because of the audit. Because a forensic audit must meet judicial-level standards, it raises the possibility of legal ramifications for the administration and/or trustees, who both have fiduciary responsibility for the school under the law. Trustees declined to discuss those possibilities.
Downing said the charges against Roberts are “some of the same problems I saw when I was chairman” — high staff turnover, firing and mistreatment of employees, micromanaging, poor or misleading bookkeeping, and excess spending, particularly on the chapel now under construction.
Downing didn’t discuss specific allegations coming from the executive team, but he said Roberts has always had a problem misleading the trustees, particularly about finances. “That’s been going on since the day he got there,” he said. “That’s always been the case.”
He said trustees have avoided a showdown in the past by trying to counsel Roberts privately. “That’s not worked out so well.”
Greg Warner is former executive editor of Associated Baptist Press.