Alumni and faculty members of Bryan College were planning to launch a petition late last week that would draw attention to what they believe is a leadership crisis at the college, a small Christian institution in Tennessee.
As they were getting ready to launch the petition, they received word that Phillip Lestmann, a tenured professor of mathematics who has taught at Bryan for 40 years, had been fired. The professor was criticized by the administration for having helped organize an "opposition group" -- and that charge has many saying that disagreeing with the administration has become a firing offense, making academic freedom impossible.
That dismissal appears to have added to the push for change at Bryan, with the petition quickly gathering support among alumni.
Bryan's name honors William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the 1925 trial of John Scopes, a public school teacher accused of teaching evolution. The trial took place near campus, and while Bryan's anti-evolution stance fell from favor elsewhere, it has never fallen with leaders of the college.
Tensions have been growing at Bryan since 2014, when the college issued a "clarification" to the college’s statement of faith, which all faculty members must endorse, asserting the historicity of Adam and Eve. While the college has long had a statement of faith stressing belief in the Bible and various core values, the detail about Adam and Eve struck many faculty members and alumni as going too far, and as a move that would limit the ability of some professors to stay (some indeed left).
In discussions among faculty members at the time, Lestmann prepared widely quoted talking points that did not take issue with the Bible but said that the new statement of faith was "pretending that a very complex issue is really very simple and straightforward" and "possibly putting the college into too small a scientific or theological box."
Since the new statement of faith was adopted, the faculty has voted no confidence in President Stephen Livesay, and some trustees have left. Another trustee quit in May, charging that the board and the president have had conflicts of interest with regard to a recent land transfer to the college. Livesay declined to comment to local reporters about that resignation and did not respond to an email message from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment on the latest developments.
Organizers of the petition stress that this is not a dispute of secular versus religious values. They maintain that the college's leaders are engaged in conduct inconsistent with Christian teachings.
For example, they point to the firing of Lestmann. The college posted a note to a closed official Facebook group for those affiliated with Bryan that said Lestmann was fired because of "multiple emails" that related to "an opposition group against the college's administration." The note said that these emails violated college "community life standards," and noted that those standards allow termination of faculty members for, among other things, "lack of collegiality and compatibility" and "public disparagement of the college, its policies, mission, purpose, personnel and/or doctrine."
Lestmann could not be reached for comment.
On the petition site and on other Facebook groups, alumni are sharing stories of Lestmann as a teacher and questioning how he could be fired. On social media, faculty members elsewhere have said that Lestmann's dismissal is a dangerous development.
The petition says, "President Livesay has failed to act biblically toward believers who disagree with him. Consistent reports from a number of those who have worked at the college show that Livesay does not follow the mandates of Matthew 18:15 and Ephesians 4:13-16 to discuss his differences with other believers in a humble, loving way that could promote correction and reconciliation. Instead, he treats all disagreement with his views as evil and uses deception, threats and job termination to silence dialogue and hide dissent."