Southwest Baptist University in Missouri has dropped its efforts to amend a governance document to name the Missouri Baptist Convention the sole corporate member of the university, a move meant to shore up the convention’s control over the institution.
The withdrawn amendments to the university’s articles of agreement also sought to impose new, narrower requirements for faculty and administrators to meet in order to comply with the institution’s statement of faith, saying that Southwest Baptist “employs faculty and administrators who affirm, teach, and live in a manner consistent with and not contrary to” the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, and outlining additional faith requirements for professors of philosophy, theology and ministry.
Individuals affiliated with the university filed two separate petitions in Polk County Court seeking to block the proposed changes to the articles of agreement, arguing that the changes threatened SBU’s accreditation by compromising academic freedom and the autonomy of the governing board and asserting that the changes constituted a “takeover” of SBU by the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Faculty and alumni have raised alarms about steps the convention has taken to impose trustees of its liking and tighten theological control over the institution. Several faculty members reported being denied tenure or promotion last year over questions about their alignment with the university’s faith expectations, and a tenured philosophy professor viewed as being out of step with MBC doctrine saw his position eliminated.
Amid these concerns, SBU’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, visited the institution for a special off-cycle review in May.
Eddie Bumpers, chair of SBU’s board, said in an email Friday that the decision not to proceed with amending the articles “gives us the opportunity to ensure that the Articles and the adoption process are in alignment with Higher Learning Commission policies.”
“This move does not change SBU’s mission as a conservative Christian institution,” Bumpers said. “We continue to communicate with the Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Board throughout this process, and we are thankful for their support.”
Russell Jackson, an attorney for Donald R. Jump, an alumnus and former trustee who filed a petition to block the changes to the governance document, said that “although this was technically a voluntary dismissal, there was nothing truly voluntary about it. The Missouri Baptist Convention has driven SBU’s reputation into the ground, and to avoid killing the golden goose it had captured, it was forced to loosen the grip on its neck.”
Jackson added, “By dropping its bid to approve governing documents that made the MBC the ‘sole member’ of SBU, the MBC has tacitly conceded that this corporate form of complete control by the denomination is fundamentally inconsistent with Higher Learning Commission’s accreditation criteria for a university, which requires a board to maintain its independence.”