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Refusing to Sign

May 14, 2012

During his 14 years at Shorter University, Michael Wilson, a librarian, built a library collection for the college’s satellite campus in Atlanta. He shaped his post as the first full-time librarian for adult and professional students. Then he won tenure, and planned to stay at the Baptist college in Rome, Ga., until retirement.

Instead, last week, he effectively handed in his resignation.

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In October, the college announced it would require all employees to sign a “lifestyle statement” rejecting homosexuality, adultery, premarital sex, drug use and drinking in public near the Rome, Ga., college’s campus. It also requires faculty to be active members of a local church. The statement, one of several steps the university has taken to intensify its Christian identity after the Georgia Baptist Convention began asserting more control over the campus six years ago, provoked an uproar among faculty, alumni and observers.

Before the new contracts were circulated, more than 50 members of the faculty and staff who felt they could not abide by its rules, or did not feel they should have to, resigned. Wilson stayed. But when he was offered his contract for the academic year, he signed and returned it, but with one line crossed out: “I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.”

So far, the college has not responded. In refusing to sign the lifestyle statement in its entirety, writing a letter to the college’s president explaining his decision,  and speaking out about his decision on the front page of the local newspaper, Wilson, 50, has become a somewhat reluctant and bewildered spokesman for the faculty and staff members who disagree with the university’s new direction.

Wilson came to Shorter as a librarian in 1998, after working in public library systems and part-time in academic settings. It was his first full-time professional job, he said, and he was the college’s first full-time librarian for its growing population of adult and professional students on a satellite campus in Atlanta.

He was never asked about his sexuality in his job interview, or in any official capacity, he said. But he didn’t conceal it, either, and he had no qualms about working for a Baptist university; nobody seemed to care. By the time he was awarded tenure six years ago, many of his colleagues probably knew he was gay, he said.

“It was really a very nice place to work,” he said. “I could come in, I could do my job, and that’s what they valued.”

But around the same time Shorter offered tenure to Wilson, it also lost a court battle with the Georgia Baptist Convention over who would control its direction. The state convention began asserting more control over the college in 2001, selecting trustees on its own rather than from a list the college traditionally provided, and in response Shorter’s board voted to cut ties with the convention. The Baptist group sued, arguing that Shorter did not have the authority to unilaterally become independent, and successfully stopped the college from breaking off. The legal fight went all the way to the state supreme court, which ruled in the Baptist convention’s favor in 2005.

Since then, the Baptist convention has selected the college’s trustees. The college became more strict almost immediately: in 2008, Shorter joined the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a group of evangelical colleges who hire mostly only evangelical Protestants as full-time faculty members. The climate at Shorter began to change around that time, Wilson said, adding that he would like the college to hire based on qualifications and not on religious beliefs.

The first president chosen by the new board took office last year, and the lifestyle statements were introduced in October. Wilson said he knew right away he could not sign: “It’s a matter of conscience,” he said.

Since the statements were first proposed, controversy has raged. An anonymous survey in April found only 12 percent of faculty and staff plan to stay. Save Our Shorter, a group opposing the changes, has a list on its website of more than 50 faculty members who are leaving as a result of the new policies. Several departments, including science and the fine arts, have been “eviscerated,” Wilson said.

Few, if any, have spoken out as publicly on their decisions to leave, as Wilson did. Most simply resigned, he said.

In a statement, Donald Dowless, Shorter’s president, said he could not comment on Wilson or any other individual faculty members’ employment situations. “I can tell you that I and the board of Shorter University understand that some members of our faculty and staff disagree with the university’s personal lifestyle statement and therefore have chosen to resign,” he said. “While we hate to lose members of our community, we wish them well.”

For his part, Wilson is aware that his situation is less than ideal: a middle-aged academic facing a tough job market. He’s applied for several jobs at libraries at colleges and elsewhere. Leaving Shorter after 14 years is “wrenching,” he said.

“I’m a pretty quiet person,” he said. “But I perceive this as a great injustice.”

 

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