SBU Drops New Governing Document Amid Court Challenge - Word&Way

SBU Drops New Governing Document Amid Court Challenge

Less than a year after approving new governing documents to give greater legal control to the Missouri Baptist Convention, the trustees at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, pulled the new articles of agreement. On Friday (Aug. 27), SBU’s attorney Daniel K. Wooten filed a notice that the school “voluntarily dismisses its Petition.” The move leaves the school’s older articles in place and ends a six-month legal conflict.

Screengrab on Aug. 27 of the page where Southwest Baptist University had previously posted its new governing documents even though they were not yet in effect.

Even though the new articles were not legally in effect, new clauses from them had been included in faculty contracts last spring and the new governing documents had been posted to SBU’s website as its “bylaws and charter.” As of Friday afternoon, however, the documents were removed and that page now brings an error message saying “page not found.”

Approved by the SBU Board on Sept. 15, 2020, amid a nearly three-year controversy as some MBC leaders sought to exert greater control over SBU, the new documents created creedal requirements for professors and administrators, named the MBC as sole corporate member, and declared SBU trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the MBC.

Messengers to the 2020 MBC annual meeting approved the new governing documents on Oct. 27. On Feb. 12, SBU filed the new articles with the Circuit Court of Polk County for official approval. However, the normally routine legal approval quickly hit a snag.

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.”

After numerous filings from the various parties, a judge ruled on July 1 in favor of the three individuals, granting them each status as intervenors. Amid new filings over discovery as the intervenors sought access to various SBU and MBC documents and communication, SBU instead dismissed its initial petition, rendering moot the rest of the filings and any potential discovery.

The move to withdraw the governing articles also comes amid an investigation by the Higher Learning Commission, the accrediting body for SBU. That inquiry started in August 2020 as SBU alum Russell Jackson filed a complaint to raise concerns about the new governing documents that were later approved by SBU and the MBC. Jackson later became the attorney for Jump, the first individual to successfully file to intervene as an effort to block the new governing documents. Both the HLC complaint and the intervenor filing cited Word&Way reports.

In May, the HLC held a focused visit to further investigate the issues in Jackson’s complaint. The next month, SBU’s trustees met and reviewed a preliminary report from the HLC Focused Visit Team that, according to a June 29 statement 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.

On Friday after the court filing, Bumpers sent a new statement to SBU faculty and staff announcing that the trustees had met in a special session on Wednesday to talk about the HLC report. In that meeting, the Board voted to pull its proposed articles.

“Not moving forward with the proceeding to amend the Articles at this time gives us the opportunity to ensure that the Articles and the adoption process are in alignment with the Higher Learning Commission policies,” Bumpers explained in the statement.

Bumpers added that the Board voted to “re-organize the Employee Policies and Personnel Committee” and to accept the vice chair’s resignation from the Board. That trustee, Kyle Lee, was censured and excluded by the Board in January 2019 for a conflict of interest involving a fired professor, then removed by the Board in October 2019. But after MBC complaints, Lee was returned to the Board in 2020 and elected as vice chair later that year. Bumpers did not say why Lee resigned, nor if it and the committee change were due to the HLC report.

SBU did not respond to a Word&Way request for comment.