Word&Way Excluded from SBU Trustee Meeting - Word&Way

Word&Way Excluded from SBU Trustee Meeting

A statement from Word&Way Editor-in-Chief Brian Kaylor, a 2003 graduate of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri:

Shortly after starting at Word&Way, I received an invitation to attend an upcoming SBU Board of Trustees meeting. For each April and October trustee meeting over the four years since then, I received this invite — until this month.

During that time, I also regularly received press releases from SBU, and SBU would answer media inquiries. But that ended last fall. The press releases no longer arrive in my inbox, though I sometimes notice they are published on the website of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s publication before even appearing on SBU’s homepage. And my emails requesting comment from SBU suddenly stopped receiving responses after the October Board meeting at which Eric Turner resigned as SBU’s president during an executive session (following the open session of the trustee meeting that I attended as an invited member of the press).

Part of the open session during the Oct. 20, 2020, meeting of the Southwest Baptist University Board of Trustees. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Amid accreditation inquiries, faculty complaints about fired professors, a presidential search, court challenges to governing documents, and more, the April 20, 2021, SBU trustee meeting could be a significant one. So, when I realized I had not received my normal invite, I reached out. At first, I was told the “meeting will be closed to outside entities.” I requested clarification, since it would be highly unusual for the entire meeting to be in executive session. I was then informed the meeting will include an open session but “this Board meeting will be closed to all non-MBC entities.” When I asked if this new rule applied to all future meetings or just the April one, the staff person in charge of invitations did not offer an answer. Inquires to media relations staff and the chair of the Board of Trustees were, again, ignored.

As an independent news publication, Word&Way is not an MBC entity, but that status has not changed since I attended the October meeting as an invited member of the press. In fact, we have not been an MBC entity for 20 years — a change that occurred back when I was a student at SBU. Why would the school’s trustees or administrators now create this policy, which seems to only impact Word&Way on invite lists to recent meetings?

It is not our status, but our reporting that sparked the closing of this meeting.

For over two years, SBU has found itself embroiled in controversies over theology and control of the school. No one has covered these important issues more than Word&Way. These reports received several awards from the Associated Church Press, Baptist Communicators Association, and Religion Communicators Council. We’ve told truths that otherwise might have remained hidden. Professors, students, alumni, and even some trustees have learned from our coverage about issues impacting their school.

But some individuals in Missouri Baptist life would prefer we not report the facts. SBU trustees chosen by the MBC falsely attacked me for this reporting, as did the MBC’s executive director. Attacking an alum and donor seems like an odd trustee strategy for institutional advancement — unless the institution they serve is not SBU to which they owed their sole fiduciary responsibility under the governing documents at the time.

I care about SBU. I’m an alum. My maternal grandparents graduated from there. My wife, her parents, and many other family members are alums. My in-laws devoted their careers to SBU’s advancement. Many friendships made during my time at SBU continue two decades later. My time at the school shaped my life and ministry.

And Word&Way’s relationship with SBU goes back well before me. For 125 years, in fact. One of our founding co-editors in 1896, Robert K. Maiden, was an early graduate of Southwest Baptist as he started attending the school in its second year. Back during that time when neither institution was an MBC entity, they worked together to advance the Good News. And without the advocacy and fundraising of Maiden and Word&Way in the mid-1910s, it’s possible SBU would not even exist today after it closed, saw its campus burned, and became a pasture for cows before eventually reopening.

After Southwest Baptist shifted the trustee election process to the MBC in 1921, the school continued its cooperative relationship with the still-independent Word&Way. The two institutions continued to work together after Word&Way came under MBC governance in 1946 and after Word&Way returned to its independent press status in 2001. These ties remained through significant controversies, a global flu pandemic, wars, and rumors of war. What’s a little journalism by comparison?

Trustees or administrators may think that denying Word&Way access to a trustee meeting will prevent some information from becoming public. Though that raises questions about what they are trying to hide, it really won’t stop the truth from coming out. In the dozens of articles Word&Way published about the current SBU-MBC controversies since December 2018, only a couple sentences came from sitting in an SBU trustee meeting.

The big decisions roiling the campus generally occur behind closed doors, especially when trustees move more and more business to executive sessions or to a small group of trustees acting outside the main meetings. At the October meeting I attended, the trustees even moved the election of Board officers to executive session as a trustee said, while glancing in my direction, that it wouldn’t be right to discuss some matters in open session.

Yet, Word&Way still managed over the past two years to break numerous stories people needed to know. Closing access to trustee meetings won’t stop us from fulfilling our mission. But it might hurt SBU in truly following its mission. As people who follow the One who is the Word, the Way, and the Truth, we shouldn’t fear truth-telling journalism.

“There is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered, nothing hidden that won’t be made known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an ear in private rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3).