The Missouri Baptist Convention’s attempted hostile takeover of Southwest Baptist University has failed, but it has inflicted severe damage on a treasured university. SBU’s accreditation is in jeopardy, its reputation for academic freedom is tarnished such that it is having trouble replacing the record number of faculty who have departed, and the remaining faculty still live in fear of being fired for attending the “wrong” church or holding a private religious belief that a trustee disagrees with. The MBC’s shadow still looms large.
SBU did the right thing Friday (Aug. 27) by dismissing its suit for court approval of documents that gave complete control of the university’s assets, educational program, and faculty to the MBC.
But it must not stop there. The faculty, staff, and students need healing from a year in which MBC-imposed trustees conducted their own Inquisition, terminating all who disagreed with them. Philosophy. Social Work. Director of its Honors Program, to name a few.
To earn its employees’ trust and to restore its reputation, SBU must rewrite its governing documents and its faculty handbook to ensure that it once again becomes a true institution of higher learning with an independent board of trustees — a real university where faculty and students are encouraged to debate and explore ideas free of the fear of recrimination by the administration, the trustees, or the denomination. The faculty need procedural protections from a repeat of recent violations of basic academic freedoms.
The MBC, too, should publicly acknowledge the value of having Southwest Baptist University as a true university that upholds the academic freedom of its faculty and students, with an independent board of trustees that holds fiduciary duties exclusively to SBU.
SBU has a long, cherished cooperative relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention, and it will continue to do so. Hopefully the MBC has learned that such a relationship with an institution of higher learning cannot exist through autocratic denominational control or a “sole corporate member” structure. That’s not only anti-academic, it’s not Baptist. Stripping the school of its rights to operate independently, set its own policies, and hire and promote its own faculty destroys the very thing that makes it invaluable — its character as an institution of higher learning that provides a Christian environment in which scholars may freely and independently question, test ideas, and learn.
SBU’s (and the MBC’s) job is not done until it restores what has been broken. The MBC owes SBU at least that much.
Russell Jackson, a 1987 graduate of Southwest Baptist University, is an attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. He filed a complaint about MBC actions at SBU that sparked an inquiry by SBU’s accreditation body, and he served as the attorney for an intervenor in the recent Polk County case involving SBU’s governing documents.