A New Baptist Higher Education

Incoming president at Mercer U. says religious institutions can embrace academic freedom and still keep their values.
January 26, 2006

The last year has been a tense one for many Baptist institutions, including Mercer University. The Georgia Baptist Convention moved to sever ties to Mercer, ending a relationship that dates to the university's founding and provides millions a year in scholarship funds.

Many in the convention view Mercer as not Baptist enough. But in a strongly worded speech last week -- released by the university Wednesday -- Mercer's incoming president has set out a new model for Baptist higher education, where universities avoid becoming religious enforcers but also resist secularization.

"I think there is the potential for a different kind of Baptist university -- a potential for a model of a university that is committed to Baptist principles and committed to remaining Baptist even though it lacks any formal affiliation with any Baptist group," William D. Underwood, who has been acting president of Baylor University and will take over at Mercer this summer, said in an interview Wednesday.

In his talk, he criticized some actions taken at Baylor, and the push by some Baptist leaders to tell educators what to teach and think. He said that he believed that the model of university he was proposing not only had the potential to offer a new experience to Baptist students, but to be attractive to academics of all faiths -- people who might have previously never considered taking a job at a place like Mercer.

The Baptist convention in Georgia split with Mercer over a number of issues, among them the extent of free expression that would be allowed on the campus. Underwood said in his talk that colleges should resist having "spiritual masters to tell us what to teach, what to learn and what to believe."

"Our responsibility to use our intellects, to think for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions has important consequences for Christian higher education in Baptist universities like Mercer," Underwood said. "To be a great Baptist university, we must be a great university. To be a great university, we must be committed to the pursuit of truth."

Underwood went on to say that no Baptist leader or body should be able to tell professors what to teach. He noted that people have in the past cited the Bible to condemn Galileo and to defend slavery and segregation. Knowing this, he said, limits cannot be imposed on campus debate. "Our faculty and students must be free to discuss, advocate and debate even ideas that are controversial -- even ideas that challenge prevailing viewpoints."

As an example of how Baptist universities should not handle controversy, Underwood cited a 2004 incident at Baylor, where the then president threatened to punish the editors of the student paper for writing an article advocating gay marriage. While Underwood said he disagreed with the students' position, he said that he "disagreed even more" with the idea of punishing students for their views. By declaring some views off limits, he said, Baylor "lost a valuable opportunity to gain new insights through an intellectually rigorous examination of the issue."

In the interview, Underwood said that at Mercer, he would not object to student groups discussing human sexuality, including gay issues, and that he would not ever attempt to kick out a student or faculty member who came out. He said flatly that on issues of free expression of ideas "academic freedom is academic freedom."

In his speech, Underwood vowed to resist any attempts to bar certain ideas from Mercer and said that those who try to do so "fear defeat in the marketplace of ideas." Such bans, he said, "would bring about stagnation of our faith."

At the same time, he said that Mercer and other universities that are separating from state Baptist conventions risk secularization -- and he promised to resist that as well. He said that many religious colleges have sacrificed their heritages, and he did not think that was necessary or the right thing to do.

Rev. David W. Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s theology school, said that Underwood's talk could end up being quite significant -- if he is able to stick to those ideals. Key said that as Mercer moves away from the Baptist convention, the challenge for Mercer will be to show how an education there is different from that at a secular institution. And Key said that even if Mercer doesn't have to worry about the state convention, it will have to worry about what donors think.

"The test of this will come when there is something controversial," Key said, adding that he hoped Underwood could pull off an administration based on the ideals in his speech.

Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the American Association of University Professors, called Underwood's speech "very welcome" and said that it demonstrated the possibility of being "committed to academic freedom and to religious faith." Knight said that he thought faculty members elsewhere would take note. "When a president takes a stand for academic freedom, faculty look at the president and at the institution," he said.


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