published Monday, September 17th, 2012

Tennessee Temple carries on despite steady decline in enrollment

Aron Walker, left, and Ace Stafford talk in front of the Lee Roberson Center after class at Tennessee Temple University early Wednesday afternoon.
Aron Walker, left, and Ace Stafford talk in front of the Lee Roberson Center after class at Tennessee Temple University early Wednesday afternoon.
Photo by Dan Henry.
  • photo
    Amanda Stanton, left, asks a classmate a question during an American Sign Language class at Tennessee Temple University early Wednesday afternoon.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

A SLOW DECLINE

News reports of the day show that Tennessee Temple had more than 5,000 students in the 1970s. Then began a slow but precipitous decline.

YEAR - ENROLLMENT

1980 - 3,527

1981 - 3,145

1982 - 2,996

1983 - 2,711

1984 - 2,358

1985 - 1,888

1986 - 1,593

2012 - 300*

*On campus, 885 counting online students

Sources: Newspaper reports, American Association of Bible Colleges, Tennessee Temple

For nearly 35 years, this university tucked inside the struggling Highland Park neighborhood knew exactly what it was.

Tennessee Temple — first a Bible school, then a swelling college and seminary -- was the child of the largest Baptist church in the country and the flagship of the staunchly conservative Independent Baptist movement.

At Temple's peak in the 1970s, more than 5,000 young men and women intent on winning souls crowded the 55-acre campus.

Outsiders saw the campus as a strange place, where people still were buttoned up and strict rules set them apart from a growing youth culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

But it was that separatism that drew the believers.

Lee Roberson, the founder of the school and renowned evangelist, called Temple "distinctively Christian," an idea given to him in a vision. While the world was changing, while even Southern Baptist seminaries were softening, the school would be a place where God's rules didn't waver.

So Temple kept watch over its students. Professors and dorm mothers made sure the men wore their ties and the girls wore their skirts. They checked for heads in chapel, prayer meetings and evangelism outings. They told students to stay away from the movies, to keep their ears from rock music -- the devil drums -- and to keep their hands and lips to themselves.

"We called it 'living the list,'" said Dell Hamilton, who was a Temple student in the 1970s and later was a trustee for 13 years.

But those deeply rooted in the school's past know that Tennessee Temple is only that in name now.

•••

In the 27 years since Roberson retired from running the school -- some say he left, others say he was pushed out -- the line between Temple and the outside world has thinned.

Today, there are only 300 students on campus, and fewer of them are drawn by the school's conservative heritage. Some don't even know who Roberson was.

"I've seen people kiss, right in front of the lobby," said Kiara Govan, an 18-year-old freshman recruited from Houston to play volleyball at Temple.

There are still rules. No guys in girls dorms. No alcohol. No tobacco. No lip rings. No cursing. No basketball shorts in class. No tight clothing. But the school doesn't emphasize perfection.

As Govan waited for lunch, her denim shirt was tied up to show a little of her stomach, her black leggings skin tight.

"We are rebels," said Shatoya Medford, a 20-year-old volleyball player who wore a lip stud and sweat pants.

All they know about Temple is that they like the athletics. They received scholarship money to come, they said.

They find less to like elsewhere. Some of the buildings are unusable. The dorms don't have elevators, and the pair live on the fourth floor. At times, the campus feels empty.

They are Christians, they said, but the residential assistants and the professors talk a lot about God.

"Everything is ... I mean ... It's good to be all about God, but some things are forced down your throat," Medford said. "It scares some people."

•••

Some say the school's numbers collapsed because of softening rules.

Newspaper reports of the day documented when a baby was found dead in a freshman girl's dorm room, when the school started sponsoring Christian rock concerts, when pastors with more liberal theology were invited to speak, when the dress code relaxed.

Donors weren't forgiving. Large Independent Baptist congregations stopped sending their children.

And the alumni, the missionaries and pastors molded at the school didn't have the money to send back to support it.

Others blame the school's tumbling enrollment on poor leadership. A number of presidents have come and gone, some with controversial and short tenures.

Others blame the school's stature on the decline of the Independent Baptist movement, which in 2008 numbered just 2.5 percent of U.S. adults, according to the Pew U.S. Religion Landscape Survey.

Highland Park Baptist Church, the Independent Baptist one-time mega-church associated with Temple, has been folded back into the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists represent 6.7 percent of U.S. adults, the Pew survey showed.

Highland Park Baptist-selected trustees, who still hire and fire the Temple president, recently hired a Southern Baptist educator and pastor, Steve Echols, to lead the school and strengthen its ties with the denomination.

They hope the link will influence large Southern Baptist churches to steer their students -- and money -- to Temple.

"I'm a Southern Baptist from my toenail to the little bit of hair on my head," Echols said.

When 122-year-old Highland Park Baptist announced recently that it will move away from Temple in January and change its name to Church of the Highlands, some people wondered if that would be the death of Temple.

The church, too, has fallen hard -- from 57,000 members when Roberson left to just an average of 300 attending weekly.

Echols said he answered dozen of calls from people worried about Temple's future.

Temple isn't done, he said.

Online enrollment is growing and the student body is diversifying -- total numbers are up 17 percent from last year and 29 percent of students are minorities, said Echols. Plans call for tearing down the old dilapidated dorms and creating green-space. The school's academic accreditation is current.

Echols wants to bring students to Temple who wouldn't excel elsewhere. He said he is more focused on developing students' character than keeping score of their rule-following.

Today, "we have different views about how to manifest Christ," he said. "But we are here."

•••

When Roberson gave his final sermon at Highland Park Baptist in 1983 -- he was 73 at the time -- the church gave him a car and a double-breasted suit.

The crowd hung on every word.

"Fight for your fundamentals," he said. "Never change."

He had been the most serious and literal kind of Christian. A mirror hung in his office so his secretary could always see what he was doing, his biographer, James H. Wigton, wrote. Roberson didn't answer the critics who called him a legalistic tyrant.

There are still churches and schools where Roberson's principles live on, places where Christians can be in the world but not of it.

But other hearts did change.

Christian schools all over the country allow piercing, pants and kissing.

"I can remember the day that my wife and my daughter said, 'We are the only [women] in the church that won't wear pants," said Hamilton, who was a member at Highland Park and a trustee at Temple. "I said 'OK, let's change.'"

He went on to encourage the school to allow women to wear pants on campus.

"We were riding a fence that we couldn't ride," he said. "The overall image was changing."

Roberson died five years ago, and his children have nothing to do with the school that started in 1946. His son, John Roberson, said he was removed from the Temple board years ago when he resisted changes.

He said he'll never understand why his father left Temple when he did.

"If my father saw Temple now, it would disturb him," said Roberson, who lives in Kentucky and runs his father's memorial foundation. "But I am not going to dig up the dead. I am going to let it go."

Maybe, he said, only his father could have saved what he started.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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