High-profile resignations are fueling protests at Cedarville University over the Baptist school's doctrine and direction.
As school trustees convene today for a regularly scheduled meeting, several petitions (with more than 1,000 signatures each) have sprung from online forums where alumni, faculty, and some of Cedarville's 3,000 students are calling for greater openness about the school's "identity and vision."
"Dr. Brown and Dr. Ruby have both been the most prominent voices for Cedarville moving toward a more robust and moderate evangelicalism," said senior theology major Josh Steele, who founded Fiat Lux, one of the protest websites. "The university is moving back toward conservative fundamentalism."
Such concerns first surfaced when doctrinal white papers intended to "clarify and elaborate" the college's faith statement were adopted last January; the resulting doctrinal dispute led to theologian Michael Pahl being removed from teaching duties in August. But concerns mounted after president Bill Brown announced his resignation in October, and ignited after vice president of student life Carl Ruby did the same in January.
Now, investigations of Bible professors and a proposal to discontinue the school's philosophy major have prompted speculation that Cedarville's board of trustees is steering the school away from engagement with mainstream evangelicalism.
However, Cedarville "isn't moving anywhere," said board chairman Lorne Scharnburg, emphasizing that the Ohio school is an independent Baptist university. "We're staying where we've always been."
Tensions over theology and identity have recently faced many Christian schools, including Baylor University, Northwestern College, Calvin College, and Patrick Henry College. (Shorter University lost nearly half of its 100 faculty members; Erskine College ended up taking its denomination to court.)
At Cedarville, tensions over its identity first became visible in 2006 after the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) severed ties over the school's engagement with Southern Baptists (among other "theological differences"). In 2008, alumni complaints prompted the school to disinvite Christian activist Shane Claiborne from a lecture (he was invited back in 2011). In 2009, the student newspaper canceled its final issue in protest over a new public relations review process.
A dispute in the Department of Biblical and Ministry Studies over "truth and certainty" led to the dismissal of two tenured professors in 2007—a controversial decision upheld by trustees but challenged by the American Association of University Professors for denying "academic due process." The professors were officially let go for behavioral misconduct; they claimed it was because they were too theologically conservative.
The rift led to the hiring of faculty members perceived by administrators to be "'liberals and progressives' out of step with the rest of the university," said a department faculty member who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. In response, he believes, came the new doctrinal white papers.
The subsequent removal of Pahl and resignations of Brown and Ruby fueled speculation on campus and among alumni of a purge. But trustees want observers to stop trying to connect the dots.
"[Brown] resigned. It was a mutual agreement. It wasn't hostile. He wasn't fired," Scharnburg said. "The first one to bring it up? I'm not sure. But that discussion had gone on, to some degree, several months before. It didn't come up suddenly overnight."