published Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Students have a message for Bryan College leaders: All is not well

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    Noah Lee, a freshman at Bryan College, reads messages written by other students that are posted on tables at Mercer Hall on Monday in Dayton, Tenn. All of the messages will be sent to the board of trustees at Bryan College, so they know students' opinions.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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    Robin Harrison, a junior biology major and leader in the organization of the Hear My Voice event, wears a black armband in mourning of the professors that were let go at Mercer Hall on Bryan College on Monday in Dayton, Tenn. The Hear My Voice demonstration was an event put on for the students to respectfully voice their opinions to the board of trustees at Bryan College.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

DAYTON, Tenn. — There were no picket lines. No bullhorns. No public rally.

But signs of resistance were seen all over Bryan College's campus on Monday, when students took to the hallways, cafeteria and even chapel service to voice their displeasure with the college administration.

They wrote notes to members of the board of trustees.

They signed petitions -- again.

And they took to social media to make it known that things at Bryan are not "solid," as recently described by President Stephen Livesay.

"We want to be heard as students," said Robin Harrison, a junior biology major who helped organize Monday's events.

The issues have simmered for months on campus, but the fallout is beginning to emerge, especially among students.

The last two weeks have brought issues to a head. Students were outraged at mounting faculty losses, most recently the firing of two longtime professors. That, along with Livesay's comments in a Times Free Press story downplaying the drama on Bryan Hill, were cited as the impetus for Monday's efforts by students.

At least nine of 44 full-time professors -- more than 20 percent -- won't return to Bryan in the fall. Those instructors are leaving for a variety of reasons, though several of the departures are directly linked to Livesay's leadership or the clarification issue.

Just last week two professors were informed that their contracts would not be accepted after they wrote in language rejecting the clarification and affirming the school's original statement of belief -- which the school's charter says cannot be altered "so long as it shall endure."

Aside from faculty loss, students have practical fears about the school's financial woes and waning enrollment. One dormitory will close in the fall and administrators have put a halt to all spending without prior approval because of "significant financial pressures," according to an internal administrative email. A former trustee said the school faces a budget deficit as well as sinking enrollment.

Students said they are also experiencing a loss in the things that have long made Bryan distinct -- the sense of family on campus, a community committed to serving Christ.

"Bryan College is not Bryan College anymore," said senior Nathan Johnson.

Livesay could not be reached for comment on Monday. But John Haynes, chairman of the board of trustees, said administrators have listened to students.

In the foyer of the small Christian school's administration building on Monday, students wrote notes to departing staffers, whose portraits lined a long table. Recent news stories of the controversy at Bryan hung on a big poster. Comments from Livesay that students are happy and Bryan is "solid" were highlighted.

"Is this your voice?" the poster asked.

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    Ben Rosenbaum poses with a sign reading "Hear My Voice" for a photo booth picture while Chloe Pool takes a photo to be posted on Instagram at Mercer Hall on Bryan College on Monday in Dayton, Tenn. The Hear My Voice demonstration was an event put on for the students to respectfully voice their opinions to the board of trustees at Bryan College.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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More than 170 students initialed a sheet that answered "no." One set of initials sat under the side that said "yes."

Dozens of students tied strips of black fabric to their arms to highlight the sadness on campus.

And at a morning chapel service, the last of the year, students stood up to announce their discontent and that Monday would be a day for students to speak out.

The student response came after weeks of controversy sparked by a February change to the school's long-held statement of belief that embraced a more narrow view of creation. But issues on campus, professors and students say, go much deeper.

Many are upset over the secrecy and urgency that surrounded the clarification, leaving some professors little time to find other jobs if they couldn't sign the revised statement. And many say the campus has been defined by distrust and division for weeks.

After visiting campus earlier this month, trustees said they had "heard the voices of the Bryan Community and will be taking specific steps to bring healing and move forward ..." Board members held dedicated meetings with students, many of whom had signed a petition asking for a reversal of the clarification. They met with faculty, who had cast their own vote of no-confidence in Livesay.

But many of the administration's critics say reconciliation is a long way off.

Students said they weren't trying to personally disrespect Livesay, but wanted to voice their disagreement with his leadership. They have met with him and trustees, but said they got little accomplished.

"Many times I think Dr. Livesay says very good things, but I don't see him acting," said senior Chloe Poole.

Many students said they were especially disheartened with recent comments by Livesay, who said the controversy was overblown by the media. He said students were happy and that relationships between faculty and administrators were fine.

"The reality is we are solid," Livesay told the Times Free Press after an April 10 fundraising event.

Students said that's just not true.

"There seems to be an emotional disconnect with what we're seeing and how Dr. Livesay perceives things," said student body vice president Allison Baker.

Students say tensions have been growing.

Using a special hashtag on Monday, students lit up Twitter:

"I love Bryan but this is not the same school that I came to 3 yrs ago. We are not happy and want to be represented correctly"

"We deserve to be told the truth and be heard because we pay $28,000 to come here."

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    A board containing information about the recent board of trustees decision along with posters for students to initial are posted in Mercer Hall on Bryan College on Monday, April 28, 2014, in Dayton, Tenn. The poster representing the students whose voices were not represented by the decision was full, while not a single signature was on the poster that represented students who believed their opinions were represented.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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"After emailing my concerns to a board member, I received a generic email from a different board member in response. Thanks?"

"I'm almost halfway to 40. I've got fuzz on my face, I'm a big boy. Tell me the truth."

But even those who organized Monday's campaign acknowledged that not all students were on board with their stance. Still, hundreds -- out of Bryan's total on-campus enrollment of about 700 -- collectively participated in various events Monday. Students sent 65 letters to the board, more than 80 signed one of two petitions asking for the reinstatement of professors and an estimated 200 students stood up in chapel.

By Monday evening, more than 170 handprints were imprinted on white sheets as a display of the student voice. The sheets, along with the petitions, notes and posters, will all be forwarded to trustees, organizers said.

Haynes said trustees responded to an earlier student petition. He maintains that the clarification to the school's statement of belief was not a substantive change and that Bryan's current flare-up isn't unusual for Christian colleges.

"If you do some research, you'll find this type of thing is going on all across the country," he said.

Students say they need the administration to budge -- to apologize, to recognize that things are not well. It may take a change in leadership. But they have not ruled out reconciliation.

"I think it at the very least means a change in leadership attitude," said senior Joanna Hill.

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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