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A Campus in Turmoil

January 22, 2013

A conservative Baptist college in Ohio has been shaken by the resignation of its president and one of its vice presidents, the dismissal of a theology professor and reports that the Board of Trustees might soon vote to eliminate its philosophy major.

The uproar is the latest development in an ongoing, tangled doctrinal controversy at Cedarville University, an independent Baptist college with about 3,000 students. Six years ago, the college was sued when it fired two tenured professors. The faculty members claimed they were dismissed because they were too theologically conservative.

The professors’ case, supported by the American Association of University Professors, was dismissed in court as a religious matter. But now a group of students and alumni say they fear the opposite is happening at Cedarville. They see the administrators’ departures and the proposed elimination of the philosophy major, as well as the Board of Trustees’ rejection of a proposal last year to establish a separate theology major, as a sign of a new doctrinal rigidity.

"With Dr. Bill Brown and Dr. Carl Ruby both gone, Cedarville loses its two most prominent voices for a robustly evangelical institution. With the philosophy major on the chopping block, Cedarville risks losing its credibility as a self-proclaimed liberal arts university," concerned alumni and students wrote online, later continuing: "Over the past year, Cedarville University has taken several steps which seem to indicate a shift toward the more conservative/fundamentalist end of its constituency."

Even by the standards of its fellow members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an association of evangelical colleges, Cedarville is theologically and culturally conservative. Students are required to attend chapel five days a week. Every student is required to minor in the Bible. The college boasts of its belief that the Earth was created exactly as described in the Bible and says its graduates are “in the world but not of it.”

Still, in recent years, Cedarville has reiterated its beliefs that the Bible is the literal truth. The university already had a detailed, 14-point doctrinal statement. In November 2011, the trustees also issued three white papers explaining more fully the college’s reasons for believing in an omniscient God and a historical Adam and Eve and for denying Darwinian evolution.

Several months after the white papers, in August 2012, an associate theology professor was put on paid leave and later dismissed because he was “unable to concur fully with each and every position of Cedarville University's doctrinal statement,” the university and Michael Pahl, the former associate professor, said in a joint statement.

Pahl had recently published a book, The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis's Stories and Revelation's Visions, that examined those two books of the Bible in part from a historical and literary perspective. In a defense to the Board of Trustees quoted in Christianity Today, Pahl said he believed in a historical Adam and Eve, but for reasons that were theological, not based on his study of the Bible.

Pahl’s dismissal raised some eyebrows among evangelicals online, who said that parting ways with a professor who said he agreed with the college’s faith statement, but for the “wrong” reasons, was unusual. At the end of October, the college’s president, William Brown, announced to students and faculty that he would resign at the end of the academic year.

The announcement “took us by surprise,” said Mark Weinstein, the university’s executive director of public relations. But he said Brown told him he had been considering the decision for some time.

Brown, like his predecessor as president, will become Cedarville’s chancellor, an emeritus role that that allows him to maintain ties to the college and continue to speak and raise money on its behalf.

Still, some alumni and students found the timing of Brown’s announcement -- it was on Oct. 29, the same day the Christianity Today article on Pahl was published online -- suspicious. Then came another departure.

Last week, Carl Ruby, the college’s vice president for student life, resigned after more than 30 years at the college. While his resignation takes effect in June, Ruby’s last day on campus was Tuesday, students said. In the past year, Ruby has brought speakers, including some more liberal evangelicals, to campus to discuss a range of issues such as immigration and the economy.

Ruby did not respond to an e-mail Inside Higher Ed sent to his Cedarville account. Ruby and the Cedarville administration “came to a mutual understanding” to keep the reasons for his resignation private, Weinstein said.

No More Philosophy Major?

When the Cedarville Board of Trustees meets later this month, trustees will also consider a recommendation from the college’s academic council to eliminate the philosophy major. (The philosophy minor will survive.)

The recommendation is based on low student interest, Weinstein said. “We have just nine philosophy majors in all four years of study -- and we've been seeing a downward trend for the past four years, and this program is not financially viable,” he wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

But the proposed change, coupled with the recent resignations of Brown and Ruby, has drawn protests from students and alumni. Websites and blogs have sprung up to chronicle the controversy, calling for more transparency from the administration. “We believe that every organization, especially those in higher education, and most-especially those claiming the name of Christ, should be characterized by transparency,” wrote the founders of Let There Be Light, a website whose writers include the editor of the underground student newspaper.

Two petitions -- one to reinstate Ruby, and one to keep the philosophy program -- have each gained nearly 1,000 signatures. As Ruby left campus for the last time Wednesday, dozens of students lined the sidewalk outside his office, wearing red to demonstrate their support for the vice president. 

More than 50 students and alumni have written personal testimonials, with full names and photos, for a separate site devoted to the philosophy program, arguing that it must be maintained for Cedarville to have intellectual credibility. “If we take seriously the goals to think broadly and deeply, communicate effectively, and engage for Christ in this world as the Cedarville website states, we need this program at our school,” wrote Jake Miller, who said he is a junior studying mechanical engineering.

 

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