Conference Session Focuses On 'To Whom Are Baptist Colleges And Universities Accountable?'

  • News Photo 2834
    R. Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University.
  • News Photo 2793
    Professor Bill Underwood speaks at a conference session in the Piper Great Hall on the topic, "To Whom Are Baptist Colleges and Universities Accountable?"
April 21, 2005

by Julie Campbell Carlson

Concurrent session three, "To Whom are Baptist Colleges and Universities Accountable? Two Views," opened with some radical ideas presented by Dr. Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University, who served as one of the keynote speakers at a conference on the Future of Baptist Higher Education.

"The view being advanced [in my remarks] is that efforts to assert denominational control are myopic and that such an approach to achieving accountability is dead wrong," Godsey said. "A university is first a university. A college is first a college. Church constituencies should exercise no control over institutions of higher education, and the notion of sacrificing educational autonomy for the sake of receiving denominational approval or funding should be anathema."

Godsey believes Baptist universities and colleges are accountable to the missions they serve, to the people who teach and learn, and to the truth they pursue.

"In a Baptist institution, our special mission means that the commitment to religious freedom, so basic to the Baptist way of life, serves as the foundation for intellectual freedom which is so essential to the life of a college or university," he said.

Students and faculty are the reason colleges and universities exist and as such are more central than the disciplines taught or religious affiliations, said Godsey. A Baptist institution of higher learnining must "create an environment where teaching and learning can occur unencumbered by social, political, or religious limitations."

Finally, Godsey stated the pursuit of truth as primary to any college or university and is more likely to be achieved by including students and faculty "whose understanding of truth is radically different from our own."

"Baptist churches and Baptist institutions will be strengthened by the willingness to listen to each other without requiring control, assent or conformity," he said. "Rather, we should work together as free institutions, free to listen and free to speak. Let the preachers preach; let the teachers teach; let the students study."

Daniel Vestal, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, followed Godsey and cited the major challenges to Baptist higher education - the threat of fundamentalism, secularization, privatization, limited Baptist financial resources, courageous, competent leadership and a culture in which denominations have less influence over individuals.

For Vestal, the larger Baptist family (i.e. individuals, autonomous and independent churches, and multiple organizations, institutions, ministries, each created for benevolence, missionary or educational purposes) should form a covenant of accountability.

"It is social, spiritual and it is totally voluntary," Vestal said. "It requires mutual trust and respect between the Baptist family and the school which is a part of the family. It requires reciprocal support, collaborative and cooperative efforts toward common goals and continued good will. As in the family, each member is free to think and act independently, to form their individual identity and pursue personal goals and dreams."

According to Vestal, this kind of partnership or covenant will tackle the challenges facing Baptist higher education and the changing denominational situation. And although difficult to achieve, he said he has reason to hope because of the rich heritage Baptists have in Christian education and the fact that many believe their Christian vocation lies in higher education.

"A Baptist college or university is not to be confused with a church. But a Baptist college or university can be an ally and can partner with churches in the service of God and humanity," he said.

Dr. R. Alton Lacy, president of Missouri Baptist College, and Baylor law professor William Underwood provided responses to Godsey and Vestal's papers.

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