Dr. Debbie Walker joined the psychology faculty of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, during the final years of my undergraduate studies. She joined in 2015, and I graduated with a B.A. in psychology and Christian studies in 2017. So, we only knew each other for a relatively brief time. But this brief period was remarkably fruitful, both for me personally and for the university at large.
Though I never had a class with Dr. Walker, I did see her for counseling on a few occasions and, more importantly, collaborated with her in organizing some extracurricular events related to the integration of Christian faith and mental health. One of the most significant events on which we worked together was a special chapel service in 2017 dedicated to awareness of sexual violence.
Dr. Walker asked if I wanted to offer a brief sermon during this chapel service, in which I would discuss Christians’ biblical responsibility to care and advocate for victims of sexual violence. I was more than happy to oblige, and I worked with Dr. Walker and several other students to organize the service, which also included a skit, a Q&A session, and more.
By my reckoning, the event was very successful. It was a great privilege to participate in that service, especially because the subject is very near and dear to my heart. Beyond this particular event, Dr. Walker was a mentor of mine and played an invaluable role in shaping how I minister to victims of sexual violence. Debbie Walker was and is one of the strongest allies for victims of sexual violence on campus at SBU.
Unfortunately, the recent decision of the university trustees to deny her tenure and effectively fire her threatens to undo much of the work she has done in this area. I worry that with Dr. Walker gone, SBU will become much less safe for victims of sexual violence, and graduates will be far less well-equipped to care for victims.
This shift becomes even more disturbing when one considers that at least two of the university’s trustees have been accused of covering up sexual violence. Mike Roy made the news around this time last year for allegedly having covered up sexual violence in his church in 2005. Kevin Farr has been accused of helping cover up his son Spenser Farr’s acts of child molestation in 2012-2013.
Furthermore, both of these men are local church pastors. And Farr’s son was a youth minister at a Southern Baptist church before being arrested. It is no secret that over the past few years the Southern Baptist Convention has faced a reckoning over sexual abuse. The question has been looming, and not just for the SBC: what will we do about sexual violence in our congregations and in our communities?
Southwest Baptist University faces that same question, and the recent turn of events has given me deep concern over how the university will answer. The trustees, acting against the recommendation of university administrators and faculty, chose to deny tenure to Dr. Walker and some of her colleagues. Barring a miraculous reversal, Dr. Walker will soon be removed from SBU. Yet men like Mike Roy and Kevin Farr remain trustees.
Who will stand up for victims in Dr. Walker’s absence? I know there are other professors inside and outside the Division of Behavioral Sciences who are strong allies for victims, but how do we know these professors will not also be forced out in the years to come? Even tenure was not enough to protect the Redford professors, so I have my doubts tenure will protect anyone else at the school. And even if such professors are allowed to remain at SBU, how much support can they expect from the trustees and the MBC?
Is Southwest Baptist University safe for victims of sexual violence? On one level, the answer to that question can only ever be “no” while we live in this fallen world. We cannot fully eliminate the risk of sexual violence so long as the powers of sin and death remain. But we can mitigate the risks of sexual violence. During Dr. Walker’s time at SBU, the university took many steps in the right direction. But by removing her, the university is bounding in the wrong direction.
I urge the Missouri Baptist Convention, the trustees, and the university to change course. If SBU remains on its current trajectory, it will become an increasingly unsafe environment and the risk of sexual violence will only increase.
Joshua Sharp is a psychiatric nursing assistant in Waco, Texas. He graduated from Southwest Baptist University with a degree in psychology and Christian studies in 2017. He also holds a Master of Divinity from Truett Theological Seminary, and has several years of experience in preaching and Bible teaching.