The board of Northwest Nazarene University announced Friday that it is standing behind a decision to end the job of a theologian whom students, former students and colleagues view as a model teacher and an important thinker.
Officially the elimination of Thomas Jay Oord's job was a layoff that the university said was necessary for financial reasons. But professors and others doubt that reason, and say that universities don't generally eliminate the jobs of their best known and most loved faculty members -- especially those with tenure -- without faculty consultation and without sound evidence of financial distress. Many of Oord's supporters believe his job was eliminated because his views on evolution clash with those of some Nazarene traditionalists. And for many, his case has raised concerns about the state of academic freedom at some religious institutions.
After the uproar over the elimination of Oord's job at the end of March, the faculty voted no confidence in President David Alexander, who promised a review of the decision. That promise, followed in May by Alexander's resignation, led many of Oord's supporters to hope his job might be saved.
But in its statement, the board said it backed and would carry out the March decision, except that in an agreement with Oord, it would let him teach full-time for one year and part-time for two additional years, after which he will no longer be employed. The statement said that the board acknowledged that “the process of decision making related to the administrative action raises legitimate concerns,” and pledged to address those concerns. But the statement insisted that the decision to eliminate Oord's job was correct.
At the same time, the board statement said that trustees directed the administration to start measures that would “show clear progress" in three areas: “To study and better understand the concept of shared governance across the university,” “to explore and clarify all policies and procedures related to tenure in the context of the university,” and “to engage in a thoughtful discussion about academic freedom in a Christian university context and its implications for teaching, scholarship and publication in traditional print and digital media (including social media).”
For many of Oord's colleagues and former students, however, the bottom line was that a beloved professor was still being forced out of a job. And they point to numerous signs that the university is not in a financial crisis of the type that would justify eliminating the job of any tenured professor.
And there are signs that the board's statement will not satisfy Oord's defenders. On a Facebook page organized to back Oord, one participant wrote Friday: “It would much better if NNU's BoT just said this: ‘We are in charge. Ultimately, tenure at this institution is pure and total artifice. We will let anyone go, at any time, for any reason.’ Months of duplicitousness, however, make it very clear that saying true things is not the culture of the BoT, even if some individuals on the Board may themselves be honest and good people.”
‘Questions of Change in Our Contemporary World’
Oord late Friday issued his first public response to the events of recent months. It was more measured than some of the comments his supporters are posting to social media, but expressed his sadness at the outcome. He said that he too had hoped that the review would lead to an outcome that allowed him to continue at the university.
His numerous books and articles (sympathetically) examine the way Christians are able to embrace evolution while maintaining their faith. Oord has drawn attention to the views of many Nazarene scholars and rank-and-file believers who accept evolution, suggesting that there is much to be learned scientifically from sources other than the Bible.
In his statement Friday, Oord argued for the importance of the work he has done, and noted that he is aware that it upsets some.
“I believe the most fundamental reason for the NNU crisis, at least as it concerns me, has to do with questions of change in our contemporary world. The fundamental issue at stake is the way we ask and seek to answer the biggest and most important questions of our time,” he wrote. “In the past 15 or so years that I have been a professor at Church of the Nazarene education institutions, I have not been afraid to tackle the challenging questions of life. And I have not been afraid to do so in public or in the academy. In fact, I saw my calling to speak both to scholars and to laity in the church, a dual calling somewhat rare among academically trained theologians.”
Noting opposition to his work, Oord wrote: “Of course, even asking difficult questions can make some people nervous. Proposing new answers unfamiliar to conservatively inclined people especially alarms them. As I see it, most of my detractors and critics fear answering challenging questions in any way other than the ways they have been taught or heard in the past, answers so many today find unsatisfactory.”
His statement also addressed academic freedom.
“Christian universities have always wrestled with questions of academic freedom. I hope my situation will be used as a tool to teach Christians that the church must support its brightest scholars,” he wrote. “A well-known guide to thinking about academic freedom is an ancient phrase that says, ‘In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things, love.’ In my case, I have affirmed the essentials of the Christian faith and my denomination. I strongly suspect that my exploration of nonessential beliefs and proposal of sometimes nontraditional answers have been a major reason why I am writing this note now. I have freely explored important questions, but I have tried to [do] this in the spirit of love.”
The Oord case has drawn attention and concern not just from academic freedom purists, but from those who accept the idea that religious institutions may limit their faculty members in some ways. Ken Schenck, a professor of New Testament in the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, blogged this weekend that he has some sympathy for the board and administration at Northwest Nazarene “because having professors that are radical for their clientele is not good for a desired trajectory or potentially for business. This may seem Cro-Magnon to say, but universities do have to have students to stay open, and what parents think of a university is a significant factor in whether you have students.”
But Schenck also said that Oord is an important thinker and that it is “overwhelmingly clear to any fair-minded person that this layoff is for ideological reasons rather than NNU's economic situation.”
By eliminating Oord's job, Schenck said, Northwest Nazarene is making a choice.
“The leadership of NNU has soundly located it yesterday in the formation/vocation camp with this decision, not the research/push the bounds of truth camp. They've implicitly said, ‘Send your kids here to be formed along traditional Nazarene lines.’ They've rejected, ‘Send your kids here to be cutting-edge thinkers.’ I accept this decision as the nature of the game, even if it saddens me,” he wrote. Now, he added, some other university may gain. “I think there are students who would go to a particular graduate school just to study with him (including a lot of angry young Nazarenes right now).”
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