Schooled Reporting on education

‘Lament and conviction’

Education | The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary releases a report on its historic ties to slavery and racism
by Leigh Jones
Posted 12/19/18, 02:58 pm

Gregory Wills, a professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has spent years chronicling American religious history in general—and Southern Baptist history in particular. Last year, seminary President Albert Mohler, a WORLD News Group board member, asked Wills to head a research team investigating the school’s historic ties to slavery and racism.

Based on his previous research, Wills had an idea of what he would find.

“But I was not prepared for just how thorough, how consistent, how unremitting the commitment to white superiority and black inferiority was,” he told me.

Wills and his team of five other faculty members at Southern Seminary and its affiliated Boyce College released their findings last week. In a letter accompanying the report, Mohler said it was time for the school to come to terms with its past.

“The fact that these horrors of history are shared with the region, the nation, and with so many prominent institutions does not excuse our failure to expose our own history, our own story, our own cherished heroes, to an honest accounting—to ourselves and to the watching world,” he wrote. “We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story.”

The committee dug through published and unpublished sources detailing the lives and business dealings of the seminary’s founders and early faculty members. The researchers also read personal letters and public commentaries on the social and political issues roiling the country before, during, and after the Civil War.

They found painful—and inexcusable—contradictions. While seminary leaders upheld the God-given human dignity of African-Americans, they passionately defended doctrines of white superiority and corresponding racial inequality. They personally profited from slavery—all four of the founders owned slaves—and turned a blind eye to its endemic abuses. And even after cultural attitudes toward slavery changed, defenses of Jim Crow–era segregation continued.

Mohler acknowledged the details raise one very difficult question: “How could Christians hold, simultaneously, such right and wrong beliefs?”

“The very gospel truths that they taught, defined, and handed down to us are the very truths that allow us to release this report with both lament and conviction,” Mohler wrote. “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead. We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours.”

Wills acknowledged even this comprehensive account contains large narrative gaps. Sermons, books, and other writings from black leaders weren’t saved or collected—or at least they aren’t documented in collections currently available to researchers. Wills hopes the committee’s work will encourage other researchers to look for those missing pieces.

Southern Seminary is not the first institution of higher education to confront its past ties to slavery and racism, but it intends to respond to the information differently. The school will not try to purge past sins by renaming buildings or disavowing its founders.

“We neither wanted to condemn those who perpetrated past injustices as some kind of moral monsters, because then we would fail to recognize similar sins in our own hearts, nor to exculpate anyone in the present,” Wills said.

He hopes current leaders and students will use the report to see the continued propensity toward the sins of egoism, vanity, and racial conceit in every human heart. That kind of awareness, he said, will bring about true repentance and eventually diminish current racial injustice: “There’s so much here that is important for Christians and especially for white Christians to learn, and so that’s another one of our hopes for this report is that it will begin a process of educating us about the full history of our churches, institutions, denominations, and our nation.”

Associated Press/Photo by Craig Ruttle Associated Press/Photo by Craig Ruttle Columbia University President Lee Bollinger

Private college presidential salaries on the rise

While parents scrimp and save for their children’s higher education, presidents at dozens of American private colleges and universities bring in comfortable million-dollar salaries. According to a new report released earlier this month by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the average private college president makes a cool half a million dollars annually, but those in the top 10 percent make $1 million or more in total salary and benefits.

Some big earners include Lee Bollinger of Columbia University at nearly $4 million, University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer at $1.6 million, and University of Southern California’s recently ousted president, C.L. Max Nikias, at $1.7 million. Those three universities also made another notable list: U.S. News and World Report’s 10 most expensive private colleges.

Drawing from 2016 tax filings, the Chronicle’s study also documented an increase of nearly 4 percent in presidential compensation from the previous year. The two years before that, the rate of increase was 9 percent each, even though the average annual rate of inflation for all three years was lower than 2 percent. Total compensation includes base salary and other benefits such as bonuses, health insurance, housing, and retirement benefits.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, are more than a dozen presidents who receive no salary whatsoever, including Boston College’s William Leahy and Villanova University’s Peter Donahue, who are Catholic priests. —Laura Edghill

Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying on Capitol Hill in June

Taxpayers to pay off $150 million in student debt

Despite Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s insistence that it’s “bad policy,” the U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it will forgive federal loans for 15,000 former students whose for-profit colleges closed before they could graduate. The Obama-era borrower defense policy had been on hold since President Donald Trump took office and the reins of the Education Department changed hands.

The announcement is the latest in a complicated dispute involving DeVos, the Education Department, and student borrowers who claim they were the victims of fraud.

A federal judge ruled in September that DeVos was unlawfully delaying the payouts. DeVos asserted her department was working to revise the plan and needed time.

The reinstated policy clears the slate of $150 million in borrowed money, about $80 million of which is for former students of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. The infamous for-profit chain collapsed in 2015, leaving thousands of students stranded in the midst of their degree programs and sparking a national debate on student loan forgiveness and the federal government’s role.

DeVos maintains that she aims to replace the current policies, but it could be 2020 before any new rules take effect. Meanwhile, it appears the taxpayers will foot the bill for this round. —L.E.

New Jersey teachers sue over union policy

Two public school teachers have filed a class-action lawsuit in New Jersey complaining that a teachers union is violating their First Amendment freedoms.

Susan Fischer and Jeannette Speck sought to leave the New Jersey Education Association following a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that effectively prevents unions from mandating membership or fees.

Fischer and Speck’s initial attempts to withdraw from the union ran afoul of a state law limiting such separations to an annual 10-day window of eligibility. The New Jersey state legislature hastily passed that law while the Supreme Court case was still pending.

“New Jersey law prohibits many employees from exercising their First Amendment rights … for 355-56 days of the year,” the lawsuit stated.

The legal momentum could be in the teachers’ favor. In a similar case, Michigan teachers won relief earlier this year when their state Supreme Court ruled against the Michigan Education Association and its monthlong “August window” for union withdrawals. Michigan teachers can now freely opt out of their state union at any time.

“Contrary to the wishes of New Jersey union bosses and their allies in the state legislature, First Amendment rights cannot be limited to just 10 days out of the year,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said in a statement. —L.E.

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Leigh Jones

Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.

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  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 12/21/2018 08:58 pm

    I applaud the efforts of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to acknowledge and lament the history of the church and its handling of racism and discrimination.  We may not be able to confess the wrongs of others, but we can confess wrongs that we have done personally and as a nation because we are still dealing with the results of those sins.  I was just a kid during the Civil Rights Movement.  Although a close relative spoke positively about civil rights and taught us that bigotry was wrong, I was still affected by the racist attitudes of others around me; and, even decades later, God shows me that bits and pieces still lurk in my heart. 

    It's not unusual for me to hear excuses and denials about the racism and discrimination before and during the Civil Rights Movement, and I still hear people say things that remind me of the things I used to hear back then.  It's tempting to say that this mostly affected the South; but I hear these things from people who grew up all over the country, which tells me that it has been woven deeply into the fabric of our nation.  I think we must ALL renounce these things and confess any attitudes in our own hearts if we are to move forward.

    There is some biblical precedent for this.  While in exile, the prophet Daniel prayed: "To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you..."  (Daniel 9:8 ESV)

    and "...O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because of our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your peple have become a byword among all who are around us..."  (Daniel 9:16 ESV)

    After his prayer he said this: "While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my peole Israel, presenting my plea before the LORD my God for the holy hill of my God..." (Daniel 9:20 ESV)