The late Rev. W. A. Criswell, legendary pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, founded Criswell College in 1970 as a bulwark of conservatism. The school and its leaders were prominent in conservatives' rise to power in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Now some say the college's future is threatened. Conflicts between college and congregational leaders over who owns the school's assets culminated in the August 5 resignation of president Jerry Johnson. Officials said Johnson had "philosophical differences" with First Baptist's leaders, particularly with Criswell's chancellor and First Baptist's senior pastor, Robert Jeffress.
Johnson made the months-long feud public in a news release August 1. In it, Johnson claimed that Jeffress "has been trying to cannibalize Criswell College to fund his building program at the church." Johnson and Steve Washburn, a Texas pastor and Criswell trustee, said Jeffress wanted to transfer the college to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Fort Worth, sell the campus and its radio station, and use the profits to finance a new sanctuary for First Baptist.
Jeffress denied all accusations, saying there was no plan to sell the college or its radio station. He also said that to link the possible transfer of the school and sale of the radio station to a building program that is still in the planning stages was erroneous. However, Jeffress rankled some Criswell supporters by saying he wanted to launch a study to assess the "true condition" of Criswell's finances and enrollment and see whether it still has a viable niche.
"Things have changed since the school was started," Jeffress told Christianity Today. "Back then none of the seminaries had undergraduate colleges like Criswell. Now most, including Southwestern, have undergraduate programs. It is also no secret that over the past years, Criswell has faced enrollment declines and financial challenges."
The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had imposed a 12-month probation against Criswell for failing to show "financial stability," but recently lifted it. Interim president Lamar Cooper believes the commission erroneously counted a $3 million figure as a negative when they should have counted it as a positive.
Johnson and Washburn said the school is on sound financial footing, reporting a $7 million surplus this year. Jeffress, however, said that much of that money is endowment.
Cooper believes Criswell is needed as much as it was in 1970. "While the seminaries have made a theological course correction, most Baptist colleges are by and large not conservative," he said. "There is still a need for a college like ours." Many Criswell graduates and former staff have leading roles in the SBC, he said, including Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Richard Land.
Southwestern president Paige Patterson served as Criswell's president in the 1980s, when he led conservatives' efforts to gain control of the SBC. Patterson recently sent Criswell trustees copies of a letter he had written to a Criswell alumnus. The letter stated that he has "no interest whatsoever in a hostile or even a sweet takeover" of Criswell.
Criswell trustees passed a resolution saying they would not transfer the Dallas school to Southwestern, but Jeffress said a transfer is still possible.
Patterson's letter said Jeffress had called and asked if Southwestern would accept the college if offered. "I answered 'Yes,'" Patterson wrote. "I would remember my 17 years there and the incredible contribution made by Criswell College to Baptist life, and would guarantee its future by name at Southwestern."
Who has the authority to make such a transfer is in dispute.
Jack Pogue, head of the W. A. Criswell Foundation and a Criswell trustee, said a Dallas attorney he hired concluded that the college controls its own assets. "As a trustee of the college … it's my obligation to protect those assets," said Pogue.
But Jeffress contends that "the college and all other entities ultimately are accountable to First Baptist," noting that the church must approve all trustees. "[A]ccording to its bylaws, Criswell's membership is defined as the 'membership of First Baptist Church of Dallas.'"
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