Category Archives: Board of Trustees of Shorter University

WHY THE TRUSTEE SILENCE?

UPDATE: 

Shorter Departure #67
Mr. Allen Dutch
Instructor of Communication
Advisor SC49
8 years of service

Shorter Departure #66
Mr. Brian Taylor
Chair, Department of Art, Professor of Art
16 years of service

TITLE 14.  CORPORATIONS, PARTNERSHIPS, AND ASSOCIATIONS  
CHAPTER 3.  NONPROFIT CORPORATIONS  
ARTICLE 6.  MEMBERSHIP  
PART 2.  RIGHTS AND LIABILITIES OF MEMBERS

O.C.G.A. § 14-3-610  (2012)

§ 14-3-610. Voting rights

Members as defined in paragraph (22) of Code Section 14-3-140 shall have no voting rights, other than to elect directors, except as specifically provided in the articles or bylaws. All members shall have the same rights and obligations with respect to any other matters, except as set forth in or authorized by the articles or bylaws.

In order to understand the relationship between Shorter University and the Georgia Baptist Convention, it is necessary to look at Georgia law and at the meaning of “fiduciary responsibility”.

In the 2005 court decision, the Georgia Baptist Convention was declared by the courts to be a member of the nonprofit corporation that is Shorter University (College).  According to Georgia code, the only right of the member is that of electing directors, or in Shorter’s case, trustees unless otherwise specifically set forth in the bylaws.

So what does fiduciary responsibility entail?  Professor Paul G. Haskell addressed that issue in an article entitled “The University as Trustee”, in the Georgia Law Review.  Professor Haskell contends that the university is a corporation, which is chartered specifically for charitable purposes (thus earning its nonprofit status) for the good of the public – in this case, to provide educational opportunities to the public. He further asserts that “the university should be considered a trustee for the public generally and the students, faculty, donors, and alumni particularly, and that as trustee the university owes the fiduciary duties of selflessness, care, fairness, and disclosure in all its dealings with students, in the administration of its admissions policy, and in the management and allocation of its assets”

The Shorter University Bylaws directly address the issues of the rights of the member (GBC) and the duties of the trustees of the institution. The member shall have the right to appoint all trustees and to approve any amendments to the bylaws. The trustees “shall serve the best interests of the college  . . . and The Board of Trustees shall be free from undue influence from political, religious or other external bodies, and shall protect the corporation from such influence.”

So far, so good. The GBC elects trustees and approves amendments and the Trustees, whom the GBC chooses, have a responsibility and duty to the University, not to the GBC.  This is the relationship approved by SACS during the 2005 court settlement.  If that were the reality, then there would be no need for SOS or for the massive exodus from Shorter. The GBC inherited a Christian college with an on and off affiliation with the Georgia Baptist Convention. They did not inherit a Baptist college, established strictly on Baptist principles or which had historically abided with the ideology of the GBC.

The Reality

The University Bylaws: There is nothing in Shorter’s bylaws that demand that a trustee hold a specific affiliation with a GBC church. By extension, it can be assumed that trustee nominees can come from any faith or from no faith at all.

The Reality: Since the 2005 court case, the Georgia Baptist Convention has elected to the Board of Trustees only individuals with membership in a GBC affiliated church. Of the 31 current board members, six are GBC pastors.  In addition, one is the minister of music at a GBC church; one is the director of missions with the Bartow County Baptist Association; one works for the National Christian Foundation for Ministry Services.

Of those in the ministry, one, Dr. Carlisle Driggers, served for 15 years as Executive Director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and holds honorary doctoral degrees from, among others, Charleston Southern and North Greenville Universities. The two institutions are the former employers of Shorter President, Don Dowless. Readers should be mindful that Robert White, Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, also sits on the Board of Trustees as an ex-officio member.

Two of the current trustees, one of whom is the current chairman of the board, are employed by AFLAC. AFLAC offers its products to the faculty and staff of Shorter University.

Two current trustees and one former trustee are members of Roswell Street Baptist Church, from which Nelson Price holds the title Pastor Emeritus.  The former trustee, Bob English, who just rotated off of the board in January and was on the board when the Personal Lifestyle Statement, Statement of Faith and Biblical Principles for the Integration of Faith and Learning were adopted, is an officer with ADE Builders, the company which received the contract, without the necessity of going through a bidding process, for the new library extension and the new.

Three trustees are members of Tabernacle Baptist Church, and Shorter’s President has a very close relationship with that church. One of these is Don Hattaway, who serves Tabernacle as senior pastor. Don Hattaway has served on the board of Brewton-Parker College and was Chairman of the Board in 2005-2006. His term expired in 2008. Brewton-Parker is in deep financial trouble and stands to lose its SACS accreditation this month. The college is currently on Warning from SACS for numerous violations. In 1998, Brewton-Parker settled a lawsuit for $4 million that was brought by a former employee and joined by the Federal Government for the misuse of federal funds.  Incidentally, the newly-named Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and chief designer and chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan is also a member of Tabernacle.

Three trustees are members of Calvary Baptist Church, a small Baptist church in Rome. There are, however, no trustees from First Baptist Church in Rome, despite the fact that First Baptist was the church home of Alfred and Martha Shorter and has been a long-time supporter of Shorter.

It should be noted that according to the Shorter 2009-2010 form 990 (no later filings are available online) the institution has no members.

It should also be noted that the trustees of Shorter University have NOT been asked to sign the Personal Lifestyle Statement. They have, however, been given “ Talking Points” for dealing with the public.

We recommend that alumni, students, faculty and staff, to whom the Board of Trustees holds a fiduciary obligation, contact the Board of Trustee members and demand answers as to why the Board has placed Shorter in financial jeopardy from loss of students, academic jeopardy from the flight of top-rated professors and administrative staff and indeed, placed the entire institution in peril. Since the Shorter website has not updated its Board of Trustees page in the six months that the new board has been in place, we kindly provide that information for you upon request.

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WHERE ARE THE TRUSTEES?

On March 30 of this year, the Board of Trustees of Shorter University met on the Atlanta campus for their regularly scheduled meeting. SOS had sent board members a packet of information prior to the meeting. In addition to a cover letter outlining what SOS felt to be serious issues on the Shorter campus, copies of letters that should have been of interest to the board members were included. A copy of the letter from the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), expressing concern about reports by Shorter faculty on the impingement on academic freedom, was included. Other letters were from concerned alumni, one of whom was on the Alumni Governing Board, were also a part of the packet. You will find the letters in the Documents section of this website.

The cover letter cited the following concerns:

Specifically, we object to the following personnel and policy issues:

  • As the President of Shorter University, it is incumbent on Dr. Dowless to communicate with all constituencies of the university. It should be expected that he communicate in a civil, non-accusatory, and non-demeaning manner. He has failed to do that.
  • Dr. Dowless has refused to have dialog with Rome citizens, clergy and alumni despite his public statements to the contrary. He has assigned that role to Mr. Epting – in itself a poor leadership decision, since Mr. Epting has just recently been hired. Dr. Newman’s door was always open to anyone who wished to speak with him.
  • Two well-respected staff members, both Shorter grads, were dismissed without due cause but for ideological reasons, despite the fact that they had signed the Personal Lifestyle Statement. While the firings are within the rights of the administration, to lose two dedicated individuals who have the love of Shorter at heart and who had defended the actions of the administration to their constituencies is shameful. We are seeing embarrassing consequences within the Rome community for those actions.
  • Faculty search guidelines as outlined in the Faculty Handbook are being ignored while a contentious and dictatorial administration defies the faculty to speak up.
  • A total of 40 faculty and staff have left or announced their intention of leaving Shorter this year. Many more are expected to leave before the beginning of the next academic year.
  • The School of Fine and Performing Arts, which has been called the “Conservatory of the South” and which, incidentally, just produced the national winner of the Music Teacher’s National Association competition, has been gutted, with both students and professors leaving because of the censorship guidelines that have been mandated. NASM has been notified of potential violations of its standards and loss of accreditation is highly possible
  • The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been notified of the censorship of materials and the repression of academic freedom that is a hallmark of Dr. Dowless’ administration. The AAUP may censure Shorter if they have evidence of the above charges. You should be aware that North Greenville and Charleston Southern are under censorship by the AAUP. While the current administration may not find this significant, the broader academic community considers the opinion of the AAUP quite the opposite.
  • Over 30 third party complaints have been filed against Shorter with SACS. Again, while this might be dismissed by Dr. Price and Dr. Dowless, we remind you that, to quote the Georgia Supreme Court from the 2005 decision, “The controversy was precipitated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which questioned the College’s independence and threatened its accreditation because the power to select trustees was vested in GBC. And from the dissenting opinion, “The majority opinion holds that Shorter College’s Board of Trustees complied with its governing documents, the Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code,1 and its fiduciary duties in dissolving the College and transferring its assets to the Shorter College Foundation.” In other words, the court affirmed that SACS did, in fact, threaten accreditation because of undue influence of the GBC.
  • More than a few professors fear for their jobs, but with the dissolution of the Faculty Senate, they have no voice to express their dissatisfaction and their anger.
  • Dr. Dowless and Dr. Price have clearly underestimated the academic community and Rome community’s tolerance for the dramatic shift away from academic freedom and the heritage of Shorter University. Major donors and foundations have either withdrawn their contributions or are seriously contemplating doing so. Donors who have already fulfilled their pledges have vowed that because of the direction currently being followed by the administration, they will never support Shorter again. Those losses will be substantial.

It is our understanding that when the packet sent to Shorter Board of Trustee members was mentioned, it was quickly dismissed as the rantings of a few. It was reported that no Board of Trustee member questioned the validity of the claims in the documents. If academic freedom and institutional integrity were being questioned, why was there no discussion?  We will look at some possibilities in an upcoming post.

AND SO IT BEGINS PART TWO

Dr. Carolyn Ward loved Shorter College. As a student at Shorter, she was active in student affairs, president of her class for 3 years and president of the student body her senior year. She graduated cum laude with a degree in biology and later became a well-respected physician in the Atlanta area. She was also a woman who brooked no nonsense.

She served on the Alumni Governing Board 1963-1964

She served as a trustee for Shorter College from 1986-1991, 1992-1997, 1999-2002 and served on the reorganized board from 2002 through October 7, 2005. She served as Chairman of the Board 2001-2002.

In 1997, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Alumni Association.

The faculty and Staff of Shorter College named her the Red Cross “Hero of 2003” as past chairman of the Shorter Board of Trustees.

The following are excerpts from her diary of her experiences with Shorter – a diary that she kept from 2001 until shortly before her death in 2011.

From her cover letter:

“ These last years (2001-2005) were tumultuous years for me and the rest of the Board, during which in the Fall of 2001 the College Executive Committee realized that the Georgia Baptist Convention which had the right to elect trustees since the 1959 charter was about to begin packing the Board of Trustees with men (sic) whose first loyalty was to the Convention. In spite of all that we tried – 2 face-to-face meetings  with our boards and committees as well as meetings with both groups’ officials, numerous letters back and forth  – – – we lost the decision of the Supreme Court by a vote of 4-3 in May 2005.  Thus by one vote, the history of Shorter was forever changed as well as her future.

“. . . My grief and sadness has continued, especially as I see the predicted changes occurring. In addition the Baptist media, the now (2006 -2011) Board chairman and even the now president in his speeches, continue to rewrite Shorter history according to their own desires.  They paint those of us who tried so hard, in the worst possible light.

“One thing I know is that I did my best, that I did what I thought I should and that I have no regrets.  I would do it again.

Selah

From her diary:

“Fall 2001 – GBC elected 3 trustees who were not originally presented by SC [Shorter College].  They turned down a former trustee, the immediate past chairman of the Board and the immediate past President of the Alumni Assn. We asked them to reconsider. Especially since 4 ladies had rotated or resigned off the board, and Shorter, having a long history of being a woman’s college and today has approximately 65% women in the student body, we asked that the alumni president be nominated.  They refused.

“Being the first time this had occurred and given the history of the politics and record of the Convention, it was immediately seen as a takeover of the board by the extreme fundamentalists of the Convention.  It was also evident that such a takeover would forever change the entire character and soul of Shorter College.

“AT THE SAME TIME, it happened that this year of 2002 was the ten year audit to be done by SACS.  The SACS Handbook mandates that a college through its governing board must be free of undue external pressure from any outside group.  As the workup for the review proceeded, the SACS group found that they had questioned the independence of Shorter’s governing board 10 years ago and thus they focused on this unresolved issue.

“Since our paperwork had to be submitted to SACS by Jan1, the BOT on Nov 2 voted a lease arrangement for the management of the college, which was considered to be temporary until changes could be made with the GBC. This had not been accomplished by January 1 and so the lease went into effect on January 2.  Because of the immediate furor and reaction that it met with the GBC’s leader, it was rescinded on Jan     (date omission by the author) in order to work with the GBC as they refused to talk until it was.”

From February until November 2002, work went on in order to come to an agreement with the GBC on the selection of trustees. All efforts were met with the same sort of intransigence that is evident now.  In May, the Shorter trustees passed a new bylaw to the charter in an attempt to clarify Shorter’s position regarding the election of trustees. The bylaw, in essence, set forth in writing what had been the agreement with the GBC since 1959. It said that the Georgia Baptist Convention would still elect trustees, just as it always had, but that the nominees would be qualified first by the College. The vote on the bylaw was split; it passed and became a bone of contention between the GBC –placed trustees and the rest of the board.

As was the custom, Shorter sent a list of proposed trustees to the GBC. The proposed trustees were to be evaluated by the GBC Nominating Committee and selections for each of the eight vacancies were to be made. The Nominating Committee would then present the slate of candidates to the full Convention for a vote.  For each position, three nominees were submitted.

The Convention began and the Nominating Committee had still not informed Shorter whom they had chosen as trustees for the school. It was not until November 11 that the GBC Nominating Committee handed the list of nominees selected to the Shorter representatives at the Convention.

Dr. Ward writes, “. . . NONE of the 8 are from our list. Thus they have completely ignored our bylaw, have once again demonstrated that the Board is not independent and remains under the pressure and thumb of the GBC. This means we again have an issue with SACS.

“Rev. Mike Everson, chairman of the GBC Nominating Committee prior to reading the names of the GBC nominees, gave a “7 minute dialog” against the College and our President in particular.  . . .He also made comments about the ones which Shorter had nominated to the GBC. He said that one woman had joined a Baptist [church] recently in order to be on the Board and there was a question about how much either she or her church gave to the Cooperative Program. He also said one of our nominees only went to church a couple of times a year. Etc.  Their 8 nominees were, of course, elected.”

And so the process of electing trustees began. No longer would the trustees be vetted by Shorter. No longer was there a primary focus on the qualifications of the candidates as would best serve the institution. Trustees would now first be qualified on how much they or their churches gave to the Cooperative Program of the GBC.

For those of you who have been scratching your heads and wondering how we could get to the place in which we currently find ourselves, you must look to the beginning of the Fundamentalist take-over of Shorter.

We thank Dr. Ward for her diligence and love of Shorter and for sharing her insights with us. We hope that we can honor her memory, as we step forth in faith to declare that Shorter has always been a Christian institution of higher education.

Not once, in all of the controversy currently surrounding our beloved institution has the current administration pointed to the reason for the “need for returning Shorter to its Christian roots”. They have not. Shorter has always held to its Christian roots; it just has not sold herself to the Fundamentalist agenda. The Fundamentalists of the GBC now have complete control – not ownership, as no one owns a non-profit institution – of the school.   The agenda at Shorter is no longer the pursuit of academic excellence; the agenda is power and control disguised in the  name of Jesus Christ.

As Dr. Ward wrote, in reference to her leadership of a rapidly changing Board of Trustees, after the trustee election of 2002:

“God Bless Shorter.  God bless our Board.  And God help me to do my duty.”

AND SO IT BEGINS

When, in 1958, Dr. Randall Minor and the Shorter Board of Trustees agreed with the Baptist Convention of Georgia to change Shorter’s charter, they did so in good faith.

Since 1914, Shorter had maintained control of its Board of Trustee selection process. As early as 1919, Shorter had continued its affiliation with the GBC, receiving funds and making annual reports to the Convention, however it had maintained its independence.  In 1938, the Board of Trustees agreed to submit names of new shorter trustees to the GBC “for its approval or disapproval before final action by the Board”, however the college still had the power of formal and final approval of the new trustee. A 1953 GBC adoption of a new selection process for its affiliated college’s trustees allowed for each college to nominate 3 persons for each trustee position. The Convention chose one from the three.

Finding the college in dire need of funding, Minor negotiated the new charter and the College agreed to the changes that all future trustees would be elected by the GBC and that each trustee be a member of a Baptist Church which is affiliated with the Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia. Until then the charters had continued to renew the stipulation of the original charter, which said “members of regular Baptist churches of good standing.”

According to a speech by Dr. Rob Nash, entitled “On Being Baptist: The Soul Purpose of Shorter College” in his Founder’s Day Address, October 7, 1997, “From 1873 – 1902 and from 1914 until 1959, Shorter’s trustees were either self-perpetuating or had final power over the trustee selection process.” At the time of the ’59 charter change, Dr. Minor knew he was dealing with gentlemen and that they would honor the 1953 GBC selection process. As a result, he failed to include in the new charter the process by which new trustees would be elected. He never envisioned, nor would he have been able to conceive of the Georgia Baptist Convention of 2001.

When, during the selection process for the new trustees in 2001, Shorter did as it had done since 1953 and submitted a slate of candidates – three for each open position – to the Georgia Baptist Convention, they expected the GBC to continue to honor the ’53 process. What they didn’t reckon on was that the GBC was finally under the total control of Baptist Fundamentalists. When the GBC failed to accept any of the candidates and proposed and elected a slate of its own candidates, The Shorter Board of Trustees refused to seat them.  In retaliation, the GBC withheld its annual contribution to Shorter.

For months, Dr. Ed Schrader tried to negotiate with the GBC in order to reach an amicable settlement of the matter. For months, Robert White and the Executive Board of the GBC stalled, refused to negotiate and made excuses. However an even greater problem was on the horizon.

On January 4, 2002 Dr. Schrader sent a memorandum to Dr. Bob White and pertinent officers of the GBC. In that memo, Dr. Schrader addressed the upcoming SACS re-accreditation visit. He writes, “Shorter College has been warmly regarded by Georgia Baptists for its entire 129 year history. Personally, I want Georgia Baptists to view me neither as a politically ally nor opponent, because I am neither, but as a Brother who is committed (and called) heart and soul to Christian higher education, fostering a good relationship between Shorter College and the Georgia Baptist Convention, and unswervingly dedicated to the spiritual and academic advancement of Shorter College.  I will fight to insure Shorter College remains a Georgia Baptist College and Shorter College will fight to insure that its progress and future are undiminished and unblemished.”  These were hardly the words of a man who later would be portrayed by GBC executives as intent on “stealing” Shorter from the Georgia Baptists.

The memo further relates a conversation between Dr. Schrader and the President of SACS, in which Dr. Schrader assured the SACS president that Shorter was addressing its concerns with the GBC proactively. “Since these issues (over-involvement of the GBC in the running of the college) were of concern in the previous re-accreditation review 10 years ago and not satisfactorily addressed then, the visiting team would take a very harsh view of our ignoring them in the intervening period.”

Dr. Schrader was concerned about the impact the loss of accreditation would have on the college. “Such public rebuke is the death knell for external fund raising, recruiting of top students and faculty and maintaining – let alone advancing –  the school’s academic and artistic reputation and standing.”

Schrader and the Board of Trustees had reason for concern. In the Reaffirmation Committee Report from the February 18-21, 2002 visit, the committee came down hard on the GBC involvement in Shorter affairs:

“It is the judgment of the Committee that Shorter College is in compliance with all Conditions of Eligibility except Condition Three.  The College has an active policy-making board, which meets the mandatory requirement of this section.  However, undue pressure is being placed on the Board of Trustees by an outside agency, namely the Georgia Baptist Convention.  The issue is the selection of trustees. In November 2001 the Convention broke with a long-standing practice and elected several trustees, which were not nominated by the College.  Serious concerns exist regarding the existence of an independent governing board and for its ability to protect the Institution from undue outside influence from the Georgia Baptist Convention.  Specific actions by the Georgia Baptist Convention this past year regarding the politicization of the trustee election process demonstrate that the College is subject to external political and religious influence that may affect its ability to carry out its mission, infringe upon its academic integrity and threaten academic freedom. Additionally, a pattern of activities carried out by the Georgia Baptist Convention and its agents has demonstrated a desire to affect outcomes of the College’s internal governance by this external third party entity. Therefore the Committee recommends that the Institution demonstrate that its bylaws and other legal documents ensure the independence of the board (Recommendation 3). This recommendation does not reflect a problem with the institution or its administration.  This is a problem between the Board of Trustees and the Georgia Baptist Convention leadership over the issue of governance.

The recommendation of 10 years ago echoes the same issues facing Shorter faculty and students today. Academic freedom and integrity are core values of higher education. As Mr. Pirkle’s letter of resignation reveals, the Georgia Baptist Fundamentalists have only increased their hold upon the University. To what sorts of interference was the report referring? Who from the GBC would have tried to influence the Board of Trustees? How is that influence being carried out with the current board? There is much more to this story, which we will disclose in our next post.

Documents cited here obtained from public records.

ANOTHER ROMAN SPEAKS OUT

In her letter to the editor, printed recently in the Rome News-Tribune, Betty Zane Morris called for the citizens of Rome to speak out on the issues that are engulfing Shorter. Her call was a wise one, as it was a collection of Roman citizens, Alfred Shorter chief among them,who stepped forward and provided the funding to support the Cherokee Baptist Female Seminary at a time when the Baptist Convention of Georgia refused to do so.

Save Our Shorter is gratified to find that those citizens are now willing to speak to the issues at hand. It is the historical memory of these individuals, as well as the historical memories of those who served on the Hill, whether faculty, staff, administration or trustee, that will help to illuminate the true heart of the issues that plague the institution.

One such reply follows. We encourage others to come forth and help us to shine Light and reveal Truth on Save Our Shorter. We may be reached through our email: saveourshorter@gmail.com.

My father,  Dr. Forrest Lanier,  was Assistant to the President and Executive Vice-President of Shorter from 1975 to 1985.    Earlier,  he had been a trustee from 1952 to 1974,   so our families roots with Shorter go back many years.     I stand with each of the members of Save our Shorter,   because I know that if my father were still alive his heart would have been broken due the developments of recent months,  as would that of Dr. Minor.     As a former Southern Baptist,   I predicted many years ago that this “trickle down” of fundamentalism would eventually reach the pews of the churches,   and the situation at Shorter is endemic of that.    The takeover of the Convention was apparently planned at the “Cafe DuMonde” in New Orleans in 1967 with Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler discussing strategy over beignets and coffee,   and now it has reached this.     But the problem,  in my opinion,  is that all of this is too late.    The trend in recent years is for denominations (especially evangelical ones) that increasingly shed or dis-associate themselves from the institutions of higher learning that their traditions helped to create, and this continues today.   “Christian” institutions of “higher” learning as Shorter represents itself to the community and the world,  is in fact already a dying breed.  A newer,  younger and less “religious” generation is arising which is more tolerant of homosexuality,  premarital sex,  and the moderate use of alcohol.    The speaker of the North Carolina legislature said it well in response to the recent vote to ban gay marriage in his state:  “This is a generational issue.   This measure will be repealed in less than twenty years.”     President Obama recently endorsed gay marriage,  the first sitting President to do so.    Attitudes and “traditions” itself are changing in American society in response to the more secular,   more educated and more socially mobile individuals who are coming of age.

As for Don Dowless?   I would not be surprised at one thing [he does].    If there are no teachers to teach,  where will the students come from?    And if there are no students,   then where will the money come from?     And if the money dries up,   where will Shorter be at this point?

The “Taliban” of the Georgia Baptist Convention might not just hold him to the fire,   he might himself be on it…

“For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.” (Heb. 13:11)

John L. Lanier

LUX VERITAS

UPDATE: The Rome News-Tribune ran a story nine years ago which runs parallel to this one.

The motto that so many Shorter College students saw every day was Lux Veritas – Light and Truth. As Save Our Shorter grows, more and more individuals are sharing their stories with us – shining light into the dark places and telling the truth about what is happening on The Hill. We are humbled and grateful to Dr. Larry Burgess for his willingness to share Light and Truth with the Save Our Shorter community.

A SHORTER ALUM AND FORMER TRUSTEE SHARES HIS REFLECTIONS WITH HIS SHORTER ALUM DAUGHTER…

I graduated from Shorter College in 1970, in the same class as Dr. Wayne Dempsey, who was Vice President of the college during later years when I served as a trustee under the presidency of Dr. Edward Schrader. I was taught in seminary by Dr. Larry McSwain, who would become President of Shorter prior to Dr. Schrader. I have loved Shorter from the first day I set foot on the campus in the sixties. I was thrilled when our daughter, Joanna, chose Shorter! She graduated with highest honors in Theatre in 2006.

I have served on church staff and have been pastor of churches in Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia, including seven wonderful years [1978-1985] at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, Rome, GA. I have always seen myself as right of center politically and theologically. I held out hope through 42 years of ministry in Southern Baptist churches that the Baptist tent was large enough to include and welcome those who were left of me and right of me in theology and politics. I often warned churches in which I served that we must avoid being “more southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.”  That is, loving Jesus and faithfully serving Him was our first and highest calling. We must not allow regional peculiarities or denominational distinctives to get in the way of faithfulness to Jesus. It is my conviction that words like “Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc.” are adjectives, not nouns. The noun is “Christian.” Some of us are “Baptist Christians” and some are “Presbyterian Christians” and so on. But first we are Christians—sold out to Jesus— and what we share in Jesus is more important than anything we differ about. The Apostle Paul risked his life to avoid there being two churches—“a Jewish Christian Church and a Gentile Christian Church.” He would cringe at what we have done since!

Dear friends whom I cherish and respect, including some with whom I studied at Shorter, decided years ago that the Southern Baptist tent was becoming an increasingly intolerant tent, a tent in which issues previously left up to local church autonomy would become issues on which churches and individuals would be forced to “toe the line” or be excluded. Those friends and many others chose to pursue alliance with the Moderate Movement in Southern Baptist life. I did not choose to go that route. I continued hopeful that a day would come when people who had nothing more in common than Jesus would be able to serve and thrive together under the Southern Baptist banner.  That day has not come as yet, and I confess that I may be naïve to believe it ever will.  However, I continue to pray for that day!

In life’s pilgrimage, one of the assignments that came my way was to serve as Trustee of Shorter. Only God knew what those years of trustee service would include. If I had known in advance, I may not have agreed to serve. Allow me to share some history which causes me to make such a statement: SACS examines each accredited school on a periodic basis, to reaffirm accreditation. In the SACS report prior to Dr. Schrader becoming President, a concern was expressed that the Trustees of Shorter were vulnerable to undue, excessive influence from an external body. The external body named was the Georgia Baptist Convention. SACS insists that a Board of Trustees be independent and autonomous, free to act in the best interest of the school. The SACS Report did not call for any action. It simply expressed the concern.

When Dr. Schrader became President, the time came for another SACS reaffirmation. Each time such a SACS review occurs, SACS appoints a different group of educators and administrators to thoroughly examine everything about the school which pertains to accreditation. That is, the group that expressed the earlier concern was NOT the same group who did the review under Dr. Schrader’s tenure. They did, however, read the earlier report, as is customary. After reading the earlier report, the team doing the review asked Dr. Schrader if anything had happened since the last review which would either affirm or deny the concern expressed. It so happens that a few weeks before Dr. Schrader was asked the question, he had met with a Douglasville pastor who had called him asking for an appointment. They shared a meal at a Cracker Barrel on I-75 on the north side of Atlanta. The pastor, quite prominent in the Georgia Baptist Convention, was very critical of Shorter. He said the whole religion faculty should be replaced. He criticized Shorter for being too liberal, too “Moderate.” He was quite confrontational and it was clear he intended to see radical changes made at Shorter.  Admittedly, I was not in the meeting at Cracker Barrel. However, Dr. Schrader shared news of the meeting with the Trustees, and he and I had several conversations about the meeting. We even shared a meal at the same Cracker Barrel and talked about the earlier encounter. Events since those conversations have only served to prove to me the accuracy of Dr. Schrader’s reports.

The next significant development was the election of Shorter Trustees at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Throughout the history of the college, the process had included suggestions being sent by the college to the Nominating Committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Each year, twice as many suggestions would be sent as there were vacancies to fill. That is, the Nominating Committee of the convention had a list twice as long as necessary, from which they chose the candidates whom they considered to be the best choices, and those candidates were then nominated to fill the vacancies on the board. For the first time in history, all the suggestions from the college were rejected and a slate of replacement Trustees was elected by the convention. Some of those rejected had a long relationship with Shorter and some had even served well as Trustees in the past. The replacement slate was obviously representative of the most conservative element of the convention, for whom the Douglasville pastor had been a spokesperson in the meeting with Dr. Schrader.

Then came the first meeting of the Trustees after the convention elected the replacement slate.  One of the replacement trustees spoke eloquently of his embarrassment at the treatment our President received at the hands of the Douglasville pastor. He said that the pastor from Douglasville was only speaking for himself and did not speak for anyone at the convention. It was further claimed that he had “no constituency,” that he was a lone voice expressing only his one-man opinion. I was in the meeting. The replacement trustee promised that he and others would welcome steps to prevent such a threatening confrontation from happening again. He also insisted that the SACS concern was not valid and that we needed to do everything within our power to maintain relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention. I spoke against our taking any action in that meeting concerning Shorter’s relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention, as I thought it was too early to tell what shape that relationship would take in the new context in which we were serving.  Action was delayed/tabled.

Then came shocking news! A few weeks after the meeting described in the previous paragraph, I and others received news that the Douglasville pastor had just been elected as the next Chairman of the Nominating Committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention. That is, the very man who had so crudely confronted Dr. Schrader had now been rewarded for what he had done, and he would lead the very group who decided who gets nominated for any trustee position in the future, not just of Shorter but of all Georgia Baptist institutions. He obviously was not acting and speaking only for himself. He obviously did “have a constituency,” a powerful and calculating constituency who was now putting him in an extremely influential and powerful position. He in fact was being recognized and rewarded for the confrontation with Dr. Schrader. I realized that the promises made in the previous Trustee meeting were either intentionally misleading or totally ignorant. I felt betrayed, because I had so wanted to believe what was said by the replacement trustee. I later shared a parable with the trustees at the meeting in which we voted to break with the Georgia Baptist Convention. The parable is original with me and was not shared with anyone before the meeting, not even with Dr. Schrader. THE PARABLE—Imagine that you are in your house and it is set afire by an arsonist. At the moment that your house is burning, well-dressed, articulate, convincing representatives from the fire department enter your house and tell you, “Do not worry about this arsonist. We know how to deal with his kind. He is acting alone, is an independent fire-brand, and we are embarrassed that you are going through this. We will handle this and it will not happen again.” However, some time passes and not only is your house still burning, but those same well-dressed, articulate representatives of the fire department return to your house to reveal to you that the arsonist has just been named Fire Chief. When you protest, they respond that upon further reflection, they are convinced that the arsonist is in fact a fair and just man, and he will certainly do a good job with his new assignment. As the old saying goes, “I was born at night, but not last night!”  I see representatives who are still well-dressed and articulate, but THEY ARE NO LONGER CONVINCING!

Next, SACS gave the Trustees a deadline to take action, that the autonomy of the Board would be assured.  If we did not take action, SACS threatened putting Shorter on probation, a step short of losing accreditation. Such a threat was quite sobering. I called Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which had lost accreditation in 2002, to ask them how serious the matter was. They had 2,500 students in 2002. When I called, they were down to 300 students. Enrollment figures from the internet for 2009— 240 students. It was obvious to me that if Shorter were put on probation or were to lose accreditation, Shorter would be in the same terrible predicament as Morris Brown. LET THE NUMBERS SINK IN—2,500 DOWN TO 300 AND THEN DOWN TO 240!

The Trustees proposed a compromise to the Georgia Baptist Convention, which SACS agreed to accept if approved by both bodies [i.e. the Shorter Board and the Georgia Baptist Convention].  The compromise called for a meeting each year of representatives from the college and from the convention. Before the meeting, each of the two bodies would come up with a list of proposed Trustees. In the meeting, the representatives would stay however long they had to stay in order to sort through the suggestions from both bodies and come up with an approved list, double the number needed for that year. Then that list would be presented to the Nominating Committee of the Convention, and they would choose the half to actually nominate for election at the annual meeting of the Convention. The Trustees approved the compromise. The Georgia Baptist Convention did NOT approve. They claimed the compromise would force them to surrender autonomy. I personally called the Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and I pointed out that we were dealing with three bodies, each of which claimed autonomy—Shorter Trustees, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and SACS. If we were to continue to have relationship with each other, some measure of autonomy had to be relinquished, as is true in any  relationship of equals. To this day, I do not see how the compromise would have resulted in relinquishment of essential autonomy by the Convention. They would have still made the final election of all Trustees. But the compromise was rejected and thus we still faced the SACS threat.

A very interesting vignette occurred about this time. Those of us who were perceived to not be supportive of the Convention received a letter from the Convention’s lawyers asking for a list of all our assets [bank accounts, investments, houses, retirement accounts, etc.] The letter said we may be held financially accountable if the Convention lost Shorter. The threat was also spoken in a Trustee Meeting by one of the Convention-friendly Trustees. This scenario was a breach of ethics in at least two ways—[1] As soon as a person or entity secures legal representation in a dispute, it is considered a breach of legal ethics for the lawyers to try to contact the litigants directly. The contacts must be made through the lawyers. Thankfully, to my knowledge, no Trustee submitted to the request for financial info. Again, remember, the Convention CLAIMED that they always left Trustees free to carry out their jobs as they felt led. No undue influence, no threats, no pressure.  [2] Trustees are legally empowered to lead and represent a college as they feel led, and they are protected from liability and reprisal unless they are guilty of serious dereliction of duty. The threat from the Convention lawyers was totally inappropriate. I know of no Trustee who sided with the Convention who has suffered reprisal. My family personally suffered reprisal, including my wife being fired from her position with the Georgia Baptist Convention, though all involved admitted that she had done a remarkable job in her assignment.  She was fired due to a “conflict of interest,” identified as her being married to a Trustee who had not sided with the Convention. She was then replaced by the wife of one of the men who voted to fire her, and that was not considered a “conflict of interest.”

SACS gave the Trustees a final deadline of December 31 of that year to take satisfactory action to assure autonomy of the Trustees. Thus, we were led to the fateful vote to break ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention, which was actually two votes. The Executive Committee of the Trustees made two recommendations to the Trustees—[1] To remain a Baptist school but to break ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention;  [2] To take all legal action necessary to gain access to funds held in the Georgia Baptist Foundation which had been given specifically for Shorter College [i.e. to take the Georgia Baptist Convention to court to recover the designated funds]. I voted YES with a heavy heart on the first recommendation, as I was convicted that my first responsibility as a Trustee was not to the Convention but to Shorter, to protect the integrity/strength of the school [and to prevent the repeat of the Morris Brown experience]. I voted with a heavy heart as I had hoped for a resolution which would maintain the relationship between the school and the convention, and I felt that I had done everything I could to accomplish that but had been unsuccessful. I voted NO on the second recommendation, due to my conviction that I Corinthians 6:1-8 prohibits lawsuits between Christians. I knew Shorter needed the money in question, but I was convicted that my greater responsibility was to honor the Scripture and trust God to provide the necessary funding for the college. THE FIRST VOTE PASSED BY A MARGIN OF ABOUT 19 TO 11. I CANNOT REMEMBER THE EXACT NUMBERS. WHAT SHOCKED ME IS THAT THE SECOND VOTE PASSED BY A CONSIDERABLY LARGER MARGIN, ABOUT 24 TO 6. I WAS ESPECIALLY CONFUSED AFTER THE MEETING WHEN I DISCOVERED THAT FIVE OF US VOTED THE SAME WAY I DID, “YES” ON THE FIRST VOTE AND “NO” ON THE SECOND VOTE. THAT SAID TO ME THAT THE SECOND VOTE SHOULD HAVE FAILED. THE 19 “YES” WOULD HAVE BECOME 14, AND THE 11 “NO” WOULD HAVE BECOME 16—A VOTE OF 14 YES AND 16 NO. THE EXACT NUMBERS MAY BE WRONG, BUT THE POINT REMAINS—HOW COULD THE SECOND VOTE EXCEED THE FIRST VOTE, WHEN I KNOW OF FIVE WHO VOTED NO ON THE SECOND RECOMMENDATION BUT WHO HAD VOTED YES ON THE FIRST ONE? I REMAINED PUZZLED UNTIL A FEW WEEKS LATER.

During those weeks, the now independent Board of Trustees had elected a new slate of Trustees, including some who were not Baptist but in my judgment were excellent choices. By a large majority, the Board was still predominantly Baptist. The Georgia Baptist Convention rejected the validity of the election of the new Trustees, and they selected their own slate of Trustees [who were not recognized by Shorter]. We were at a predictable impasse!

The court case began, with the Convention claiming that they were only in court because Shorter had fired the first volley with our vote to take them to court. I read an article in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution which made that very claim. The claim was also made in “The Christian Index,” the newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Technically, they were right, but I still knew something was strange, perhaps even wrong, about the second vote. I again called the Executive Director of the Convention and suggested that if we honored the Scriptures we both said we believed, we would not be in court. I had talked with Dr. Schrader before I made the call. He gave me permission to suggest a “solution” to the litigation over the money. The suggestion was to have the college and the convention appoint representatives, give them the power of binding arbitration, and then those two groups would meet until they came up with an agreement as to what would be done with the funds in question. My suggestion was summarily rejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director, with a reminder that “the convention was only in court because Shorter forced the issue.”

It was also during those first weeks after the Trustee vote to separate from the Georgia Baptist Convention that I discovered from multiple sources, including one Trustee who sided with the Convention, that there had been separate meetings going on for some time of the Trustees who sided with the Convention. They were meeting regularly and were sworn to absolute secrecy about the existence and content of those meetings. FINALLY, MY PUZZLEMENT MENTIONED ABOVE, BEGAN TO CLEAR UP. Remember, the Convention claimed all along that they NEVER sought to control how Trustees functioned. They claimed to have NEVER done anything to make SACS question the independence and autonomy of the Trustees. They said they simply elected them and let them do their job. I WONDER NOW HOW THEY MADE AND CONTINUE TO MAKE THAT CLAIM WITH A STRAIGHT FACE!

During this period, I spoke with a pastor who strongly sided with the Convention. I had been told that he was offended by me, and I called seeking understanding and reconciliation. However, I found him to be the most unreasonable person with whom I have ever spoken. He told me that my only role as a Trustee was to support the Convention. My guess is that SACS would disagree. He also asked if my daughter had received any scholarship money from Shorter. I told him she had, as she had a 4.0 average in high school and very deservedly received a scholarship. He accused me of selling my vote for a scholarship. That conversation did not go well! I concluded the conversation by saying, “I have one God to Whom I answer, and his name is not Fred! This conversation is done!”

BUT BACK TO THE MAIN ISSUE. I REALIZED, AS I REFLECTED ON ALL THIS, WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN THE CRUCIAL TRUSTEE VOTE. THE CONVENTION-FRIENDLY TRUSTEES HAD BEEN INSTRUCTED IN PRIVATE MEETINGS IN ATLANTA THAT IF THEY LOST THE FIRST VOTE, THEN VOTE “YES” ON THE SECOND VOTE, SO AS TO ASSURE THAT THE CONVENTION COULD CLAIM THEY WERE ONLY IN COURT BECAUSE “SHORTER HAD FORCED THE ISSUE. WE DID NOT TAKE SHORTER TO COURT. THEY TOOK US TO COURT.” I HAD THIS CONVERSATION WITH THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CONVENTION. HE DID NOT DENY WHAT I HAD CONCLUDED. HE, OF COURSE, DID NOT ADMIT IT. BUT HE NEVER DENIED IT. I HAVE MADE THE SAME CLAIM TO SEVERAL PEOPLE WHO SIDED WITH THE CONVENTION AND ARE IN THE KNOW. NOT ONE HAS DENIED MY CLAIM.

One clarification. I was close to Dr. Schrader. We met fairly often. He asked me for advice on a variety of issues. He NEVER EVEN ONCE told me how to vote on anything, and he NEVER EVEN ONCE asked me to consider voting in any particular way. I know that my “NO” vote on the second issue was not what he would have preferred. I voted out of personal conviction, nothing more and nothing less, which is what I understand the role of a Trustee to be. Furthermore, there were no separate meetings of Trustees favorable to the college’s position. We NEVER met separately and we were NEVER instructed in anyway how to vote on anything.

Several years have passed. And there is much more to a long story, much of which I do not claim to understand. I do know more than I wish I knew about retribution toward those of us who did not side with the Convention. The convention won in court, by one vote in the Georgia Supreme Court. If just one justice had voted differently, Shorter would have won. But we lost, and now you who are presently fighting for your convictions know the contemporary story better than do I. I am no longer “in the loop,” but I certainly understand something of what you who are “in the loop” feel. My prayers go with you!!!

Rev. Larry T. Burgess

Shorter College, Class of 1970

Former Trustee, Shorter College