Colleges Break From Church
GEORGETOWN, Ky. (July 22) -- The request seemed simple enough to the Rev. Hershael W. York, then the president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He asked Georgetown College, a small Baptist liberal arts institution here, to consider hiring for its religion department someone who would teach a literal interpretation of the Bible.
But to William H. Crouch Jr., the president of Georgetown, it was among the last straws in a struggle that had involved issues like who could be on the board of trustees and whether the college encouraged enough freedom of inquiry to qualify for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Dr. Crouch and his trustees decided it was time to end the college?s 63-year affiliation with the religious denomination. ?From my point of view, it was about academic freedom,?? Dr. Crouch said. ?I sat for 25 years and watched my denomination become much more narrow and, in terms of education, much more interested in indoctrination.??
Georgetown is among a half-dozen colleges and universities whose ties with state Baptist conventions have been severed in the last four years, part of a broad realignment in which more than a dozen Southern Baptist universities, including Wake Forest and Furman, have ended affiliations over the last two decades. Georgetown?s parting was ultimately amicable. But many have been tense, even bitter.
In Georgia and Missouri, disputes over who controls the boards of Baptist colleges led to prolonged litigation. In Tennessee, a clash over whether Belmont University in Nashville could appoint non-Baptists to its board led the Tennessee Baptist Convention to vote in May to remove the entire board. Belmont?s trustees are still running the university, and while negotiations are continuing, the battle for control could end up in court.
?The future of Baptist higher education has rarely been more fragile,?? R. Kirby Godsey, the former president of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., said in a speech in Atlanta in June. The Georgia Baptist Convention voted last November to sever ties with Mercer.
The issues vary from state to state. But many Southern Baptist colleges and their state conventions have been battling over money, control of boards of trustees, whether the Bible must be interpreted literally, how evolution is taught, the propriety of some books for college courses and of some plays for campus performances and whether cultural and religious diversity should be encouraged.
At the root of the conflicts is the question of how much the colleges should reflect the views of their denomination. They are part of the continuing battle among Southern Baptists for control of their church?s institutions.
More than 20 years ago, theological and cultural conservatives gained control over moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination?s broadest body, representing more than 16 million worshipers. Similar shifts then occurred in many, but not all, state Baptist conventions, which have considerable independence.
The struggle has continued. Last month, the Southern Baptist Convention elected a president who promised to be ?a big-tent conservative? and defeated candidates supported by the convention?s establishment.
Southern Baptist colleges are affiliated with the state conventions, and it does not make sense to many members of the conventions to provide significant annual subsidies to Baptist colleges that they view as out of tune with conservative positions on central religious tenets, including how to interpret the Bible. ?I did feel that Georgetown was not on the same page as most Kentucky Baptists,?? said Dr. York, who was president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention last year.
But efforts to rein in what many Southern Baptists see as inappropriate departures from religious orthodoxy have looked to many professors and college administrators like efforts to limit academic freedom.
?The convention itself in its national and state organizations has moved so far to the right that previous diversity on the faculty and among the trustees is no longer possible,?? said Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest. ?More theological control of the curriculum and the faculty has been the result.??
David W. Key, director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, put it more starkly. ?The real underlying issue is that fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist form is incompatible with higher education,?? Professor Key said. ?In fundamentalism, you have all the truths. In education, you?re searching for truths.??
The state conventions do not own the colleges, but in most cases they approve trustees and provide annual subsidies. Their power over the boards has often been at the center of contention, with the stakes often involving academic direction.
?We don?t want to cut our ties,?? said R. Alton Lacey, president of Missouri Baptist University, which has been fighting the Missouri Baptist Convention in court since 2002 over who controls the university?s board. ?We just don?t want the conventions politicizing our boards.??
The Georgia Baptist Convention?s severing of ties with Mercer University followed an unsuccessful effort by the state convention, which did not have the authority to appoint the university?s trustees, to gain that power. Many Baptist leaders were also troubled by a forum at Mercer on issues affecting gay men and lesbians, Dr. Godsey, the university?s former president, said.
Officials at Georgetown had long been concerned that differences with state Baptists might become irreconcilable.
In 1987, college officials negotiated an agreement with state Baptist leaders that allowed either side to end the affiliation, with four years? notice. Both sides said that they had wanted to continue the relationship, but that the strains had recently become acute.
Georgetown asked the Kentucky Baptist Convention two years ago to allow 25 percent of the college?s trustees to be non-Baptist, but the proposal was rejected. Only about half of Georgetown?s students are Baptist, and less than half of the alumni are Baptist, Dr. Crouch, the college?s president, said.
?I realized that our fund-raising depended on getting non-Baptists on our board,?? Dr. Crouch said.
Then, a year ago, the Kentucky convention turned down a nominee for Georgetown?s board for the first time. Around the same time, Dr. York asked the college to look for a religion professor who would teach theologically conservative positions.
?You ought to have some professor on your faculty who believes Adam and Eve were the first humans, that they actually existed,?? Dr. York said.
Dr. Crouch and Georgetown?s trustees decided it was time to exercise their escape clause. The college and the convention wanted to avoid the kind of contention becoming common in neighboring states.
?I think the fear was that I was going to lead a kind of takeover,?? said Dr. York, a professor and associate dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. ?But I?m only going to fight a battle that I can win and that I want to win.??
Kentucky convention delegates voted overwhelmingly in November to approve a separation; the group agreed to phase out its $1.4 million annual contribution to Georgetown over four years, and the college became self-governing.
Dr. Crouch noted that some Baptist universities that severed ties with state conventions in the late 1980?s and early 1990?s have become essentially secular. He hopes that will not happen at Georgetown.
?We call ourselves a Christian college grounded in historic Baptist principles,?? he said.
Georgetown continues to pursue serious academic ambitions, like pursuing a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the college honor society. Only 270 colleges and universities have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, and there are rigorous standards for new ones. Among the most important requirements are freedom of inquiry and expression on campus, along with respect for religious, ethnic and racial diversity.
A Georgetown requirement that tenured professors be Christian could pose problems with the honor society. The college must also improve on a number of specific standards, including increasing the number of books in its library and reducing professors? course loads. Phi Beta Kappa considers applications over a three-year cycle, and Dr. Crouch hopes Georgetown will be ready to reapply in 2009.
?Phi Beta Kappa is the gold standard,?? said Rosemary Allen, the Georgetown provost.
Some of the few students on campus this summer said they supported Georgetown?s decision to become independent and to improve its academic standing.
We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking,
if mankind is to survive.