SBU Community Awaits HLC, Court Decisions - Word&Way

SBU Community Awaits HLC, Court Decisions

After more than two years of controversy at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, the next decisions won’t be made in closed trustee meetings or Missouri Baptist Convention sessions. Now the faculty, students, alumni, and trustees await decision from two non-Baptist groups — the Circuit Court of Polk County and the Higher Learning Commission — that could determine the future of the school.

After MBC-appointed trustees at SBU adopted new governing documents last fall to give more legal control of the school to the MBC, a former trustee, a professor, and a student filed petitions in February and March to block the documents. A judge heard oral arguments in the case on March 5. The various parties continued to file claims and counterarguments after the hearing, but the last filing came on March 16.

Part of a Feb. 26 rally at Southwest Baptist University to support professors targeted for dismissal by SBU trustees. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Nearly two months later, there is still no ruling. This means SBU’s new governing documents have not yet actually become the legal documents for the school. But the new version is already on the school’s website, and the trustees used the new documents to deny tenure to professors and to change the contracts already required for faculty to sign to teach next year.

While the judge considers that issue, SBU’s accrediting body continues two inquiries into whether the actions by the trustees have violated key accrediting criteria. The first inquiry started after a complaint by an alum about the new governing documents and related MBC actions. After SBU responded to the issues raised, the HLC decided it warranted more investigation. The HLC scheduled a focused visit for May and changed the school’s accreditation pathway.

Due to coronavirus, the focused visit last week included virtual components. Faculty and students were invited to talk one-on-one via Zoom with an HLC peer reviewer. The HLC informed faculty and students they were particularly interested in comments about three of the HLC’s accreditation components:

  • 2.C. The governing board of the institution is autonomous to make decisions in the best interest of the institution in compliance with board policies and to ensure the institution’s integrity.
  • 2.D. The institution is committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.
  • 5.A. Through its administrative structures and collaborative processes, the institution’s leadership demonstrates that it is effective and enables the institution to fulfill its mission.

With many individuals wishing to talk, the sessions included long wait times before individuals could share their experiences related to the complaint.

While the HLC considers its response after gathering information for that investigation, it also opened a second inquiry. In March, the director of SBU’s Bachelor of Social Work program filed a complaint after trustees denied him tenure and terminated him.

While these actions are ongoing, several faculty members are leaving the school after the term ends with graduations this weekend. In addition to professors denied tenure, the trustees also eliminated the sole philosophy position (a move criticized by the American Association of University Professors). And several other faculty members are leaving due to concerns about the direction of the school and the contracts based on the new governing documents.