Shorter affirms new direction as faculty resign

Baptist Press
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Posted: May 29, 2012 12:52 PM
Shorter affirms new direction as faculty resign
ROME, Ga. (BP) -- Shorter University President Don Dowless is defending the university's renewed commitment to Christian principles amid the departure of at least 36 faculty members, a number of whom have refused to sign Shorter's new lifestyle statement.

Normal attrition averages between 20 and 25 at the end of the spring semester as faculty accept employment opportunities elsewhere, Dawn Tolbert, Shorter's vice president for public relations, told The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Shorter employs "about 105 to 108 faculty" during a normal academic year, Tolbert said.

The north Georgia university, with 3,000-plus students, is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Shorter graduated 485 students May 4.

Staff -- non-faculty employees -- also will be required to sign the document but those letters have not yet been distributed, Tolbert said.

Last October, trustees approved a suite of faculty and staff guidelines that draws the university closer to a biblical worldview also being embraced by the state convention's two other colleges. Those employees were given until this spring, when contracts for the fall 2012 semester were offered, to sign each document indicating their acceptance as partial terms of their employment.

Dowless was inaugurated as Shorter's 19th president Nov. 11, a month after the new guidelines were approved. He came to the post from North Greenville University in South Carolina, where he served for five years as vice president of academics affairs.

The four-point lifestyle statement states that university faculty and staff should:

-- agree with the university's statement of faith.

-- be active members of a local church.

-- "reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality."

-- "not use alcoholic beverages in the presence of students, and … will abstain from serving, from using and from advocating the use of alcoholic beverages in public (e.g. in locations that are open to use by the general public, including as some examples restaurants, concert venues, stadiums and sports facilities) and in settings in which students are present or are likely to be present."

The lifestyle statement further stipulates that faculty and staff "will not attend any university sponsored event in which I have consumed alcohol within the last six hours. Neither will I promote or encourage the use of alcohol."

Dowless, in acknowledging the resignations, told The Index May 21 that he and Shorter's trustees "realize there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue surrounding these new employment policies."

"Our university was at a crossroads to either take steps to regain an authentic Christian identity in policy and practice or we would become a Christian university in name only," Dowless said. "The board made the decision to reclaim our Christian roots knowing that it would have consequences in terms of losing current faculty and staff.

"For months we have been preparing for this eventuality. We have already hired new faculty and are in the process of hiring additional well-qualified faculty and staff.

"While we hate to lose members of our community, we wish them well as they pursue new opportunities. Through this time of transition, we continue to remain committed to providing our students with an academically excellent Christian education."

The documents approved by Shorter's trustees last October include a philosophy of education, statement of faith and statement of faith integration as well as the personal lifestyle statement.

According to a faculty survey in January commissioned by a group calling itself the Committee for Integrity and conducted by Read Martin & Slickman, a certified public accounting firm in Rome, Ga., some professors -- although anonymously -- voiced strong opposition to the new guidelines. An April 3 copy of the survey results received by The Index appears to be similar to one the Rome News-Tribune based an April 1 story on following a statement released by Dowless March 30.

Retired pastor Nelson Price of Marietta, Ga., and Shorter board chairman when the lifestyle statement was approved, took issue with the survey in an email response to the newspaper.

In a four-point response, Price said the survey infringed on the name of the university by implying the surveywas official, was anonymous, was not an objective blind survey and had "highly biased" questions."

The CPA firm, in its cover letter, stated 109 faculty members were asked and 61 responded to four questions provided by the Committee for Integrity: intent to sign the lifestyle statement, future employment plans, agreement with the president's affirmation of their value to Shorter and a vote of confidence in the president.

The letter stated the results "were in no way influenced or arrived upon" by Read, Martin & Slickman and that the firm was employed simply to conduct the survey and tabulate the responses.

Ten percent voiced approval of the lifestyle statement; 12 percent planned to remain at the university; 65 percent planned to retire at the end of the current academic year or find other employment;11 percent agreed with Dowless' view of the value of the new policies and 8 percent gave him a vote of confidence.

Dowless, in acknowledging the survey, said Shorter remains committed to its founding values as a Christian institution.

"We have long known that some faculty and staff do not agree with the steps Shorter is taking to bring the university back to its Christian roots." But, he added, "We want to employ faculty and staff that represent the biblical values at the core of Shorter University and that can serve as positive role models for our students.

"We know, and research supports, that for any organization to be successful, it must clearly define its core values and articulate them internally and externally. That is what is now taking place at Shorter."

Dowless did not skirt the issue of faculty unrest and acknowledged "we have long known that some faculty and staff do not agree with the steps Shorter is taking to bring the university back to its Christian roots."

But, while agreeing that "change is hard and while some disagree with the university's direction," he stated the institution has also experienced "an influx of renewed support from students, faculty, staff and alumni alike."

"Our faculty and staff are important members of this community but, ultimately, we're here to serve our students first," Dowless said. "We believe we are taking the appropriate and necessary steps to do this well."

Betty Zane Morris, a member of the Committee for Integrity and a former chair of the Shorter communications department, told the Rome News-Tribune the purpose of the survey was to "give the faculty a voice that has been denied them throughout all the changes that have taken place."

In an open letter to Dowless and Shorter's board of trustees dated March 23, Morris said the survey was designed to give the "marginalized" faculty a voice. Morris said the survey was mailed by the CPA firm to 109 full-time faculty with stamped, self-addressed envelopes to be returned to the firm for compiling the results.

Morris retired from Shorter as a distinguished professor in 2007 after 46 years on the teaching faculty. The university's Betty Zane Morris Communication Scholarship is named in her honor.

Morris stated, as an authorized representative for the Committee for Integrity, the committee is not associated with Shorter "in any official way." Its members, she added, "are all stakeholders in Shorter's future: former and present faculty, alumni and staff."

No committee members were listed in the letter.

Regardless of the timing of the survey results' release, four nursing faculty -- representing the majority of the university's 18-month-old nursing program -- announced their resignations April 1. Included among them is Vanice Roberts, dean of the school of nursing, who is leaving to serve as consultant for a new nursing program at neighboring Berry College.

Shorter University is one of three institutions of higher learning affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. The other two are Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland and Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon.

Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index (www.ChristianIndex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Christian Index editorial can be found at www.christianindex.org/8093.article.

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