Baptist Higher Ed Fallout

In the previous blogging about Baylor’s conference on the future of Baptist Higher Education, I mentioned one flare-up with Bill Leonard from Wake Forest in which he demanded an apology in the middle of his presentation. Turns out there’s more to the story and that he engaged in further argumentation of the point in another session later. Here’s the item from ABP, which is some sort of Baptist Press. I’m not familiar enough with the versions to tell which branch of the Baptist world it represents.

Right to dissent may be key mark of Baptist colleges, Leonard suggests
Date: 04/21/2005

By Ken Camp WACO, Texas (ABP) —

The right to dissent — even about what makes a school religious — should be a key distinctive of Baptist higher education,suggested church historian and seminary dean Bill Leonard.

Addressing a national conference on the future of Baptist higher education,Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the conference’s program planners were “rude” in the way they characterized Wake Forest.”

Baptists began as a community of dissent,” Leonard said during his presentation on how Baptist education functions within a context ofconflict. Early Baptist dissent was grounded in freedom of conscience and a commitment to uncoerced faith, he stressed.

“I would suggest that one Baptist way-no doubt there are many-for responding to the changing nature of campus life would be a reassertion of those early Baptist ideals of dissent, conscience and believers’ church,” he said.

“That is, Baptists should be at the forefront of the quest for ‘voice’ on college and university campus – not as a tepid, grudging response to nebulous political correctness, but because voice is endemic to the natureof Baptist identity, perhaps even its most profound distinctive.”

At that point, Leonard departed from his prepared manuscript and said he intended to exercise his own Baptist right to dissent and voice disapproval of what he considered an unfair characterization of his school. He cited a statement in the conference’s program about the loss of religious identity at many Christian colleges and universities.

“Secularization has been so powerful that these once-Christian institutions now speak of themselves only as having a religious heritage, the substance of which is reflected in vague language about values in their institutional mission statements,” the printed program read. “Although these reach backinto Baptist history, with prominent examples being Brown University and theUniversity of Chicago, in the last quarter century, the light has been extinguished in a growing number of venerable Baptist institutions in theSouth. The University of Richmond, Wake Forest University, Stetson University, Furman University and Meredith College serve as examples.”

Leonard characterized the language as “incorrect, inhospitable and downright rude.” “If the light has gone out at Wake Forest University, then why invite me?”he asked. “If a public apology is not given, I will pack my bags and go homeright now, and I’ll return to Wake Forest where we are trying to keep thelight burning.”

Don Schmeltekopf, provost emeritus at conference host Baylor University,immediately stood and asked Leonard to accept his apology for any offense.

Schmeltekopf explained in an interview the language in the program was derived from a book by James Burtchaell, “The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches.” Burtchaell devoted a chapter in the book to Wake Forest University, he noted.

Later in the conference, the issue re-emerged during a presentation by Larry Lyon, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school at BaylorUniversity. Lyon presented a quantitative study in which he refuted the notion that national universities with religious roots must become secularized to achieve a strong academic reputation.

In his analysis, Lyon distinguished religious from non-religious universities on the basis of church affiliation, explicit religious language in the schools’ mission statements, and required religion courses in theschools’ core curriculum.

Analyzing how U.S. News & World Report ranks schools and how successful schools are at recruiting top students and faculty, Lyon concluded universities do not necessarily have to choose between religious commitment and a strong academic reputation.

One subheading in his academic paper-distributed to all of the seminar participants- raised the question, “Will Baylor go the way of Wake Forest?”

At the conclusion of Lyon’s presentation, Leonard again spoke against a”regrettable generalization” about his school, saying he felt some at the conference had unfairly cast Wake Forest as a “straw-man institution” they could knock down.

As evidence of Wake Forest’s commitment to religion, Leonard cited the selection of Nathan Hatch – an evangelical Presbyterian who was provost atNotre Dame University – as president, a $2 million Lilly Foundation grant on the theological exploration of vocation, and investment in the university’s divinity school. Leonard called for “dialogue in which we don’t characterize each other.”

Lyon responded that his study was a quantitative analysis that did not factor in the kind of qualitative measures Leonard noted, and he felt the criteria used-religious references in mission statements and religion in the core curriculum-were clear measures for analysis.

Lyon also noted Wake Forest holds the “tier one” academic status to whichother schools, such as Baylor, aspire, and he said he did not feel his paper presented Wake Forest in negative light.

In an interview, Schmeltkopf said he shared Leonard’s view that Hatch’s selection as Wake Forest’s president bodes well for Christian identity at the university, and he hoped it might signal a time when Baylor and otherBaptist schools could work more closely in “common cause” with Wake Forest.

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5 thoughts on “Baptist Higher Ed Fallout

  1. Hunter, my own perspective on what makes a church body distinctive is its doctrinal perspective on the nature of God and man, innate sinfulness, the sacraments, forgiveness and redemption, the reasons for doing good works, and the like. These, I think, then determine what kind of organization the church will have. Hence, to me, matters such as a tradition of dissent would seem to occupy a secondary position as indicators af an organization’s religious fervor. What doctrines are adhered to, and with what strength, would seem to me a better indicator. That appears to be what the survey was trying to discern.—STK

  2. On another note, one can easily see why a representative from a university criticized in a publication distributed at a conference to which he was invited would feel rather perturbed or saddened by such criticism. Perhaps it was not the best of manners on the part of the organizers to handle things in that way. However, he surely knew exactly where his university fit in as regards current Baptist thinking, regardless of whether he considers it right or wrong, and should be prepared to argue his points without taking offense at what, after all, was a serious argument intended to create a discussion of the value of the various approaches to Baptist higher education being taken today.—STK

  3. I agree with Hunter Baker that Wake Forest is not very much Baptist anymore. But isn’t it interesting that someone like Bill Leonard, when confronted by the new movement within Baptist circles to transform higher education in a Christian key, feels the need to defend the Christian and Baptist character of Wake Forest? It makes me think that the people behind the new movement should keep the pressure on instead of apologizing.

  4. Mr. Leonard’s position, if accurately described, is that the lamp is burning brightly on the stand at Wake Forest. He asserts that light is shining and we must infer that he believes the critics are blind. Gee, is he unfairly
    “characterizing” the critics? Is it not hypocritical for one who believes in “dissent” to threaten to walk out when criticized? Mr. Leonard must accept the burden of persuading his audience instead of merely asserting that he and others at Wake have been offended. Theoretically, professors are good communicators. I suggest that Mr. Leonard start using those skills.

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