Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ruled out of Oord-er

Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene confirmed its decision to let Thomas Oord go. My initial post on this situation is here. Tom has recorded and posted a civil response here and his video version here.

1. I have greatly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I suspect Dr. Oord could win a lawsuit against NNU. It is overwhelmingly clear to any fair-minded person that this lay off is for ideological reasons rather than NNU's economic situation. And given that Kevin Timpe is leaving for Calvin, there is a theology/philosophy spot open anyway. In short, this is exactly why tenure was invented and about the only thing it is actually good for.

2. On the other hand, I sympathize with the board and administration, because having professors that are radical for their clientele is not good for a desired trajectory or potentially for business. This may seem Cro-Magnon to say, but universities do have to have students to stay open, and what parents think of a university is a significant factor in whether you have students.

Yes, I like to think of universities as "liberating" the minds of youth. Yes, I see universities as one of the best hopes for the future of Western civilization.

But there is a balancing act here. Woody Allen once wrote, "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not." The same might be said of a "niche" educational institution such as Christian colleges are. You can stretch students and their parents will tolerate some stretching if it is within tolerable limits. But there is also a break point, where faculty are just not mission fit and "bad for business."

Most of the time, truth is not this objectively obvious thing. Those who think all universities should just hire the best scholars are several decades behind the curve. If postmodernism is good for anything, it has shown us that there is no such thing as the Spock-like, objective scholar. This is especially the case in the liberal arts and subjects like theology.

3. Who a university hires sets a trajectory not only for the university but for generations of students. I'll use Dr. Martin at IWU as an example. His thinking had significant elements of Reformed epistemology to them, IMO. As a Wesleyan I didn't like it, even though he was a godly man, a great professor, and an incredible mentor.

He had an immense impact on generations of IWU students. I sometimes hear his voice even in Steve Deneff's preaching (truth is revealed rather than discovered). Who a university hires can have an immense impact on generations, especially at small colleges, especially when they are forming the leaders of a denomination.

So you think of the fact that open theism seems very prevalent in the Nazarene Church. Why is that? Is it not because there are a number of influential Nazarene professors who teach it? Again, I don't think open theism is the boogie man. As heresies go, I put it in the category of heresy-light, the kind that most of us have rattling around somewhere in our thinking.

So I feel for the board and administration in that sense. Tom is obviously a great guy and a great professor, but they very likely see him as a bad influence on the denomination. This is why it is essential to hire the right people to teach on the front end.

4. But lastly and mostly, I feel for Tom and the faculty at NNU. Here is one of the Nazarene church's best scholars and brightest minds. One model for a university is as a place where experts on particular topics push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding on that topic. In some cases, a university is a place where the brightest minds of a particular generation become masters of truth.

But there are other models that are also legitimate and more dominant for obvious reasons. There's the model of college as a place to learn a skill to get a job. There's college as a place for students to be formed according to the particular virtues and ideology of a particular group. Christian colleges tend to fall especially in this last "formational" category, IMO.

Most professors unthinkingly assume that their role is the first one--to pursue the bounds of knowledge and enlighten students. By contrast, parents (especially at Christian colleges) assume that the point of the college is the last two--to form students in some particular Christian set of ideas and values and to equip them to get a job.

Of course the ideological pinch is also present at secular institutions, but with different boundaries. There are boundaries you just can't push there either, just different ones. And social media is lynching secular professors these days too.

The leadership of NNU has soundly located it yesterday in the formation/vocation camp with this decision, not the research/push the bounds of truth camp. They've implicitly said, "Send your kids here to be formed along traditional Nazarene lines." They've rejected, "Send your kids here to be cutting edge thinkers." I accept this decision as the nature of the game, even if it saddens me.

5. So its just a bad situation all around. Tom is an excellent thinker and professor. He should be teaching somewhere. I was hoping maybe United in Dayton would hire him, since Jason Vickers is leaving there for Asbury Memphis. (nudge, nudge) I think there are students who would go to a particular graduate school just to study with him (including a LOT of angry young Nazarenes right now).

The world needs thinkers who push the boundaries. They just need to be at the right schools. They need to be at places where it's okay to push their particular boundaries of choice.


Anonymous said...

I'm an outsider to this whole situation, but it screams to me that this is an economic decision in that some big donors are unhappy with his theological openness, so he was let go of of self-preservation.

If any of that is at play, it's abhorrent and completely backwards. Education is not useful when it seeks to indoctrinate.

Randy Dewing said...

Donors are a standard go-to when explaining situations like this--and, I think, mostly irrelevant. To the extent that your donor base represents your base of stake-holders, their opinions are certainly relevant, but the tiny proportion of money they represent to most schools pails in comparison to tuition dollars.

Besides, for evangelical universities ideology and mission fit really are important--more important than monetary considerations. Think how quickly those of us who work outside the classroom would receive our notice if we publicly revealed a mission conflict.

When we see these sorts of staffing decisions applied to faculty, there is usually considerably more reticence than in cases involving staff or administrators. I believe that demonstrates a respect for the value of diverse opinions within the faculties of these schools (or it shows the greater power of the faculty--which, in itself, reveals the priorities int eh structure of the institutions).

Staff members like me don't represent anything like the potential financial impact (for good or ill) of a high-profile professor, and staff and administrators are released (usually rapidly) for public mission incompatibilities. That's not because of a fear of donors.

Is it just possible that these institutions care about philosophy and world view and think about the impact of certain ideologies? I think we should give them some credit regarding motivations--whether we agree with the decision or not.