published Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Livesay: Bryan College is 'solid'; others demur on future of school roiled by creationism controversy

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    Bryan College president Stephen Livesay
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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When Stephen Livesay looks at Bryan College, he sees a Christ-centered campus on the move, "solid" in almost every way.

Some have a different view.

Faculty say they have no faith in Livesay, Bryan's president. Some students worry that their teachers may be pushed out. Some donors are pulling thousands of dollars. Others may be coming forward with new money. And loyalties have divided staff members, students and graduates.

But ask the administration and they will tell you that all the controversy and gnashing of teeth over a clarification in the school's stance on creationism is just a rough patch. Relationships between faculty and administrators are fine, Livesay says. The school, which has seen dwindling enrollment, has its best days ahead.

"The reality is we are solid," Livesay said after a fundraising event Thursday.

The president said students are happy on Bryan Hill. And he said he has respect for faculty members, whom he counts as colleagues and friends.

"The faculty are wonderful folks I've known for years," he said. "And I'm excited about that relationship moving forward."

Months ago, the nondenominational college came into the spotlight when its board of trustees approved a clarification to the school's long-held statement of belief. The change required all faculty and staff to affirm a more narrow view of human creation that rules out the possibility that God used evolution to create man.

Faculty, even many in the large group who agreed with the clarification, balked at the change, calling it unnecessary and rushed. Many knew that some professors would not be able to sign the statement and could lose their jobs with little notice.

Still, faculty say this was just the latest in a series of administrative missteps.

Faculty approved a 30-2 vote in February voicing no confidence in Livesay, with six abstentions. In addition to the creation flap, professors cited numerous issues with his administration, including what they called poor financial management and an authoritarian leadership style.

But those concerns were nowhere to be seen Thursday as alumni, staff members and donors met for the Opportunity Program Dinner, which raises scholarship dollars for low-income Tennessee students. Both Livesay and Col. John Haynes, chairman of the board of trustees, said news of the campus controversy has been overblown.

During his address to the graying crowd of several hundred, Livesay ticked off a list of accomplishments for the school: Students who regularly win or place in statewide music contests. Standardized test scores that routinely put students in the 90th or higher percentiles. And athletics that finish near the top of the league.

But Livesay said there is one thing that has and will always make Bryan special.

"And that is that every student has an opportunity to know Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and to learn what it means to learn and to live from a biblical worldview," he said.

Livesay said that worldview, shaped by scripture, is the college's compass.

"The word of God will always be our guide for educating our students," he said. "It will always be the lens through which we teach our students how to see the world."

And he has enjoyed support from trustees, especially Haynes, who said he talks to Livesay nearly every day.

Haynes said he has complete faith that Livesay is taking the school in the right direction. Smaller colleges have to grow, Haynes said, by adding programs like online degrees and adult graduate studies -- programs that Livesay has ushered in.

"I'm sorry, but we're not driving that," Haynes said, "but mothers and daddies are driving that."

Still, he said the board is looking into all the complaints from faculty. Trustees were on campus last week for one of their bi-annual meetings.

And while many people were upset about the change in the statement of faith, Haynes said some have celebrated it. Many thanked the board and Livesay. Haynes said the clarification came from complaints from parents who worried about what their kids were being taught at Bryan and how, particularly where creation and evolution were involved.

"I believe personally the ultimate customer of a college is the parents, even today," Haynes said. "Because they are going to have to figure out a way to pay for that education. And they have certain expectations of what that education should be."

So the change was a smart business decision in some ways, Haynes said. He said it's boosting interest in Bryan and hinted that it might even prompt new donors.

Plus, Christian colleges and even some denominations all across the country face these kinds of challenges, Haynes said.

"Why would Bryan be excluded from that battleground?" he said.

But detractors say the picture that Haynes and Livesay paint isn't realistic.

"Everything is not fine. Everything is not rosy," said Mark Trail, a 1975 graduate and a former trustee who resigned in February over the issue. "The school struggles. Whether it struggles more as a result of this, I don't know."

Trail said enrollment has suffered. As a result, finances have been tight. Budgets have been cut in recent years, and a recent accreditation report from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools cited problems with Bryan's bottom line.

Trail acknowledged that the change to the statement of belief could boost enrollment among some groups, such as fundamentalists. But some, like those wanting to pursue serious science, may be turned off.

"I think clearly Bryan is at a juncture," he said. "They've kind of drawn the line in the sand with this particular issue."

But it's not just this issue. And it's not just faculty who are growing tired of trustees and Livesay.

Diane Sirmans, a 1986 graduate, said many alums have pulled financial support of the college. She made a "significantly large, sacrificial gift," pledged over three years.

But certain administrative moves -- like what she considered the disrespectful treatment of the faculty, an apparent cover-up of a professor sex scandal and the unjust forced resignation of an alumni director -- made her rethink her investment of time and money into the school.

Even more hurtful, she said, is that Livesay assured faculty last year that not even a penny had been lost in donations following the departure of former alumni director David Tromanhauser.

She donated only about half her pledge and said she knows of several others who did the same. She said the donor of one of the school's most celebrated gifts in recent years pulled his funding because he wanted an explanation for the administration's decisions and couldn't get one.

She wants to give. Others do, too, she said. They love Bryan, she said, and want to save it from financial disaster. But they are saddened by recent events and will not give until the current administration changes.

"To me, until I see somebody different at the helm, I couldn't even consider it," she said. "And I know there are a lot of alumni that stand behind that as well."

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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