Still in the middle of one investigation from its accrediting body, Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, now faces a separate inquiry that emerged after trustees denied tenure to the director of the school’s social work program.
The first inquiry started after SBU alum Russell Jackson, a St. Louis attorney, filed a complaint on Aug. 21. He argued that attempts to remove religion professors and demands by the Missouri Baptist Convention for new governing documents meant “the school’s academic integrity is about to be irrevocably sacrificed by trustees who have conflicts of interest and are about to breach their fiduciary duty to the university.”
The HLC, which accredits post-secondary educational institutions in 19 mostly midwestern states, agreed three days later that Jackson’s complaint warranted their attention. So, the HLC requested a response from SBU.
Since the inquiry opened, SBU’s trustees chosen by the MBC affirmed the new governing documents. Those documents, however, have yet to go into effect since three individuals filed petitions with the Circuit Court of Polk County, arguing the new documents are unlawful and that trustees violated their fiduciary responsibility to SBU by voting for the changes. The judge in the case has yet to rule.
In December, the HLC decided to expand its inquiry with a focused visit on SBU’s campus in May. That move automatically changed SBU’s accreditation path. The HLC provides SBU’s only overall accreditation, though some individual programs have additional accreditation that could also be jeopardized by the actions of the trustees.
New HLC Complaint
With that initial HLC inquiry ongoing, the school’s trustees took the unusual move of denying tenure or promotion to multiple professors even though those faculty members had been previously approved at all other levels. One of those denied tenure and terminated is Dwayne Walker, the director of SBU’s Bachelor of Social Work program.
Walker filed a complaint with the HLC in March, arguing that the denial of his tenure violated HLC criteria. The HLC responded on March 25 that his complaint “raises potential concerns regarding the institution’s compliance with the Criteria for Accreditation or other HLC requirements.” The HLC requested a response from SBU about the claims in the complaint.
In his complaint, Walker noted that the trustees used theological statements to justify the denial, even though the governing documents adding those requirements were not adopted until after he applied for tenure based on the existing standards.
“The reason given was ‘concerns regarding my alignment with the university Statements of Faith.’ The Statements referenced were not approved when I started the tenure process and still have not been approved by a court,” Walker wrote. “A Faculty Senate Grievance Committee investigation found that the board did not follow current policies in deciding whether I should be granted tenure.”
Walker also mentioned the interview he and other applicants had to undergo this year with a few trustee members — a step not included in the Faculty Handbook tenure or promotion process. He found the questioning to violate the HLC’s accreditation criteria.
“During an interview by board members, I was not asked any questions related to the criteria for tenure currently in policy,” he wrote. “I was asked about the bylaw documents regarding marriage, sin, sexual orientation, gender, and creationism, and whether or not I thought ‘homosexuality’ was a ‘sin.’ I was denied due to my responses rather than the established criteria. The board is not acting with integrity in this matter as I should have been granted tenure and the board is in violation of Criterion in sections 2.A, 2.C., and 1.C.”
Walker noted these questions based on new confessional documents occurred even though “faculty were told these documents would only apply to professors in the Theology department.” Thus, he added, “These actions threaten academic freedom and the board is in violation of Criterion in sections 2.D and 2.E.”
He also raised concerns about a recent claim by the chair of SBU’s Board of Trustees, Eddie Bumpers, that SBU adopted “a confessional approach to education.” Walker suggested this indicated a shift in the school’s “education objective” that gives trustees “broad powers to exclude professors, rules, policy, or subject matter they feel does not align with their beliefs. The board is not open about the change in objectives and is in violation of Criterion in sections 1.A, 1.B, 2.B and 2.E.”
Trustee & Faculty Delegation Meeting
On April 7, a delegation from SBU’s Faculty Senate met with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. This meeting continued conversations during a similar Feb. 26 meeting after the tenure and promotion denials.
Since that earlier meeting, 60% of the faculty voted on March 12 for a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the Board, though that vote was later deemed unofficial due to a procedural concern. On March 26, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution saying it “remains gravely concerned” about the tenure and promotion denials and the formation of the presidential search committee without faculty, staff, or students.
After the April 7 meeting, Bumpers and Tom Sneed, the president of the Faculty Senate, released a joint statement. It does not mention the HLC investigations.
“The SBU Trustees’ Executive Committee and Faculty Senate Delegation appreciate and value each other,” the statement reads. “We have more that we agree on than we disagree.
“We are not the first Christian university to experience internal disagreements. We resolve to handle ours intentionally with open communication, prayer, patience, and love leading toward genuine unity and harmony in the mission of providing world-class education according to a biblical worldview,” the statement adds.
On April 8, SBU also released a statement announcing the trustees added four more individuals to the presidential search committee as student, staff, faculty, and administration representatives. The four join the 12 existing members comprised of 10 trustees and the president and executive director of the MBC. The previous presidential search committee in 2018 included only six trustees on the 12-member committee. The choice of vice chair for the current search committee has also sparked criticism from advocates of victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The ongoing accreditation inquiries and presidential search add to the more than two-year controversy at the school over theology and control.