published Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Bryan College president is certain creationism stand was essential

The Rudd Auditorium at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., is lit by late-afternoon sun in this file photo. Bryan President Stephen Livesay says he went to many sources, including the will of college namesake William Jennings Bryan, to arrive at a statement of belief that has caused controversy among the faculty and students.
The Rudd Auditorium at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., is lit by late-afternoon sun in this file photo. Bryan President Stephen Livesay says he went to many sources, including the will of college namesake William Jennings Bryan, to arrive at a statement of belief that has caused controversy among the faculty and students.
  • photo
    Bryan College president Stephen Livesay introduces speaker Scott Rasmussen at an event earlier this year.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

He went back to Bryan College's founding documents, even the last will and testament of William Jennings Bryan.

And President Stephen Livesay says there's no question in his mind that the nondenominational college has always stood firm in its belief in biblical creationism.

In court testimony this week, Livesay said the stand he took on creation four months ago was a necessity for a Christian college like Bryan. Ensuring the school stays grounded in Genesis was his utmost responsibility. And he couldn't let the issue slide. He saw no other choice.

"Otherwise, frankly, there's no reason to have a college such as ours unless you hold to those beliefs," he said.

What played out in nearly six hours of testimony Tuesday in a related case was an intimate look into the controversy that's been brewing on campus since the president and trustees in February announced a clarification to the college's long-held statement of belief that bars the possibility that evolution played a role in human creation.

Livesay maintained that the clarification explained the school's belief statement, but did not alter it.

But professors Steve DeGeorge and Stephen Barnett -- whose contracts were rejected after they renounced the new language in writing -- argued it was a substantial change. A change that forced out veteran professors who were previously allowed to hold a variety of views on human origins. And a change that they argue isn't allowed under the school's charter.

DeGeorge and Barnett are suing to get their jobs back. They and Livesay testified Tuesday in a hearing to determine whether the college will be allowed to hire replacements as the case proceeds.

But other -- and arguably bigger -- problems are festering on the Dayton campus. The clarification garnered national headlines and brought a host of issues to the surface. Faculty voted no confidence in Livesay. Some donors withheld money. Some employees fled. And students penned petitions and protested the administration.

Since the creation flap erupted in February, the school has instituted budget cuts, including significant layoffs.

In a recent campus-wide email, Livesay did announce some good news, including a projection that Bryan would end its last fiscal year in the black, thanks in part to receiving $104,000 in last-minute donations. He said members of the board of trustees donated money and that scholarship donations reached record levels.

Plus, he said the administration is working to find healing. He said the trustees delivered a conciliatory message at this spring's graduation ceremony. And he said the college has scheduled a Christian mediation program to help seek reconciliation with faculty leaders.

But in court this week, there was only deadlock, as both the plaintiffs and the defendant argued they are defending Bryan's legacy.

DeGeorge testified he hasn't defected from the original belief statement, which the school's charter says cannot be altered "so long as it shall endure."

"It would have been easier for me to go along to get along," he said. "This is very painful for me to be involved in this process. But it's because the statement of belief and the clarity and the lack of ambiguity in that statement that I have made this stand."

Because they invested in teaching undergraduates at Bryan, the professors said their lack of research, grant writing and published writing hurts their ability to get other employment. Barnett is 62 and DeGeorge is 63.

"I have nothing to offer [other employers]" said Barnett, who has taught at Bryan for 31 years.

Livesay said the school can't afford to hold off hiring replacements. The trial is set for May 2015 and relying on adjuncts in the meantime instead of hiring full-time replacements could hurt Bryan's ongoing accreditation process. Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton will rule soon on whether the college can hire replacements.

Livesay said the school shouldn't employ faculty members who don't agree with the clarification to the school's statement of belief. Fundamentally, Livesay said, he and the trustees are working to protect the school's identity by embracing its roots in creation.

"If the board had changed the statement of belief," he said, "I would be the first one in line to say, 'I'm gone.'"

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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