Georgia Baptists

UPDATE 4/24/12: THIS LETTER WAS SENT ALMOST A MONTH AGO. DR. WATERS STILL HAS NOT SEEN FIT TO REPLY.

The following letter was sent to Dr. John Waters, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Dr. Melissa King Rogers is a Shorter graduate  and 2012 Star Teacher for DeKalb County. We urge you to read it and consider how your GBC contributions are being spent.

Dear Dr. Waters,

I write to you on behalf of a large cohort of Shorter College and Shorter University faculty, students, alumni, and friends who are deeply saddened by changes taking place at the school we know and love.  We are deeply concerned about several issues that are threatening Shorter.  We hope that as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention you may enlist the aid of the Education Commission of the Convention to reach out to Shorter to help an institution in crisis.

Our primary concern is with Dr. Don Dowless, Shorter’s current president, who, as I’m sure you know, took office on June 1 2011.  The primary function of a school administrator is to unite the various constituencies – faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and trustees for the betterment of the institution.  Dr. Dowless has failed in his primary mission on all but one level, and that is with the majority of trustees.

Shorter University is losing many highly qualified faculty.  To date, 38 faculty and staff have left or are leaving the university this academic year. Many of its brightest students are transferring to other schools.  The best students in the state are turning away from Shorter as a school of choice.  These alarming trends will mean the end of an institution that has enriched the life of Baptists and non-Baptists alike for over a century.  We are seeking your help.  The loss of students, community support, and reputation for Shorter do not bring glory to Christ.

All of this can change with the GBC’s help.

Much of the distress, both on campus and within the Rome and greater Shorter communities began with the introduction  of the high-profile Personal Lifestyle Statement that all faculty and staff are required to sign in order to be employed by the University; a statement that carries with it a set of principles, taken in part from the Baptist Faith and Message (2000),  though oddly excluding soul competency and the priesthood of ALL believers.  Shorter’s issues, however, run much deeper than possible disagreement on matters of faith or how best to ensure its practice. Shorter’s issues are deeply entrenched in a tide of mismanagement—a tide that has become evident over the past few years, but has reached its apex under Dr. Dowless’ leadership.

Furthermore, Dr. Dowless has failed to communicate meaningfully with Shorter alumni. In the fall he claimed he would no longer be reading letters from  alumni.  Shorter’s proud tradition of excellence matters deeply to alumni, and Dr. Dowless has altogether dismissed alumni concerns as trivial—or even worse, as malevolent.  One statement from his office reduced alumni’s expressions of concern to perceived ‘fear-mongering.’

On campus, Dr. Dowless has created an undercurrent of fear and intimidation.  He has failed to establish or encourage meaningful dialog between administration and faculty.  His approach has been heavy-handed and has created a very uncomfortable work environment on campus.  Though he announced in the press that he welcomes open debate about issues, he has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to engage in conversation with the faculty as a group. The Faculty Senate was  dissolved under the previous administration, and without a formal voice, the faculty has no means for communicating effectively with their president. The majority of  faculty and staff fear that expressing professional opinions and disagreeing with administrative policies and decisions may cost them their jobs. Some staff members have already been dismissed without warning or explanation. Loyal and popular alumni relations directors Mr. Jamie Clements and Mr. Mark Tunnell have already been fired without cause under Dr. Dowless’s administration. When a faculty member scheduled an appointment with Dr. Dowless and revealed that the other faculty were too scared to approach him, Dr. Dowless gave a one-word reply: “Good.”

Of paramount concern are threats to Shorter’s curriculum under Dr. Dowless’s administration, and these changes pose even greater threats to Shorter’s accreditation by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).  Shorter’s administration have placed themselves in violation of SACS principles by forcing changes to curriculum that run counter to best practices recommended by standards of academic disciplines.  Such curricular mandates are being forced on faculty in the sciences, humanities, and fine arts.  Classic works are being censored or cut entirely from the curriculum—including works for the performing arts. Dr. Dowless censored a production of Donizetti’s opera The Elixir of Love for its references to alcohol consumption, even though the work’s ultimate (and forceful) message is about the utter folly of drunkenness. Dr. Dowless has threatened immediate cancellation of performances by  students, faculty, and guest artists if certain guidelines are not maintained.

The hostile tone set by the current administration has already cost Shorter some of its most preeminent faculty.  Many have taken new jobs at other academic institutions beginning next academic year.  A short list of music faculty alone includes Dr. Matthew Hoch, Dr. Rebecca Salter, Dr. Chuck Chandler and Mr. Ben Harris.  Also leaving is Dr. Martha Shaw, whose leadership of the Shorter Chorale and whose musicianship is acclaimed throughout the United States and internationally, and who was one of the linchpins at the heart of Shorter’s internationally recognized music program.  Other departments outside of the School of Fine and Performing Arts department are also being impacted. Mr. Richard Bristow, Mr. Chris Crawford, Mr. Ben Riegel, Mr. David Nisbet and Miss Georgie Hall are leaving the Theatre department. Dr. Sandra Leslie, Dean of the School of Education, is leaving.

The faculty are not Shorter’s only loss. Students are leaving Shorter from many major departments.   Students  attending Shorter on substantial  scholarships are departing—a conservative estimate has more than two thirds of all music majors leaving Shorter at the end of the current semester and not returning in the fall.  Other informal surveys have produced numbers closer to eighty percent. As you may know, Shorter has one of the finest music programs in the country—a shining jewel not just for Baptists, not just for Georgia, not just for Christians, but for the United States as a whole. The beauty this program produces is a tremendous tribute to God, and the loss of Shorter’s critically acclaimed music program is more than a travesty.  Such as loss will be inevitable given Dr. Dowless’s negative leadership.  Such a loss will be because of the choices of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Executive Board and the Shorter University Board of Trustees.

Shorter University donors have also been affected. Longtime supporters of Shorter have withdrawn their pledges to the university. Many have observed, both publicly and privately, that the essence of the university that they loved and supported has been fundamentally tarnished by the actions of Dr. Dowless. They know their school far better than does the current administration and they know that Shorter is and has always been a loving place of Christian values where students were nurtured to go forth into the world as part of the body of Christ. To suggest otherwise is to acknowledge ignorance of what a special place Shorter is.

At the heart of all these changes, sadly, are the explicit or implicit directives of the Georgia Baptist Convention. We must assume that the influence of the GBC’s Education Commission directed these changes at Shorter—with mandates about the nomination and election of the Shorter University Board of Trustees, qualifications for selection of upper administration and general oversight of Shorter University.  Consequently, the fate of Shorter now rests largely in the hands of the GBC alone.

The Georgia Baptist Convention can turn the tide of events at Shorter.  We beg of you to do so, and to do so now, before it is too late.  We pray that you will act with love in your heart, as Francis of Assisi prayed centuries ago:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

With love in Christ—to you, and to Shorter University,

Melissa King Rogers, PhD
Decatur, Georgia
BA English, Shorter College 1989

2 responses to “Georgia Baptists

  1. Bravo Melissa! Your letter was among many of the most objective accounts I’ve read to date. Across the years and miles since we attended Shorter together, you have clearly articulated the effects on Shorter in the present. Thank you. Thank you.

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