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Trying to Heal at Erskine

May 26, 2010

Faculty members and alumni of Erskine College have been carefully parsing the biography of David A. Norman, who was named last week to become the South Carolina institution's next president.

He earned a master's degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, an institution committed to Biblical inerrancy -- a fact noted by traditionalists. He earned his undergraduate degree at Auburn University and has worked in secular higher education -- a fact noted by those who fear a religious crackdown at the college. He's 34 -- which has been read by some as a sign that more experienced higher education leaders might have shied away from this presidency right now.

Both faculty leaders -- many of whom fear for their jobs -- and outside alumni critics of the college's recent direction are skipping the chance to share their views on Norman for now. (Norman will succeed Randall T. Ruble, who is retiring next month.)

In an interview, Norman said he has been interested in a career in higher education administration since he was an undergraduate, and long thought about Erskine, which is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, of which he is a member. "I am somewhat surprised that the need came before I have gray hair," Norman said. But he expressed confidence that the controversies that have engulfed the college for the last year "are not insurmountable," and said he believed that he could work with all sides.

A University of Edinburgh Ph.D., Norman has taught philosophy and religious studies at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster and is currently finishing up a job in higher education consulting at Best and Associates, in Dallas.

Norman was hired by a board that church leaders are trying to fire, and the board remains in office now only as a result of court intervention. The push by the church to gain more control over the the college has led not only to the court fight over the board, but to intense online criticism of faculty members seen by critics -- some alumni and church leaders -- as not adhering closely enough to church teaching.

The issue is further complicated by Erskine's being home to the church's seminary and by the reality that the population of the ARP (as the denomination is called) is so small that its college-age students alone couldn't fill the liberal arts college.

Facing all of this turmoil, Norman said he believes common ground can be found. "I know some very fine people on both sides of the situation, and I know their hearts, and I know that nobody intended what has happened," he said. "My goal is to take a long view."

Perhaps taking that long view, he declined to comment directly on the various allegations and counter-allegations made, but said he believes it is possible for Erskine to stay true to church teachings and to teach evolution. (Some outside critics have suggested otherwise.) "I believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and I believe that a historical Adam and Eve is a position that any high quality theologian will consider a fact, but I also recognize that most of the top biologists in the Western world would consider some form of evolution to be a fact, and I think all facts are God's facts," he said. Asked if that means he is comfortable with evolution being taught at the college, he said yes, without hesitation.

He said that Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is "a good friend and one of the people I most greatly respect on this planet," and cited with praise the way Collins has promoted a view that evangelical Christianity need not be viewed as inconsistent with evolution and science.

Norman said that he expects the seminary to teach ARP beliefs, but that he has no problem with members of other faiths studying there. "I'm a big fan of diversity," he said. (The presence of other faiths has also been a point of contention for some critics.)

Asked about several of the faculty members who have been attacked by traditionalists, Norman said he was looking forward to getting to know them. And of the various attacks on professors, he said, "I think we need to be careful about how we talk to each other."

Norman stressed that while he was concerned about the tensions around the college, he did not think those issues would block progress. "I wouldn't have taken the job if I were not convinced I could do the job without being distracted," he said.

 

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