published Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Discord roils Bryan College as creation flap brings host of issues

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    Bryan College students leave chapel at the Rudd Auditorium.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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THE STORY SO FAR

Bryan College recently moved to clarify a component of its decades-old statement of belief, a set of convictions that faculty, staff and some student leaders must affirm annually. The college is named in honor of William Jennings Bryan, who helped prosecute the 1925 Scopes Trial.

For more than 80 years, the college has ascribed to the following view on origins: "that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death." The clarification, approved last month by the board of trustees, says that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms."

That change will potentially force out some faculty members, who have more nuanced views on human origins, those who have reconciled Biblical creationism with natural processes like evolution. Faculty must sign the statement as part of their annual contracts, which are due later this month.

The change has sparked student petitions, letters from alumni and dissent from faculty because many believe the more narrow stance could change Bryan's campus culture by squelching academic freedom, debate and discovery among students.

Adam and Eve were the last straw for faculty at Bryan College.

A controversial clarification to the Christian college's stance on human origins has brought to a head what professors say are years worth of disappointments in the school's leadership.

The change has roiled the entire Dayton, Tenn., campus. In just the past three weeks:

• A trustee resigned over the issue.

• Faculty passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in President Stephen Livesay.

• A tug-of-war has erupted over the school's future, prompting hundreds of students and alumni to voice their discontent with the recent change and causing faculty to stand up in unprecedented ways.

In a secret ballot Feb. 25, 30 professors voted no confidence in the president, 2 voiced confidence and 6 abstained, according to meeting minutes obtained by the Times Free Press.

Faculty Chairwoman Kathryn Saynes said the vote was not made in haste.

"It was not a quick process," said Saynes, an assistant professor of education.

Minutes from that meeting point to deeper issues than the administration's recent stance on creation. Faculty had many concerns over Livesay's leadership:

"... lack of institutional control, budget was secret, decreases in enrollment, top heavy in administration, neglect for body, poor financial management ... authoritarian leadership style -- alienated faculty, students, cabinet members. Morale on campus is at all-time low -- broken, hurting people.

"We are in danger of losing Bryan College."

Some say Livesay's leadership is threatening the school's identity, its academic integrity and its viability. And it is unclear whether the recent faculty vote is too damning for him to continue at the helm.

"I think he's clearly lost his mandate to lead," said English professor Whit Jones. "He cannot lead the college effectively with the faculty so distrustful of him and so in doubt about his abilities.

"A number of us do feel strongly that a person of integrity in his position would step down. But there has not been any indication that he will."

Livesay declined to comment for this report, but he retains the backing of the board of trustees.

On Feb. 27, two days after the faculty's vote of no confidence, the trustees approved a resolution supporting Livesay. In an online statement last week, the board said it is appreciative of his leadership and the school's progress under his tenure and "stands fully behind President Livesay."

•••

The clarification to Bryan's statement of belief, championed by Livesay and approved last month by the board of trustees, embraced a narrower stance on creation that rules out the possibility that humans evolved from other life forms.

While many members of the Bryan community still philosophically agree with the clarification, many also were outraged by what they saw as the secrecy and swiftness of the change, which stands to threaten the jobs of faculty members who disagree with the statement. They must sign the document as part of their contracts.

It's not that faculty question the president's right to make policy changes, Jones said. But when making such substantial moves like the one to clarify the college's view on human origins, Jones said faculty experts in science and the Bible should have been consulted.

And the change would have been more bearable if faculty were given more notice, so those not in agreement would have time to find other employment.

"The biggest irony to me is that Bryan College is violating scripture in its attempt to affirm the authority of scripture," Jones said. "It's demonstrating unbiblical pride, lack of love and lack of respect for the Christian body here. That kind of inconsistency or hypocrisy should never happen. The fact that it does occur is one of the reasons conservative Christianity has lost its credibility in this country."

But professors say Livesay often employs this type of unilateral move.

"These are decisions that did not have to be made at this time," said Stephen Barnett, professor of natural sciences. "This is, as I see it, the hallmark of this administration: making hasty decisions and regretting them. And if they don't regret this decision, they just aren't thinking."

Faculty say the president has repeatedly misstepped on major policy changes.

He pushed a nontraditional program called College Plus, a dual-effort program that allowed students to take many courses online before coming to campus. Faculty feared that threatened the school's academic integrity and possibly cheapened the degrees of traditional undergraduates.

And in 2012, when biblical studies professor David Morgan was arrested on charges of attempted child molestation, Livesay told students and professors that Morgan had left the college "to pursue other opportunities." Then the president drew national attention for spiking a student newspaper story exposing the arrest.

Barnett said changes to the statement of belief, particularly the process employed, forced the faculty to finally stand up.

"We knew that it would go public," he said. "We knew that it would be damaging to the president's reputation and the college. But we felt that the damage that had been done to the institution outweighed that reservation."

•••

Livesay came to Bryan in 2003 after administrative and teaching stints at Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss., and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Since starting, he has added online and graduate programs and opened satellite campuses in Chattanooga and Knoxville, according to the Bryan website. He also developed Vision 2020, a long-term plan to build facilities, expand programs and add faculty, staff and enrollment.

"Bryan College's desire is to stimulate critical thinking, educating students within the framework of a biblical world and life view," Col. John Haynes, chairman of the board of trustees, said in a statement last week. "The board of trustees is confident that under Dr. Livesay's leadership we are achieving that objective. Therefore, the board stands fully behind President Livesay."

In the statement, Livesay said his goal is to continue working alongside the faculty and staff.

"I commend our outstanding faculty for their scholarship and teaching," he said. "Their personal and professional investment in the lives of our students both inside and outside the classroom is a hallmark of a Bryan education."

•••

Former Bryan trustee Mark Trail said he affirms the school's belief that God created the Earth and mankind. But he found the clarified statement too restrictive.

"What I don't ascribe to is that we know exactly how he did it," said Trail, a 1975 graduate of Bryan.

Trail, who resigned last month over the change, said the college is under financial pressure. Enrollment is dwindling. The lackluster economy has hurt Bryan's bottom line, and federal officials put Bryan on a watch list because its net assets sank last year, he said.

There were already questions over the college's direction, and the faculty's vote just adds to the concerns.

"It is worrisome," he said. "And it's also kind of sad."

Ron Ruark, a Michigan lawyer and 1980 Bryan graduate, said he doesn't see how Livesay can remain on board.

"I think once the faculty has a vote of no confidence like they did, I'm not sure his administration can be salvaged," Ruark said.

But history is mixed on colleges and universities that have seen such votes.

"It is a fairly common measure of last resort," said Anita Levy, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors. "But it has mixed results. Because if the board supports the president, often the situation reaches an impasse."

But often, these votes lead to an eventual, if not immediate, change at the top.

"You'll often see that within about two years they're gone. Because that's the lever of change the board has the power to pull," said Matt Hartley, associate professor and chairman of the higher education division at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

Hartley, an expert on academic governance and organizational change, said the circumstances of such votes always vary.

"But it has to rise to a level where the faculty feel they have to symbolically stand up and say this cannot go on," he said. "It only has symbolic value. The vote of no confidence doesn't mean anything."

Even if the board doesn't act, trustees have gotten the message.

"If boards are doing their job well, that vote of no confidence is not lost on them," Hartley said. "They know there is a very important constituency that is very unhappy."

And both Bryan staff and students have said the faculty has been visibly demoralized in recent weeks.

A letter from the communication studies department to the board and president says that recent actions have led to the "demoralization, disillusionment and disenfranchisement" of Bryan's faculty.

The letter said the board needs "to understand the depth of dysfunction that currently exists. Too many faculty are going through the motions in a state of shock, unable to focus, unable to function. Others are actively seeking other employment. This is not conducive to positive morale among faculty or students."

But the administration's stance on creation was welcomed by some.

"I pray that current and future generations will be able to attend a school that establishes them in their faith in their hearts and minds using God's Truth," 1993 graduate Kelly Luther Stultz wrote to the president and trustees.

"I am praying that God's armor will cover you from head to foot as the fiery darts of the enemy fly," she wrote. "Thank you for your long-term, eternal perspective in this decision that has short term persecution and trial."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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