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ATS removes ‘notation’ from Southern Seminary

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s primary accrediting agency has notified the Louisville, Ky., school that a “notation” on its accreditation has been removed following the recommendation of a committee of the agency.

President R. Albert Mohler Jr. hailed the decision as a “significant achievement for Southern Seminary.”
In a June 19, 1997, letter to Mohler, an official with the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada reported the agency’s Commission on Accrediting voted to remove the notation at its June 1997 meeting in Pittsburgh.
Imposed in January 1996, the notation, which used standard ATS language for accreditation reporting, said: “General tone of the school impairs the capacity to provide significant theological education and ministerial training.”
ATS associate executive director Daniel O. Aleshire also indicated in his letter to Mohler the commission voted to request a progress report from Southern by April 15, 1999, regarding issues which have been under review by the agency.
The ATS action was taken in light of the report of a committee which met with various constituencies at Southern during an April 16-18, 1997, visit, as well as materials furnished to ATS by the seminary’s administration. The letter, which was received in the president’s office on June 23, 1997, also directs the administration to make the report of the focused visit available to the faculty and board of trustees of the seminary.
The ATS action “affirms the academic excellence and institutional vitality of this seminary,” Mohler stated. “I am pleased that the ATS Commission on Accrediting has taken this responsible action. I commend the commission, the visiting committee and all those on this campus who participated in the focus visit this past spring.
“This decision underlines the excellence which has characterized Southern Seminary from 1859 to the present. It also makes very clear that the process of institutional reorientation and transformation which has occurred over the last several years has reached a constructive and productive stage. I think this decision speaks eloquently of the shared vision and common convictions which mark this institution, its faculty, administration, trustees and students. This is a significant affirmation and for this we are thankful.”
The removal of the notation is the latest action of the agency, which began reviewing the seminary’s accreditation status in 1995. The accrediting agency responded to faculty concerns related to new procedures for hiring faculty, new policies for granting tenure and the March 1995 dismissal of the dean of the Carver School of Church Social Work, Diana R. Garland. Representatives from the accrediting agency visited the seminary in November 1995, resulting in the January 1996 notation and the authorization of the April 1997 focused visit.
The ATS committee during the April visit was comprised of Peter J. Paris of Princeton Theological Seminary, Russell P. Spittler of Fuller Theological Seminary and Luder G. Whitlock of Reformed Theological Seminary. The ATS staff was represented during the visit by Michael Gilligan.
According to its report, the ATS committee was charged to consider the progress of the seminary in “addressing the concerns regarding academic freedom, status of contract and tenure-track faculty, the faculty’s role in shared governance and communications among the Board, administration and faculty.” The committee praised President Mohler for his “excellent hospitality” and thanked the seminary community for its “gracious welcome” of the ATS representatives.
The committee conducted interviews with Southern’s president, administrative officers, three trustees, groups of faculty, students and recent graduates as well as a “well-attended open session of faculty, trustees, administrators, students and recent graduates.”
The report of the committee offered “findings” in each area of the focused visit. Covering each of the four areas of consideration, the report found:
— Academic freedom: The committee found “wide-spread appreciation for the quality of the academic climate” of the seminary. “Fully aware that the seminary has undergone great turmoil during the process of reshaping itself in a conservative evangelical direction, all agreed that the changes have not diminished academic standards or the quality of teaching and research. Most importantly, they also agreed the president and vice president for academic administration have given very good leadership in designing deliberative and collaborative processes in which the faculty has ample opportunity for participation.”
Evidence of such collaboration cited by the committee included new policies on “Faculty Hiring Process,” “Faculty Discipline” and a “Statement on Constructive Relationships.”
Although the committee found “no dissonance” among trustees, administration and faculty with respect to academic climate, the report notes grief and pain from some faculty and students regarding the departure of colleagues and friends from the seminary. “Yet, though they feel defeated, they do not feel abused; though they feel sorrowful, they harbor no hostility; though they may disagree with the new direction the school has taken, they do not feel threatened,” the committee reported.
— Status of contract and tenure-track faculty: “The committee understood the focus of this concern to be those full-time or regular faculty who were not tenured at the time of the November 1995 (focused visit), but who had been appointed to contract or tenure-track positions prior to the April 1995 action of the seminary board of trustees specifying additional criteria for faculty appointments.” The criteria included the evaluation of prospective faculty concerning their views on the exclusiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ for salvation, the sanctity of human life, the sinful nature of homosexuality and the restriction of women from serving in the church office of pastor/overseer.
While the report noted representatives of the seminary’s Faculty Committee expressed “disappointment that the new criteria for tenure had prevented the retention of some of the junior faculty,” the Faculty Committee was encouraged by the administration’s attempt to seek “creative alternatives to make it possible for some of this group to stay” in different capacities.
The report also noted the focused visit committee found “dramatic changes” in the faculty rosters over the past three academic years. “Of the 67 full-time faculty members listed in Fall 1994, only 33 remain in Spring 1997, five semesters later.” The ATS committee concluded, “The progress in the institution noted in this report must be understood within the context of a faculty that has been largely re-configured.”
— Shared governance: The committee found “the assembly of a congruent and competent administrative team” which has “clearly attracted the confidence of the faculty.” The report also notes examples of “improved processes” which “give evidence of increasingly shared governance,” citing the faculty hiring, discipline and constructive relationships policies. “A more visible and accessible president” was also reported in the committee’s findings. Also praised by the committee was the recent formation of a Committee on Tenure composed of trustees, administration and faculty.
The ATS committee suggested presidential faculty appointments be disclosed to the entire faculty, not just the relevant department or school in order to “reduce occasions where faculty first learn of appointed colleagues through newspaper accounts.”
— Communication among the board, administration and faculty: “Whereas in 1995 communication between board, administration and faculty reflected a lack of trust and candor, it is apparent that substantial progress has been made toward remedying that deficiency so that the campus is now marked by constructive dialogue and cooperation. Given the recent history of the seminary, additional time will be needed to bring healing and trust,” the committee noted.
The ATS committee also reported, “It is apparent that formal and informal structures and processes have been established to improve communication and understanding: the President’s personal initiatives, the seriousness with which the president’s cabinet has addressed this matter at its weekly meetings, the expansion of the nature and purpose of the Trustee/Faculty Academic Liaison Committee, and the recent appointment of a joint committee to study tenure, as well as the positive response of the faculty committees regarding its discussion of major issues with the administration.”

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  • James A. Smith
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