Months after trustees for Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, dropped their proposed new governing articles, updates at the Missouri Baptist Convention’s 2021 annual meeting left the ongoing issues in limbo. But MBC and SBU leaders pledged to try to again tighten convention control over the school amid the three-year controversy over power and theology.
Last year, messengers to the MBC annual meeting approved new governing articles and bylaws that MBC leaders had demanded SBU adopt. The new documents created creedal requirements for professors and administrators, named the MBC as sole corporate member, and declared that SBU trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the MBC.
But 10 months later, SBU’s trustees withdrew the new articles that needed court approval. After submitting them with the Circuit Court of Polk County in February, a Baptist layman in Bolivar filed a petition to intervene, as did a current SBU professor and a current SBU student. A judge granted intervenor status to all three on July 1.
Meanwhile, SBU’s accrediting body (the Higher Learning Commission) has been investigating the school after a complaint filed last year that raised concerns about the new governing documents. Russell Jackson, an SBU alum who filed the HLC complaint, later also served as attorney for the first person who successfully sought intervenor status.
After receiving a preliminary report from the HLC, SBU’s trustees voted on Aug. 25 to drop its proposed articles. Although a final HLC report has not yet been publicly released, the trustee action and statement suggested the proposed articles that the MBC demanded would have threatened the school’s accreditation — which is what Jackson’s complaint and the three intervenors’ filings warned.
MBC leaders still want SBU to change its articles. The MBC’s Executive Board brought a recommendation during its annual meeting Tuesday (Oct. 26) that asked messengers to authorize the “Executive Board and legal counsel to continue to work with the Southwest Baptist University Board of Trustees and Administration to navigate the complexities raised by third parties regarding SBU governing documents, academic freedom and faculty relationships.” The recommendation, which messengers approved, also announced it would “allow a reasonable time for SBU to resolve these issues in cooperation with the Executive Board and report their progress to the messengers at the earliest opportunity.”
Jackson responded to the motion by arguing “the MBC’s Executive Committee should have come clean with the messengers and confessed that the MBC cannot exert total control over SBU if it wants the school to remain an accredited university and not just a storefront Bible college.”
“I suppose I am pleased to see that the MBC leadership at least recognizes that the problem is not just the governing documents they tried to shove down SBU’s throat but also the hallmark of a real university — academic freedom — and the administration’s relationship with the faculty,” Jackson told Word&Way. “SBU has suffered a mass exodus of talented professors who refuse to remain at a school where tenure means nothing and a professor can be terminated because she goes to the ‘wrong’ church or disagrees with a trustee on a private matter of personal belief.”
“Given how badly the MBC-imposed trustees botched the last year at SBU — terminating faculty recommended for tenure without following the faculty handbook, eliminating SBU’s philosophy program and firing its brilliant tenured professor, and allowing trustees to conduct their own private inquisitions against individual professors behind closed doors — the messengers at this annual meeting should rise up and demand the trustees’ wholesale replacement, as well as the removal of John Yeats, who created this debacle from the start,” Jackson added. “Unfortunately, until the MBC gives up the notion that it has the right to micromanage academic affairs at SBU — which is a separate legal entity, not an MBC subsidiary — things will get worse before they can get better.”
New SBU President Rick Melson also addressed the subject of the governing documents during his annual meeting report. He said they “are working collaboratively with the Missouri Baptist Convention, our board, our faculty leadership, our accrediting agency and body the Higher Learning Commission” to refine the governing articles and bylaws.
Melson added that while the articles were withdrawn, the new bylaws approved by the MBC messengers last year “are in place.” He did not explain how SBU or its trustees would act in the cases when the old articles still in effect and the new bylaws contradict one another — though he did say SBU would follow the doctrinal statement adopted in the new bylaws instead of the statement in the governing articles.
During the annual meeting, messengers also approved without debate the slate of trustee candidates for SBU and other institutions. The SBU slate included a second term for Kevin Farr, whose presence on the board has drawn criticism from some advocates of survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Among the four new trustees was a layperson at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Bolivar, a church whose leaders have been at the forefront of the three-year conflict at the school across the street.
Left off the slate was former trustee Donald Jump, who filed the first intervenor petition to block SBU’s proposed articles. His nomination back on the board was overridden two years ago as the MBC’s Nominating Committee violated the rules at the time to push an alternative slate as the MBC demanded the new governing documents. Had Jump not filed his court petition in February, the trustees would not have been able to immediately drop the articles amid an HLC investigation.
In addition to the ongoing controversy, a number of faculty departures, and broader challenges to institutions of higher education, SBU also faces a decline in its student body. Melson noted during an SBU trustee meeting last week that the school’s enrollment this year is down more than 10% from fall of 2020.