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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Letter to the board of trustees of Northwest Nazarene University with regard to the firing of Tom Oord

I did not originally intend this as an open letter, but my wife urged me to publish it on the grounds that some of what I say here about issues in contemporary evangelical higher education is worth saying publicly. And I tend to trust her judgment on that sort of thing.

Background for those who don't already know: recently a tenured theology professor at Northwest Nazarene, Tom Oord, was suddenly laid off, allegedly for budgetary reasons. Since the president of the university had tried to get rid of him before, and since he was both a very prestigious and a very controversial member of the faculty, the claim that this was a purely financial decision didn't hold water. Most recently, the layoff has been put on hold while the board reviews the president's decision (though I didn't know that when I wrote the letter).

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I take the liberty of writing to you because of my deep concern about the recent removal of Tom Oord, and the broader pattern of craven, worldly pragmatism cloaked in piety that is rotting away the heart of evangelical higher education.

Unlike many of the people you are hearing from about this matter, I have no connection with NNU and no direct connection with the Church of the Nazarene. I come from a radical Holiness background (in fact my grandparents grew up in a church where "Nazarene religion" was a pejorative synonym for a compromising, watered-down version of Holiness teaching) but have been Episcopalian since 1998. 

What I have to say to you on this matter comes from my own bitter experience at another evangelical institution of higher learning, Huntington University. I taught for six years at Huntington , arriving in the wake of the firing of John Sanders in 2006. I lost my own job in 2012 for genuinely financial reasons (I was an untenured assistant professor and the generalist in the department, so unlike Oord, I was the logical person to lay off), and the questions concerning presidential leadership and the relationship between Board, faculty, and administration raised in the context of that budgetary controversy were very similar to those that you are currently considering. 

It is my belief, however, that the roots of the problems faced by HU in 2011-12 lay in the removal of John Sanders in 2005-6, and the broader pattern of poor decisions of which the firing of Sanders was the most egregious example. Institutions of higher learning in the United States are facing tough financial and strategic decisions, and more and more are compromising traditional liberal arts education in the name of pragmatism. In the case of evangelicals, however, there is a further factor at work--the intense pressure exerted on university administrations by conservative donors, alumni, pastors, and parents who object to any ideas being taught at "their" institution which violate their particular understanding of Christian orthodoxy. Those who call for the removal of "heretical" faculty are generally themselves deeply sincere Christians, and I respect their piety even when I disagree with their views and their methods. However, the pressure exerted by these sincere believers for godly (if in my opinion misguided) reasons interacts with the broader institutional culture of pragmatism in deeply toxic ways which risk destroying the intellectual and spiritual integrity of American evangelical higher education.

In the case of Sanders, intense pressure by conservative Christians hostile to Sanders' open theism and inclusivism led (allegedly) to a decline in enrollment. Since HU's growth plan was (disastrously) based almost entirely on a steady increase in enrollment, anything that hurt recruitment among evangelical youth was seen as hurting the institution. That pragmatic consideration was, as far as I could discern from speaking to the people involved, the primary reason for the removal of Sanders. As a result, all faculty at HU (including myself) worked in the knowledge that the institution had no genuine commitment either to academic freedom or to doctrinal principles. Any faculty member who awakened controversy would be seen as expendable, even if the administration had no problem with his or her theology. 

I understand that Tom Oord's theology has been examined by authorities within the Church of the Nazarene and found to be compatible with the doctrinal commitments of the denomination. If the CotN had decided otherwise, it would of course not be my place as an outsider to protest. But I do protest with all my heart against the transparent pretext that Oord has been fired for merely financial reasons. Given his stature in his field and (if I am not mistaken) his excellent teaching evaluations, the claim that he was the most expendable member of the department is simply not believable, unless his controversial status is taken into account. No coherent account of why this decision was made has emerged from the administration, as far as I'm aware.

If you allow this decision to stand, you are putting your seal of approval on injustice and corruption. If you ask President Alexander to resign, but also do not reinstate Dr. Oord, then you have not solved the real problem. the real problem is not the poor leadership of one president (I know very little about Dr. Alexander and bear him no malice) but the broader pattern, going far beyond Dr. Alexander or any one institution, of which this reprehensible incident is simply the most recent example. If you are going to have a liberal arts college at all, then you must stand by the academic freedom of your faculty up to the point at which they are officially found by competent church authorities to have violated the basic principles of the Church of the Nazarene. The removal of faculty based on a fear of negative financial consequences resulting from controversy obviously undercuts the intellectual integrity of your institution. But it also compromises the university's claims to uphold Scriptural holiness.

Holiness requires truth. It may be holy, it may be loving, sometimes to remove heretics from positions of authority. It can never in any way be holy or just to remove a man who has been found innocent of heresy simply because his ideas are controversial.

I pray that whatever decision you make in the coming days will be made not in the spirit of worldly calculation but in a manner that you will be able to defend before the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,

Edwin Woodruff Tait

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