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Gardner-Webb president resigns after grading scandal festers

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EDITORS’ NOTE: This story first appeared in The Shelby Star and is used with permission.

SHELBY, N.C. (BP)–A month and a day after a grading scandal at Gardner-Webb University first became public, President Christopher White resigned.

Following a three-hour meeting Oct. 11, the executive committee of the school’s board of trustees accepted White’s resignation, which is effective Oct. 25, over a grading scandal involving Bulldogs’ star basketball player during the 2000-01 season in which the team won the NCCAA (National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association) tournament crown on their home floor.

The trustees were quiet as they walked to their cars following the Oct. 11 meeting at First Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C. The Gardner-Webb campus is located at Boiling Springs.

A statement, read by trustees chairman E. Thomas Hardin said, “With appreciation for exceptional services rendered to the university, the executive committee of the Gardner-Webb Board of Trustees accepted Dr. White’s voluntary decision to step down.”

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The statement went on to say, “He chose to step aside so the unrest will end and the university can again focus on its mission of education.”

White’s statement struck a note of defiance.

“I am sorry that what I did two years ago out of fairness to a student has led to such turmoil and controversy,” White wrote in the letter to Hardin. “But what causes me even more sorrow is that the harm of the past few weeks has been self-inflicted by men and women of the Gardner-Webb community to the detriment of our students whom we are here to serve, inspire and educate in accordance with Christian values.”

The committee did not name an interim president, did not reveal White’s severance package, and did not discuss possible reinstatement of academic dean Gil Blackburn and assistant to the dean Phil Williams to their positions.

Hardin said the trustees will appoint a search committee to find a new president. An interim president will be discussed at the trustees’ Oct. 31 meeting, Hardin said.

As for the severance package, Hardin said, “This is now a personnel matter and I will not comment.”

According to Gardner-Webb’s latest 990 income tax form for 2000-01, White was paid $243,000 a year as president of the college.

He said that in his opinion, the Blackburn and Williams demotion “will not be revisited.” The trustees voted on Sept. 27 to demote the two deans.

Hardin would not say if the future of the “Group of Eight” faculty members mentioned in an investigation report to the trustees would be discussed by the board.

The Oct. 11 meeting was originally scheduled to last two hours, not three. Hardin said what went on “inside that boardroom was dealing with Dr. White’s resignation.”

At one point, Shelby attorney Bob Yelton joined the meeting. Yelton, who serves as legal counsel for Cleveland County, would not comment on his role in the meeting.

“You need to talk to Chris White,” Yelton said.

Hardin said the trustees “never asked for Dr. White to resign.”

In a letter addressed to Hardin, White said the decision to resign was his own.

“… I have taken the initiative to resign my position as president of the University. This is clearly the most wrenching decision I have ever made, but one I must make in the best interests of helping the university move away from the pain and divisiveness of recent weeks.”

After reading White’s letter to the media, Hardin, who has not wavered in his support for White, said, “It is a sad day for me.”

White became president of the Baptist college in 1986, leaving his position as vice president of academic and student affairs at Elon College in North Carolina.

White, who turns 59 on Oct. 16, is a native of Hartwell, Ga. He is a graduate of Mercer University and earned his master of divinity degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. at Emory University.

The controversy surrounding White began when The Shelby Star revealed in a Sept. 10 story that White had intervened in a grading matter for a star athlete, making him eligible to play basketball.

On Sept. 10, White admitted to the faculty that he had instructed the registrar to use a different grading policy for the student, Carlos Webb, after he was caught cheating in an Introduction to Religion class in 1999 and was failed. Webb took the course during the summer of 2000 and earned a D, which still left him academically ineligible according to school policy until White’s intervention via a memo to the registrar just before the start of the basketball season.

The school’s faculty adopted a no-confidence vote in White’s leadership, also on Sept. 10, by a 63-39 vote.

The school still faces possible discipline from the NCAA, which recently conducted an investigation on the campus.

News of White’s resignation spread quickly to the GWU campus where students, parents and some faculty continued their protest.

“I was pleased to see that Dr. White put the interest of the university first,” Williams said.

“There is a great deal of work to be done. I’m hopeful we can begin repairing the damage — immediately,” Williams said.

He said there is also a great deal of work waiting to be done in the academic affairs department.

“I hope some attention can be given to the work that needs to be done there,” he said.

Blackburn said he has always wanted what is best for Gardner-Webb.

“I remain hopeful that Gardner-Webb will continue the tradition of excellence,” Blackburn said. “In recent weeks, I’ve seen how broad and deep support for Gardner-Webb runs.”

Steve Perry, who resigned his position as interim dean of the school of business after White’s admission that he orchestrated the grade change, said White’s resignation was “in the best interest of the university.”

Perry also said it would be a “tragic mistake” for the trustees not to reinstate Blackburn and Williams.

“I wish the trustees had taken the initial steps to reinstate them,” he said.

Perry said he is leaving his options for returning to the college “open.”

“I will stand by to see if I am invited to come back,” Perry said. “I’d be willing to return if a reasonable offer was made.”

Perry said he was proud that the students, faculty, parents and alumni “stood firm” and said, “No, trustees, you have it all wrong.”

“The organism has rejected the virus,” Perry said.

A meeting of alumni, parents, faculty and some trustees at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Boiling Springs Baptist Church was held as scheduled, with the focus turning to getting Blackburn and Williams reinstated as deans.

“We will express our appreciation for Dr. White’s resignation,” GWU alumnus Mickey Sharpe said before the meeting. “And we will start a petition for the reinstatement of Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Williams to their previous positions.”

Sharpe said GWU alumni have “realized we have not been as involved as we should be” and voiced a commitment “to remain involved in the future of the school.”
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Laubscher is a staff writer with The Shelby Star. Used by permission of the newspaper.