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Grand Canyon Univ. severs ties with Arizona Baptist convention

PHOENIX (BP)–Anguish in the Arizona Baptist family mounted Jan. 13 when Grand Canyon University trustees removed the institution from a formal relationship with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

The convention’s executive board, which is scheduled to hold its regular quarterly meeting Jan. 31-Feb. 1, “will explore all options open to us,” said the Convention Executive Director-Treasurer Steve Bass, and “will formulate a response” to the GCU trustee action, which he described as having been taken “unilaterally.”

Bass said Jan. 18 the convention executive board sessions likely will result in a call for a special session of the state convention, during which messengers can consider and vote on a proposed response.

Bass, an ex officio member of the GCU trustee board, was unable to attend the Jan. 13 trustee meeting, but was not advised of the possibility of a vote to end the university’s ties to the state convention.

According to a four-paragraph statement issued by GCU’s 28-member trustee board and the university’s new president, Gil Stafford, the trustees “voted to reorganize the University’s corporate ownership and control so as to redefine its relationship with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.”

The action counters the state convention’s constitution, which lists Grand Canyon University as among the institutions which the convention “shall own and operate.” Amendments to the university’s charter can be “made only by action of the Convention in session,” the convention constitution stipulates.

The Arizona convention founded the university 50 years ago and elects its trustees. Now with 2,000-plus students, it is the state’s only private Christian liberal arts university.

The university trustees’ statement said GCU will now be in “voluntary cooperation” with the state convention, which last year faced the shock of the Arizona Baptist Foundation’s collapse, with investors owed nearly $600 million from estimated assets of $160 million to $200 million of the 50-year-old agency.

Grand Canyon trustees said they hope to continue a “close, cooperative relationship” with the state convention.

The trustee statement does not set forth specifics about its new governance, nor whether any trustees voted against the action.

Stafford told Baptist Press Jan. 18, “The board of trustees took the action upon advice from its auditors and legal counsel in order to guarantee its ongoing accreditation and the ability of its students to receive federal financial aid. This action was taken after considerable prayer and thought and was taken only to guarantee that Grand Canyon University will be able to operate in the best way that God wants it to.”

Stafford said trustees have not yet decided on a process for electing trustees to a self-perpetuating board.

Bass recounted, “My understanding is that [Grand Canyon University trustees] voted to create a new entity (501c3) and transferred the assets of the university to the new entity. The action served to sever their formal ties as an agency of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention. And, as a part of this action, they also declared themselves to be a self-perpetuating board that is no longer related to the convention.”

Bass continued, “I was surprised and shocked to learn of their decision.” Bass said he had understood the Jan. 13 trustee session would be a “working meeting,” the results of which GCU’s Stafford and the university’s attorney and auditor were to relay to the Arizona Baptist convention’s executive board “for full consideration,” Bass said, citing an agreement with Stafford.

“I was further surprised,” Bass said, “for the following reasons: 1. Because the agreement was to work in partnership with the convention’s executive board. 2. Because we were very willing to fully consider all options. 3. Because the Grand Canyon board moved from a working meeting to a business session and unilaterally decided to take this action.”

Stafford, asked about Bass’ account, told Baptist Press,
“It’s probably best for me not to discuss that issue at this particular time.”

Bass, in his comments to Baptist Press, also stated, “Regardless of their decision, I still consider the members of the board and leadership team at Grand Canyon University to be brothers and sisters in Christ. We must pray for God’s leadership as we meet to discern a convention response. My hope and prayer is that our response will honor God and be the best both for Grand Canyon and the churches of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.”

Stafford, 46, was elected GCU president, effective Jan. 1, in an Oct. 23 vote by trustees, after having served as the university’s executive vice president since 1996. Stafford succeeds Bill Williams, 59, who led the university for 22 years and is now its chancellor. Stafford joined GCU’s staff in 1980, serving 13 years as athletic director and two years as dean of students. He holds a doctor of philosophy degree in Christian education from Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, Ind., which was awarded in 1998.

Stafford, according to GCU’s Internet site, www.grand-canyon.edu, is in the midst of a “President’s Tour 2000,” with 7 p.m. meetings slated Jan. 24 in Portland, Ore.; Jan. 25, Seattle; Feb. 7, Denver; Feb. 8, Albuquerque, N.M.; Feb. 14, Tucson; Feb. 17, Yuma, Ariz.; Feb. 21, Prescott, Ariz.; and March 2, Phoenix. According to the website, further information about the meetings may be obtained by phoning (602) 589-2855.

No mention was made of the trustee action on the GCU website as of Jan. 18.

The full trustee statement reads:

“On January 13, 2000, Grand Canyon University’s Board of Trustees [met to discuss accounting issues raised by its auditor] after much prayer and deliberation, voted to reorganize the University’s corporate ownership and control so as to redefine its relationship with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

“Grand Canyon University has a rich history of Southern Baptist tradition and is committed to providing our students a Christian higher education. This reorganization will not change our daily operations.

“The Board resolved to continue its close, cooperative relationship with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention and our voluntary cooperation with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

“We ask for your continued prayers and support during this time of reorganization.”