An Open Letter to SBU Faculty - Word&Way

An Open Letter to SBU Faculty

SBU campus

On February 4, Word&Way reported that SBU Trustees effectively fired three SBU professors by denying them tenure, and denied promotions to at least two more professors. On February 5, your Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking for more information.

SBU campus

Southwest Baptist University campus in Bolivar, Missouri. (SBU)

This, of course, is hardly new. Since the Missouri Baptist Convention started rejecting SBU’s nominations for new trustees three years ago and instead began packing the Board with ideologues, rogue “cram-down” trustees have taken it upon themselves to conduct inquisitions of SBU faculty. They started with the Redford Division of Christian Ministry, privately grilling tenured teachers and the acting dean about arcane doctrinal issues. And your Board of Trustees — who then still had a majority of SBU-nominated trustees — did nothing to stop it. This academic year you already are losing professors from the Redford School, some to “retirement” and some who are simply moving on.

At the MBC’s Annual Meeting last October, the then-acting Chair of SBUs’ Board of Trustees distributed a written statement describing a conspiracy between the MBC’s leadership and a former member of SBU’s religion faculty “to remove all trustees from the SBU Board and replace them with trustees they regarded as doctrinally pure and loyal to the MBC. Under this plan it was determined that the Convention president would appoint as chairman of the education entities sub-committee of the MBC Nominating Committee the pastor of the church in Bolivar where the concerned faculty member was a member and elder.” That sub-committee chairman started stacking SBU’s board for the MBC.

SBU’s then-acting Board Chair effectively conceded that the Board threw tenured faculty overboard to try to save SBU’s relationship with the MBC. As he told it, the Board instructed former SBU President Eric Turner to “take measures to move the theology program in a more conservative direction. Two [tenured] 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 current academic year.” Despite these shocking statements, this man still supported the MBC’s takeover of SBU! And then the young Turks on SBU’s Board refused to elect him Chairman. The irony!

In conjunction with that Annual Meeting, the MBC acquired SBU for free: the SBU trustees approved new governing documents that made the MBC the sole owner of SBU. At that time the MBC also imposed another slate of Trustees on SBU, sealing its control of a majority of your Board.

You knew this was happening and did nothing. True, neither the Administration nor the Board read you in on the plan to hand the keys over to the MBC. Nevertheless, you understood the gist of what was happening, and you did not act. I filed my complaint with the Higher Learning Commission — SBU’s accrediting authority — last August, warning that the Trustees were about to breach their fiduciary duty by ceding control of the school to the MBC, and pointing out the many ways that SBU already was not meeting HLC’s criteria for accreditation.

So many of you contacted me then, telling me it was great that someone was standing up to these bullies, but you ignored my pleas for you to get involved and protect yourselves. Perhaps you thought the damage would be contained to the religion school? Surprise! Now they are coming for you. First religion faculty, then philosophy, then behavioral sciences. What’s next? If you teach science and mention evolution or carbon dating, watch out. If your history or political science class discussions involve women’s rights or LGBT issues, beware.

So what are you going to do?

I know you are scared of retribution. You should be; these are vindictive snakes with a mistaken belief in their own divine right. Really, what can you do? Here are a few thoughts.

There’s more safety in numbers. If one loudmouth pops off, they will try to crush her while the community keeps silent. But as you are slowly learning, if an entire group (say, the Faculty Senate?) speaks with one voice, they cannot fire all of you. They really do need you. And they need to be able to hire more of you, so they are scared of your truth being known by job-seekers. Find your voice and practice speaking out publicly. Together.

Hit them hard. Requesting information, like you did on Friday, is weak. (Sorry. Bullies don’t respect polite requests.) Take a vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees and demand action, not just information. Demand to have a representative attend all trustee meetings. (Even the closed sessions.) Demand a recorded vote of each member of the entire Board — not just a small subset — on decisions to deny tenure or promotions.

Read. Study HLC’s accreditation criteria. Are your trustees “trained and knowledgeable so that [the Board] makes informed decisions with respect to the institution’s financial and academic policies and practices”? Has the Board preserved “its independence from undue influence on the part of … ownership interests or other external policies”? Does it delegate “day-to-day management of the institution to the institution’s administration and expect the institution’s faculty to oversee academic matters”? (The handful of trustees who effectively fired three faculty did not.) Is SBU “committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning”? Commit HLC Criterion 2 to memory and wield it as a weapon. The MBC doesn’t yet respect it — but SBU’s continued accreditation depends on it.

Rally your allies. Your students and alumni — nearly a thousand of whom signed an online petition of support within 48 hours — clearly back you, and they are the “customers” your Trustees must listen to. I’ll bet SBU’s donors back you, too, and might — if they were asked — boycott the school over your Board’s anti-academic behavior. Additionally, you have a friend in HLC, which demands fidelity to the principles inherent in liberal arts education. As a result of my complaint, HLC will conduct a site visit of SBU in early May. Demand a private meeting with HLC where you can discuss your experiences and get a candid description of the review process outside the presence of the Administration and the Trustees.

Get a lawyer. I don’t practice employment law and won’t represent you. But those of you who were denied tenure and promotions, and those tenured faculty who were given the bum’s rush: you have rights! A lawyer can tell you what they are. Perhaps SBU breached your contract. If your lawyer thinks more creatively, those individual members of the Board of Trustees who voted to hand over ownership of SBU to the MBC for free breached their fiduciary duties, which resulted in harm to you. One of the interesting facts about lawsuits is that litigants have the right to take pre-trial “discovery,” which means you can receive documents and take witnesses’ testimony to find out what really happened, and then try to make it right.

The MBC thinks the game was over last fall, but you’re really in a short period of overtime. I hope you have the guts to rally and pull off a victory. It’s not too late to get yourself in the game. Go Bearcats!

— Russell Jackson, ‘87