Thursday, April 09, 2015

The curious case of Dr. Oord

Much of the Nazarene academic community and others in the Wesleyan tradition are currently alarmed at the potential elimination of Dr. Thomas Oord's position in theology at Northwest Nazarene. Oord is a tenured professor and has not successfully been accused of violating Nazarene doctrine, so the elimination of his position for financial reasons would seem to be the only way to get rid of him legally, assuming that proper procedure is followed even then.

I don't know Dr. Oord or the details of his theology. Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed has suggested that the reason has to do with his affirmation of evolutionary creation. I don't know if that is the case, although Jaschik seems quite off in his sense of how that might violate NNU's faith statement. Oord is also an open theist, which is someone who believes God suspended his knowledge of the future so that we could have free will. As far as I know, Oord would not claim to believe in process theology.

I understand the pressure Christian colleges can experience from their constituencies, and the fact sheet I've seen on the crisis would indicate that NNU has received its share of pressure in relation to Dr. Oord. Colleges need students. If a certain professor is perceived to undermine enrollment, that is serious indeed. On the other hand, if tenure is good for anything, it is to protect competent professors from these forces of popular nature.

I'm sure Dr. Oord will land on his feet. My impression is that he might be able to win this one in court. In any case, I don't think he will have any trouble finding a job somewhere else.

There are reminders here, though, of things that I try to keep in mind:
  • Colleges are businesses. They can only continue to exist if they have students. Students come because they want what you are selling, and it's a big problem if professors aren't selling something they want to buy.
  • Academic freedom is somewhat of a myth. There are things you just can't teach or say anywhere, and I'm including Harvard and the University of Chicago in that statement. Professors don't have carte blanche to say just anything they want and think there won't be repercussions. If a university wants to get rid of you, it will usually find a way.
  • A good college will go a long way to protect competent faculty from popular uprisings and the power of wealthy donors. But faculty and administration should work together to do so, which means that both sides are willing to give a little.
Social media has empowered faculty more than in earlier days, when professors sometimes just disappeared in silence. Today, if there seems to be legitimate wrongdoing, the outcry in social media by the guild of fellow academics can be powerful. The professor him or herself doesn't have to say much; the guild does it for him or her.

Sometimes it wins the day. But most of the time thus far, it hasn't.


jps said...

The familiar "right boot of fellowship." It happens with amazing regularity in confessional schools. Chris Rollston last year at Emanuel, a few years before that the entire Bible department at Grace College. A few years before that, a goodly number of professors at Asbury Seminary.

Can't have our kids exposed to "dangerous" ideas! That's why we send them to Christian schools! We need a bubble for them...and then we marvel when they "fall away" if they go on to graduate school. They only had 6th grade answers to adult questions.


Larry Wood said...

Tom Oord is a very fine scholar and progressive in his thinking as every scholar needs to be. I'm sure other faculty positions will open for him, but having known him for a long time, I'm surprised that the Nazarene Church with its very conservative theology had allowed him to teach for as many years as he has. Contrary to your editorial, Tom is a self-professed process theologian, who affirms that God is limited to persuasive power and denies that God created the world ex nihilo. In fact, Tom is not an open theist, but a process theologian. We can only wish him well in his pursuit of his professional goals as a constructive theologian wishing to address the intellectual issues of our days.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for your comment, Dr. Wood. I do not know the details of Dr. Oord's thinking and only what I have been told by others in this regard.

Larry Wood said...

I have been teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary for 39 years, and I have never known of a single instance where a seminary professor was ever dismissed because of his theological beliefs during my tenure. I can only think of a few who resigned for other reasons, but never because of their beliefs or because of their willingness to explore new ideas. Several years ago during a financial crisis, several senior professors were encouraged to take early retirement, and they did so at their own choice. I am happy to report that ATS is healthy academically because it encourages open inquiry, although ATS is a confessional school and expects its faculty to support their beliefs. But there is much latitude about understanding its confession, and no one is lurking about trying to find or create "heretics." Our faculty are persons of integrity who feel called of God to promote the Wesleyan-Holiness distinctive beliefs and encourage students to be open in their search for truth.

Ken Schenck said...

Glad to hear it!