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Arizonans accept severed ties with Grand Canyon University

PHOENIX (BP)–Messengers to a special called session of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention voted March 23 to accept the severing of formal convention ties with Grand Canyon University.

During the special session, the 355 messengers were asked to ratify two resolutions unanimously adopted by the ASBC executive board Feb. 1. The first expressed “great disappointment” but allowed Grand Canyon to sever its ties with the state convention. The second affirmed the placing of Grand Canyon’s Cooperative Program funds in escrow for eventual reallocation, except for funds for ministerial scholarships.

Messengers’ comments and questions indicated a deeply divided constituency. Some expressed sorrow and anger at the university’s action and questioned its motives. Others voiced understanding and support for the GCU trustees’ action.

GCU President Gil Stafford, meanwhile, told messengers that some facets of the trustees’ action to separate the university from the convention cannot be divulged due to “attorney-client privilege.”

The standing votes for each resolution nevertheless were “very overwhelming,” as described by ASBC President Paul Kinnison.

During the almost two-hour meeting, Steve Bass, ASBC executive director-treasurer, and Stafford provided background about the decisions made by their respective boards and answered questions.

“Grand Canyon’s board had some critical issues — and still has some critical issues — facing them,” Bass said. The executive board had scheduled time during its Jan. 31-Feb. 1 meeting to discuss the issues with Grand Canyon representatives, he said.

In the resolution ratified by the convention, the executive board expressed disappointment that the university board “chose not to pursue the option of open dialogue but rather acted in a unilateral manner in severing their formal and familial relationship with the churches of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.”

The resolution further stated that the board “accepts the action of the trustees’ statement as being final” and will not pursue litigation.

Bass told the messengers, “It would not be a witness to a lost world nor for the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ to pursue a resolution through the law courts.”

Stafford said the newly independent school will remain true to its heritage. “We have always been and we will always be a Southern Baptist college,” he said. “We choose cooperatively to work with this convention.”

He listed several issues that could have potentially impacted GCU’s relationship with the convention. These issues, however, did not alone cause the trustees to act when they did, he said.

“On Jan. 11, it became apparent there could be unrelated issues that could affect the institution’s ability to exercise all of its options to protect itself,” Stafford said.

These unrelated, unnamed issues caused the trustees to vote 21-3 in a meeting Jan. 13 to transfer the university’s assets to a new entity — Christian Universities Acquisitions Inc. — and to become a self-perpetuating board, he said. The vote came “after hours of deliberation, discussion, prayers and tears,” he said.

Asked why the trustees couldn’t wait for the executive board’s input, Stafford explained the “unrelated issues” caused the trustees to believe “we were under tremendous time constraint … and had to act expeditiously.”

Despite repeated questioning by messengers, Stafford declined to identify the issues, stating they were discussed by trustees “under the confidence of lawyer-client privilege.”

When a messenger questioned why Arizona Southern Baptists could not be trusted with the information, Stafford said, “It’s not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of fiduciary responsibility, legal responsibility, litigious pressure.”

Asked if the Baptist Foundation of Arizona bankruptcy had anything to do with the trustees’ actions, Stafford replied, “I’m sorry, but I cannot respond to anything that is related to attorney-client privilege.”

Other messengers voiced understanding that some trustee business matters must remain confidential and called for Arizona Southern Baptists to trust the board members they elected.

In providing other background to messengers, Stafford said last September, during its annual audit, the accounting firm of KPMG said it would recommend in the 2000 audit that GCU’s financial statement be consolidated with the convention’s financial statement. KPMG believed this was proper under accounting guidelines, since GCU was “owned and operated by” the convention. KPMG also said it was debatable whether one 501(c)(3) entity could own another, Stafford said.

If the financial statements were consolidated, the school’s accreditation and federal funding for student grants and loans could be endangered, he said.

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has contended that control of Grand Canyon lies outside of the institution, since the board is elected by the convention, Stafford said. A consolidated financial statement would solidify the accrediting body’s argument, he said.

In addition, already struggling to remain in compliance with formulas set for federal funding, Grand Canyon’s ratios could be upset with a consolidated financial statement, and $14 million in students’ federal financial aid could be jeopardized, he said.

“I think some of us today are suffering under an illusion that we have really supported Grand Canyon University, and we haven’t,” said Dennis Daniel, pastor of First Baptist Church, Fountain Hills, and a GCU trustee.

With a budget of $24.4 million, Grand Canyon was to receive $295,611 (or 9.29 percent) of the state’s $3.2 million in Cooperative Program funds in 2000. Of the present student body, less than 5 percent identify themselves as Southern Baptists, Stafford said.

However, Grand Canyon’s ties to Arizona Southern Baptists were demonstrated in another way when alumni, staff members, trustees, students’ parents and others with a relationship to the university were asked to stand. About one-third to one-half of the congregation rose to its feet.

Grand Canyon trustees adopted a formula Jan. 20 for the composition of the now self-perpetuating board. Not less than 80 percent will be members of Southern Baptist churches, not less than 60 percent will be members of Arizona Southern Baptist churches, not less than 20 percent will be ordained Southern Baptist ministers, and all will be evangelical Christians.

The present trustees’ terms will be extended six months, to correspond with the end of the school year, and the first new trustees will join the board in 18 months, Stafford said.

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  • Elizabeth Young