Narrow future for Bryan College?

Narrow future for Bryan College?

May 25th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Imagine Dayton, Tenn., without Bryan College, without its students, without its faculty and staff. The small town 38 miles north of Chattanooga would be smaller and poorer.

No one is talking about the demise of the college. Yet.

But it's not a stretch to see the Christian college become so exclusive - appeal to such a narrow group of students - that it has a difficult time remaining viable if professors and students cannot at least debate theories on subjects on which there is disagreement.

For the school to have a biblically inerrant view of, for example, Creation is fine. For a conservative professor to have a differently nuanced view than the college should be fine. But it's important to restore a manner of academic freedom that allows the theories to be debated even if the college view is unchanging.

There are already signs of growing financial austerity at Bryan. Staff members have had employer contributions to their retirement accounts suspended for May and June, a policy that an email from a school vice president said would likely continue "into the 2014-2015 fiscal year"; budgeted professor discretionary spending has been halted; and a dormitory will be closed in the fall.

What's happened over the last several months at Bryan College over a "clarification" in the school's Statement of Belief has been cast in stark contrast. It's either been much ado about nothing, according to President Stephen Livesay and Board of Trustees members, or it's the most serious breach the school has had in some time, according to a number of faculty members and students.

The February clarification specified that "we believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms."

That was a change from the Statement of Belief Bryan College trustees, administrative officers, faculty and staff annually have affirmed for decades. That clause stated man's origin was "by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death."

Professors in renewing their annual contracts were asked to sign the existing statement and the board's clarification. Some teachers resigned; others signed under protest. Two former professors are suing the school and asking for their jobs back after refusing to sign.

The two professors say the school's charter bans attempts to modify the Statement of Belief. School officials say it's not a change or an amendment, just a clarification of what the clause has always meant.

While students were on campus over the last few months, Livesay did not say what prompted the change, but he defended his actions in an email to Inside Higher Ed, a news and opinion website, declaring it was made "to maintain the historical and current theological position of the college with respect to the origin of man."

The decision, according to some reports, sparked a 30-2 vote by faculty members of no confidence for the president. Others said the no-confidence vote was partially in protest of the ramped-up amount of distance learning in which the school has invested.

With the academic year over, Livesay told the New York Times last week concerns had been building for years that some employees had perhaps moved "away from the historical and current position of the college."

Indeed, former students have acknowledged there were discussions that mentioned other forms of creation but in the context of affirming creationism. But even those kinds of discussions, which go on in most colleges and universities as students test their faith and their beliefs, apparently should not occur, according to school policy.

"Because of the culture war that is raging with Scripture and age of the Earth and so on, I think it's important for me to teach my students the same material they would hear at any state university," Dr. Brian Eisenback, who left Bryan for Milligan College, told the New York Times. "But then also, as a Christian who is teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I think it's important that they be educated on the different ways that people read relevant Scripture passages."

Livesay, though, maintained the change in wording was needed now.

"We want to remain faithful to the historical charter of the school and what we have always practiced through the years," he told the Times. "There has never been a need, up until today, to truly clarify and make explicit what has been part of the school for 84 years."

Whatever the truth is, it appears clear Livesay and Bryan's ruling officials want the school to appeal to an even more niche group of students than it did before.

The president himself is a graduate of Bob Jones University and formerly served on the faculties of Liberty University and Belhaven University. Bob Jones and Liberty University, if not all three, are considered more conservative than Bryan has traditionally been.

If that niche is where the school is headed - which seems to silence academic freedom in contradiction to a 2010 internal document for board members, which said Bryan does not set itself up as a judge on ecclesiastical matters and does not attempt to prescribe what other Christians do and that "the trustees do not legislate 'stands' for faculty or students" - it could get very lonely in Dayton.