Judge Grants Intervention into SBU’s Governing Documents - Word&Way

Judge Grants Intervention into SBU’s Governing Documents

A judge in Bolivar, Missouri, ruled Thursday (July 1) in favor of three individuals who filed motions to challenge new governing documents for Southwest Baptist University. The rare move further delays the school’s new articles of agreement from going into effect — articles that grant more legal control of the school to the Missouri Baptist Convention and create new creedal requirements for faculty and administrators. It could also open the door for depositions of SBU and MBC leaders.

Polk County Courthouse in Bolivar, Missouri. (William B. Roller/Creative Commons)

Donald Jump, a Baptist layman in Bolivar, filed a petition with the Circuit Court of Polk County on Feb. 22 to block the new governing documents. A current SBU professor and a current SBU student jointly filed a similar motion on March 5. The professor and student filed under pseudonyms because of their current statuses with SBU. The professor is identified in the filing as “John Doe,” and the student as “Jane Doe.”

SBU responded by claiming the disagreement was an ecclesiastical dispute, which would mean the court shouldn’t engage in it. All three individuals rejected SBU’s assertion. SBU also claimed a couple older cases would disallow the requested intervention, but the three petitioners argued those cases didn’t apply to SBU’s circumstances.

Amid a more than two-year controversy as some MBC leaders sought to exert greater control over SBU, the SBU trustees appointed by the MBC adopted new articles of agreement and bylaws that name the MBC as sole corporate member and declare SBU trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the MBC.

Judge Michael Hendrickson of the Circuit Court of Polk County heard oral arguments in the case on March 5. He issued his decision Thursday after also considering motions from the various parties filed before and after the hearing.

In the ruling, Hendrickson noted he “sustains” the requests to intervene “after review of argument and the relevant pleadings, statutes, rules, and case law.”

Hendrickson said that Jump “adequately claimed an interest relating to the transaction” and thus “the Court is persuaded by the Suggestions in Support of his Petition to Intervene.” The judge added that despite “the pleadings subsequently filed by SBU,” he found “nothing in Section 352.060 precludes his intervention.” Hendrickson also noted that filings by Jump explained why the cases SBU cited to justify the school’s position “are distinguishable” from this case.

As with Jump’s petition, Hendrickson then also granted the professor and student’s petition to intervene — and he will allow them to “proceed under pseudonym.” Noting that this intervention is allowed “for similar reasons” as Jump, the judge added that “the Court is persuaded by the interests argued by Does” since they “have sufficiently alleged standing and averred they would directly be prejudiced by the Court’s approval of the Amended Articles of Agreement” filed by SBU.

Jump had also initially filed a request for the judge to withdraw from the case, but Hendrickson initially denied that since Jump was not yet actually an approved party. Having now granted Jump status as intervenor, Hendrickson then stepped aside from the case. A new judge will be assigned.

Now that the three petitioners have been granted status as parties in the case, that could lead to depositions under oath. In fact, Jump’s initial filing in February included a motion to allow his attorney to “conduct written discovery and take depositions” of SBU and MBC leaders.

Jump’s attorney, Russell Jackson, is also an SBU alum. In August 2020, Jackson filed a complaint with SBU’s accreditation body, which sparked an ongoing inquiry into the actions of the MBC and SBU’s trustees. In May, the HLC held a focused visit to further investigate the issues in Jackson’s complaint.

SBU’s trustees last week met and reviewed a preliminary report from the HLC Focused Visit Team that, according to a statement Tuesday to SBU faculty and staff from Board Chair Eddie Bumpers, “includes recommendations that the administration and trustees have been systematically implementing and continue to work toward.” Although the HLC report hasn’t been released yet, Bumpers added that SBU’s trustees already started taking actions — apparently in response to criticism from the HLC.

“Administration and Trustees will continue working with the Faculty Senate leadership to effectively articulate expectations for faculty for hiring, tenure, and promotion. In collaboration with this group, we look forward to reviewing and discussing the recommended changes to the SBU Faculty Handbook submitted by the Faculty Senate,” Bumpers explained. “The University has joined the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) and will be utilizing their resources to develop a trustee manual and to strengthen trustee training.”

Since accreditation concerns were noted by the petitioners in their requests to intervene, the HLC findings will likely become a part of the Polk County case.