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Civil war at a Christian college

Chronicling three sad years of conflict on the Bryan College campus

Civil war at a Christian college

Students at Bryan College (Handout photo)

A century ago the summer of 1917 was particularly discouraging for soldiers in the trenches. The European Civil War (also known as World War I) that began in August 1914 still had no end in sight.

It wasn’t clear who would win, but the death toll was growing and would be close to 10 million when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson’s first secretary of state, resigned in 1915 when he could see Wilson edging the United States toward war and more death: Not on my watch, the Great Commoner declared.

In 1925 Bryan had his last hurrah at Dayton, Tennessee’s “monkey trial,” where he opposed Darwinism for theological reasons but also cultural ones: He thought a “survival of the fittest” doctrine prodded Germany and other countries toward war. When Bryan died five days after the trial concluded, those who loved him raised funds to open Bryan College in 1930 as a “lasting memorial” to him.

Academic civil wars, particularly at small Christian colleges, are of minor importance compared with conflagrations, but they also have their casualties. Bryan College’s civil war began in 2014. The latest career fatality came at 10 a.m. on July 19, 2017, when Bryan College math department chairman Phillip Lestmann entered the office of academic vice president Kevin Clauson.

Bryan finance vice president Rick Taphorn was also in the office. He handed Lestmann, who had taught at Bryan for 38 years, a copy of a June 2 email stating, “We need everyone to know about the crooks running Bryan.” When Lestmann admitted he had written that email, the next piece of paper he held was a You’re Fired notice.

The grounds: “violation of multiple policies including our Community Life Standards and Disparagement Policy,” which states, “Public disparagement of the college, its policies, mission, purpose, personnel, and/or doctrine is not acceptable.” Bryan’s Faculty-Administrative Guide says tenure is no protection against “gross insubordination.”

Bryan administrators offered Lestmann severance pay of a half-year’s salary, on condition that he say the separation was by mutual agreement and not say anything disparaging about Bryan. He refused “hush money” and told others what had happened. By the end of July a change.org online petition calling for the firing of Bryan President Stephen Livesay and board chairwoman Delana Bice had 1,800 signatures—impressive and depressing for a school with only 634 students on campus.

If the story were only about Bryan, it would merely be a local item—but the conflict is a cautionary tale for Christian schools generally. How had relations become so uncollegial at a college where the unbelieving world should know us by our love? Relations between administrators and faculty members at many institutions are jagged—and tensions are likely to grow at some as enrollments decline and finances tighten.

 

Shawn Poynter/The New York Times/redux

Livesay (Shawn Poynter/The New York Times/redux)

LIVESAY BECAME BRYAN’S PRESIDENT in 2003 and led the college without any big controversies until 2012. That year, though, he tried to cover up the arrest of a Bryan professor in an FBI sting involving a meeting with underage girls for sexual purposes. Once the facts came out Livesay said, “I was motivated by a desire not to heap burning coals on an already broken man. Today I know that the Bryan community would have been better served if I had shared more of the story.”

By 2013, some faculty members were concerned that after a decade on the job Livesay was becoming “autocratic.” Basic mistrust already existed that December when two Bryan professors, with a grant from the “theistic evolution”–promoting BioLogos Foundation, wrote on the BioLogos website, “Macroevolution is robust and has multiple lines of evidence in support of it, including the fossil record and molecular biology.”

The Bryan civil war began in 2014 when Livesay and a majority of the board of trustees, facing the BioLogos threat, added a “clarification” to the Bryan statement of belief that “the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis.” The added sentences: “We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

That should not be a problem for professors at a Christian college to affirm, since the Bible clearly proclaims it, but the Bryan faculty rebelled. Math chairman Lestmann, who became a leading Livesay opponent, says “the issue was never the doctrinal statement” but the imposition of the statement without consultation with faculty, and the timing of its issuance.

Faculty contracts with the amplified statement of belief went out on Feb. 28. To continue working at Bryan, all faculty members had to agree to the statement. By a vote of 38-1 they pleaded for a one-year delay in the required signing, with the goal of either “improving” the wording or giving those who disagreed time to seek other teaching positions—because by Feb. 28 colleges that might have openings for the fall are usually well into their hiring process.

Livesay and a majority of the trustees refused to delay the requirement, even when the trustee who wrote the clarification, Gary Phillips, opposed the way others were using it: Phillips resigned from the board.

Eventually in 2014, two faculty members who did not sign the statement left Bryan. One of the professors forced out, Stephen Barnett, says "We were not fired because we were unable to affirm the Board’s revision, but because we refused to sign a statement that we consider a violation of the College Charter," which says the statement of belief "shall never be changed or amended." 

The Bryan administration defined the added language as a clarification, not a change or amendment. Barnett told me he could have affirmed the added language in 2014 but, as his views have developed, he could not affirm it without reservation now.

The faculty bitterness engendered by the process has not gone away. Now, one side in the Bryan civil war insists the issue is not the statement of faith but a heavy-handed and perhaps corrupt administration—and says those who claim otherwise have created a creationist “smokescreen” to keep others from seeing the truth. Livesay and other administrators, though, say, “We clarified our statement in 2014 when a handful of our faculty reneged on their commitment. … They intentionally deceived those in authority and sought to rouse members of the student body to protest what they claimed was a lack of academic freedom.”

The rebels did rouse students and others. Seven trustees resigned. Livesay, Lestmann, academic VP Clauson, and another faculty member went through a reconciliation process with a Certified Christian Conciliator from Peacemaker Ministries, but whatever conciliation occurred was not long-lasting.

The civil war continued. In 2015, Bryan’s administration changed the Faculty-Administrative Guide so it was harder to call a faculty meeting. The administration ordered the campus newspaper website to archive all stories and links more than six months old: Critics of Livesay said he wanted to cover up the past year’s bitter battle. Lestmann started “an opposition group against the College’s administration,” according to a Bryan press release.

 

A NEW FRONT OPENED UP in 2016: Bryan alumnus and former board member Wayne Cropp says Livesay acted unethically last year to grab for Bryan land—adjacent to the Bryan campus and worth $6.9 million—that the National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) owned. NACA had been in trouble ever since one of its founders in 2009 was accused of sexual molestation.

The details of the NACA-Bryan relationship get us deep into the weeds of board wheeling and dealing, but in essence Livesay, trusted by NACA leaders, stepped into the crisis in 2009, essentially selected a new NACA board, and became chairman of it. Seven years later, Bryan College assumed NACA’s $900,000 debt and gained the land valued at $6.9 million. Only then did Livesay resign from the board, advised by auditors to do so given conflict of interest concerns.

The problem, Livesay’s critics charge, is that the conflict of interest existed all along, both institutionally for Bryan and NACA, and personally for Livesay: Trustees understandably appreciate presidents who keep their institutions in the black. When other members of the Bryan board did not back Cropp’s protest of Livesay’s action, Cropp resigned.

In June 2017, a stinging piece by nationally syndicated columnist Mike Adams drew attention to Bryan’s troubles. His column began: “Bryan College is rapidly becoming Christian in name only. In fact, it is arguably the most corrupt institution of higher learning in America.” Adams (see “Odd man in,” Nov. 21, 2009) is a rarity, a vocal Christian professor at a state university, North Carolina-Wilmington.

Given how deep and wide the corruption within American higher education extends, Adams’ suggestion that Bryan is first in that league seems over the top. Lestmann circulated the column with an email stating, “Praise the Lord. The light is finally getting shined on the darkness at Bryan College.” Late in July Lestmann told me he “was a little over the top” in referring to “crooks,” but he specified that “the email went to a private prayer group.” (That is the “opposition group” the Bryan administration cited.)

Lestmann said he might have modulated his language “if I had known it was going to come out in public,” but “I have no regret that I sent it.” I asked Livesay about Adams’ critique, and Livesay asked attorney Glenn Stophel to reply for him. Stophel said Livesay and others had “worked diligently to keep the NACA ministry alive and be good stewards of the funds entrusted” to them. He said NACA leaders decided its ministry “could best be carried out under the umbrella of Bryan’s governance and management.”

Handout photo

Lestmann (Handout photo)

Bryan moved quickly to remove any online recognition of Lestmann’s 38 years of teaching. On July 21, two days after his firing, a googling of “Lestmann-Bryan College” revealed three links, but a trip to the links each time produced a “FILE NOT FOUND” response. Lestmann said turning down the separation package was not hard, since he is “not in financial need”: Turning 66 in September, he was contemplating retiring in a year or so anyway, since life on campus had become “more and more intolerable.”

Early in August the two sides continued to argue past each other, each emphasizing a different aspect. Messages from the administration stressed the importance of faculty commitment to Biblical understanding concerning creation, and that is true historically: Abandoning that Biblical position had been a leading indicator of colleges abandoning the gospel. (See “Soaping the slippery slope,” Aug. 25, 2012.) Sometimes presidents have to take hard action that leads to professors leaving, as Albert Mohler did when becoming president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

And yet, former board member Cropp, who helped to craft the 2014 Bryan clarification, said the position on creation “is not the issue at this time.” The petition on change.org asserts Livesay “treats all disagreement with his views as evil and uses deception, threats, and job termination to silence dialogue and hide dissent.”

Financial issues also lead to resentment. Bryan administrators emphasize the creation issue and point to growth in the college’s online program, fundraising for scholarships, inclusion of Bryan in a ranking of “Best College Deals for Conservative Christians,” and the planned arrival of a new martial arts program in fall 2018.

But professors have expressed concern about salary stagnation, and Taphorn, Bryan's finance head, acknowledged that the last faculty raise from general operating expenses came in 2011. (A 2.5 percent raise last year plus the restoration of retirement benefits came out of a special donation.)

 

IT’S HARD FOR AN OUTSIDER like myself to know which side is right, and it’s not by lack of effort from partisans: My email files now include numerous messages from honorable people on both sides. I have been a professor, a Christian college administrator, and a trustee and have seen how perspectives differ.

The first complaint on the change.org petition concerning Bryan’s “poor leadership” notes “loss of key college programs, such as the Center for Origins Research and Education.” That aspect has a long and complicated history, but Todd Wood, the center’s director, did not castigate the administration: He wrote to me that he is “distressed by the conflict at the college, as it has affected friends and colleagues on both sides. I have felt the fear and anxiety created by sudden firings, and I have grieved over false allegations against the college.”

I come away from exploring this story sad for people like Lestmann but also for board chairwoman Bice, who writes of her “love for the ministry of Bryan College,” which “has been a part of my life for over 40 years.” I also grieve for wounded students and alumni. So one lesson for other colleges is clear: Do everything you can, while remaining faithful to Christ, to avoid civil wars. (For one example, see “Course reversal,” Oct. 4, 2014.)

That lesson and others are obvious at suite level but difficult to apply at street level: Administrators need to maintain theological integrity, but professors like to profess, and they sometimes need time to present their views. Clampdowns on communication rarely succeed. Administrators need to be open about budgets, and professors should respect those who have to make tough decisions that will hurt.

Former Bryan President Bill Brown has kept out of the current controversy but offers this advice to all: “Make certain you have a vision and not an agenda. Make certain you are honoring Christ in all your communication. Let humility and grace be your spirit. Always be prepared for God to accomplish what you desire in ways you do not expect. Do not forget that all you are saying is being listened to by an unbelieving world. C.S. Lewis said, ‘When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.’”

William Jennings Bryan is buried in Arlington National Cemetery before a headstone that reads, “Statesman. Yet Friend To Truth! Of Soul Sincere. In Action Faithful. And In Honor Clear.” Each of the battlers at Bryan can aspire to that, as should we all, but the good news is that Christ saves us as we fall short and God takes us, squeezes us, and makes lemonade.

(This story has been updated with additional material on reactions to the 2014 statement of belief amplification.)

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 08/10/2017 08:22 pm

    "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!"  (James 3:5b, ESV2011)

  • Phil W's picture
    Phil W
    Posted: Thu, 08/10/2017 08:45 pm

    One detail that could easily be overlooked is the approval of the grant from BioLogos. The two professor mentioned above had Dr. Livesay's approval to pursue the theo. evol. project. I don't know if this came as a surprise to the board of trustees, but it was not a surprise to the president. So I have to ask if he or other admin were blinded by the money when he or they approved that grant and then acted like a victim when someone (perhaps the board) complained.

  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 08/11/2017 03:29 pm

    Perhaps the administrators and teachers need a huge dose of humility. Have they forgotten who pays the bills and who they serve? Anyone suffering from ivory tower syndrome?  In the world of commercial business, if you forget who the customer is you go out of business.  My heart goes out to the students who get pulled into these childish antics by adults who should know better.   

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 08/18/2017 03:17 pm

    The Enemy strikes where he sees our vulnerability. All of us, being human, have some weak spot(s) and Satan has found those of the Administration and Faculty at Bryan.