Frustration with Bryan College leadership boiled over last week after the firing of a tenured professor, with more than 1,000 people signing since Friday a petition calling for the president to resign.
Since 2014, the campus of the small Christian liberal arts college in Dayton, Tenn., has been plagued with discord, as faculty, students and alumni have been pitted against school President Stephen Livesay.
The firing of Phillip Lestmann on July 19 sparked outrage among the college's alumni community and former faculty, as he was one of the last professors on campus known to question Livesay's leadership. More than 1,650 of the school's alumni from across the country have signed the online petition since Friday.
Lestmann and his supporters believe he was fired for privately voicing concerns about the president. The former professor, who had taught math at Bryan since 1977, said he was sending out prayer requests and updates about the college's leadership to a private group dedicated to the college.
› July 2012: A Bryan College Bible professor is arrested in a Northwest Georgia child sex sting, and school administrators tell faculty he did not return to the school “to pursue other opportunities.”
› September 2012: Administrators spike a student’s story exposing the arrest.
› January 2013: President Stephen Livesay announces major budget cuts, after lower-than-anticipated enrollment numbers.
› Spring 2013: Citing budget shortfalls, school administrators eliminate four faculty positions and reduce athletic scholarships.
› February 2014: Administrators change Bryan’s more than 80-year-old statement of belief, restricting the view the school’s professors can hold regarding the Creation.
› February 2014: Faculty passes an overwhelming vote of no confidence in President Stephen Livesay.
› May 2014: Two former professors sue the school and ask for their jobs back after refusing to sign the new statement of belief.
› May 2014: College cuts 20 staff members, more than a tenth of its full-time staff, blaming dwindling enrollment.
› July 2014: Five trustees resign.
› October 2014: Bryan settles the lawsuit with two professors.
› October 2015: Bryan’s administration changes the Faculty-Administrative Guide, restricting how faculty can meet and discuss issues.
› May 2017: Another trustee resigns citing concerns with Livesay’s actions and leadership.
Source: Times Free Press archives
"I was basically fired for having the gall to get the truth out," Lestmann said this week.
A statement from the college about the petition cited a "systemic effort to undermine the leadership at the College" that started in 2014 and included social media, misinformation and disparaging words.
Three years ago, the faculty at Bryan took an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Livesay, but he's remained at the helm and has pushed out many who disagreed with him. Eight trustees also resigned in 2014, voicing concerns about the school's direction under Livesay.
In May another trustee, Wayne Cropp, resigned, citing concerns that Livesay's actions are not transparent and are a conflict of interest.
Since Cropp's resignation, Lestmann and others have quietly discussed what they consider to be the president's unethical actions and questioned the legality of some of his decisions. A copy of an email Lestmann sent about this to the private group in early June was leaked to the college's administration, and used as a reason to fire him.
Lestmann said Monday he doesn't regret sending the email.
"It wasn't my idea to get fired, but this was the Lord's plan to initiate all of the emotional fire that has now fed into the petition and brought our alumni back in an effort to reclaim Bryan College," he said.
The administration said in a statement that Lestmann was fired for violating multiple policies including the Community Life Standards and Disparagement Policy, which outlines expected behavior at the college's employees, adding that the decision to terminate him was not made in haste or related to one action.
The termination letter says Lestmann violated a "lack of collegiality and incompatibility, gross insubordination with the standards of conduct generally expected by this particular College community, and public disparagement of the College, its policies, mission, purpose, personnel and/or doctrine."
Bryan offered Lestmann a separation agreement, including $31,610 in severance pay, if he agreed to numerous conditions, including not discussing the terms of the agreement or making any statements against the college or its employees, according to his termination letter and the separation agreement he was offered.
Lestmann did not sign the agreement, which said he and the parties mutually agreed to the termination.
"They would be asking me to sign a lie," he said, because he did not agree to the reasons for his termination.
Lestmann also said he would never sign away his ability to tell the truth and talk publicly about the school's leadership, as he wants to see the current administration replaced and the school restored.
Bob Andrews, who served in many roles at Bryan over the decades, said Tuesday that Lestmann was very well respected among his peers, and his firing shows that tenured faculty are not safe to thoughtfully question leadership.
"It should be a safe place to have dissension," Andrews said, adding that there is also no one remaining on the board holding Livesay accountable.
Andrews, along with many alumni and former faculty, say they've grown discouraged over the years that the leadership has not changed despite the tumultuous climate on campus, but they haven't given up on the school that has had such a strong impact on their lives.
"I want to be a part of the solution," Andrews said. "I want to redeem that place if at all possible."
The online petition, was planned weeks before Lestmann's firing, and protests "the continual incompetent and unbiblical leadership of the College by President Stephen Livesay and the Bryan Board of Trustees."
The petition lists examples of "poor leadership," and says Livesay needs to resign or be fired. The petition also calls on the board to repent or resign, saying that it's failed to exercise authority over the president and has "passively and blindly followed."
Bryan released a statement about the petition on Tuesday, saying it is a response to the college's decision in 2014 to change its more than 80-year-old statement of belief regarding creation. The clarification restricted the view the school's professor can hold about creation and the historicity of Adam and Eve.
The change was made because a handful of the faculty "reneged on their commitment that God created man in a moment from His very words," Bryan claims in its statement.
But organizers of the petition disagree and said the petition is not about the 2014 creation clarification, but is intended to publicly draw attention to the need for change in the college's leadership.
Pamela Davis Hollis, an alumnus and former faculty member at Bryan, who helped organize the petition, said people have tried, and failed, to address their concerns with Livesay through Biblical approaches to conflict resolution.
Organizers of the petition said they never expected to get so many signatures so quickly, and Hollis said she hopes the growing number of signatures helps bring change.
"We want Christ to be honored, so many of us are fighting for Bryan because it is a place where we were deepened in our faith," she said.
But now the community at Bryan is not thriving under Livesay's leadership, she said.
Livesay and Delana Bice, chairwoman of the board of trustees, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Several other trustees also did not respond to an email requesting comment.
But in a statement, Bryan administrators said despite an effort to undermine the leadership, it has been greatly blessed since 2014.
"The number of honors, accreditations and rankings point to the strong leadership of President Livesay," the statement reads.
The statement lists how the college has grown its online academic programs and majors, was reaccredited, and received several rankings, including: second "best online program in Tennessee" and ninth in the "60 Most Affordable Accredited Online Christian Colleges and Universities."
This story was updated July 26 at 12:50 p.m.