Last weekend I went to Bryan College to see the solar eclipse. I'm glad I went and the weather cooperated completely. This visit to Dayton, Tennessee, also provided opportunities for me to have extended conversations with people I know and respect at the college about some of the controversies that have come up in recent years. I went into this with an open mind and asking broad, open-ended questions. One could call this a “listening tour” of sorts, though that implies having more plans than I had to do something with what I learned afterwards. My plan and hope was to listen to both sides, and I did. Some of these conversations did not touch on the controversies at all.
Based on what I had read and conversations I had even right after arriving in town, I anticipated finding a spirit of fear on campus and among the faculty. I did not find that.
At Bryan College and among its people, I found a warm spirit of gratitude to God for all that He is doing there at the college and people thankful for the opportunity to be part of that.
When gently probing under the surface, I also found pain. Enduring what feels like attacks leaves hurt.
Those who are taking issue with the college's leadership at the top have expressed their intent to isolate their concerns to him, and not the rest of the staff on campus. There are others at the college who do not see how it would be possible for him to have done those things of which he is accused without others there being involved. Still others, if they do not feel incriminated by the accusations, take offense to being thought of as duped or blind to things going on at the college when in fact their eyes are wide open and in several cases have more information as to what has been going on at the college than those currently lobbing accusations from the outside.
One of the things I found most striking about these conversations is how I was consistently told I was among a tiny, self-selected group of people who had actually bothered to have a conversation with them and ask questions about what they knew about these things. In one case I was the very first in-depth conversation, and in another I was the third person in three years to ask questions. This is a college with 15,000 alumni (a number I remember from several years back, so I expect it is higher now) and a student body of 650 students.
The two biggest controversies for the college, as cited by those opposing the current administration, are (1) the statement of faith clarification in 2014, and (2) the land deal with the camp in Dayton.
The statement of faith clarification was not a change to the statement of faith, but rather a separate clarification to express what many people had always understood the original (and still active) document to mean. Something I did not know from reading the press reports was what brought about this clarification in the first place.
By way of background, I've made several visits to campus over the years since graduating in 1999, and on one of those I learned that the student body in recent years had come to be comprised of approximately one third of students coming from public schools, one third from private schools, and one third from homeschooling backgrounds. A few years ago, that last number had dropped significantly because apparently homeschooling associations and groups had begun to recommend against Bryan College due to some of the professors there teaching theistic evolution. That was inconsistent with the mission and purpose of the college, so the administration moved to correct this with the statement of faith clarification.
One of the difficulties of when this happened was its coming right in the midst of the reaccreditation process the college goes through every few years. The administration did not want to pile this on during that intense time, but also wanted it to happen soon enough to be official for the coming school year. Perhaps it seemed like the least bad option at the time, but the administration waited until after the exhausting accreditation process was complete to raise the statement of faith clarification matter. That admittedly difficult timing prompted the “no confidence” vote.
It was not just homeschoolers that were concerned about the direction of the college with this issue and others following close behind it. I consider it helpful to know what prompted the issue in the first place and agree with the intent. If I had had technical issues with the wording or how consistent it was with Scripture, those would have been matters to bring up with the administration prior to signing a new teaching contract. Apparently some professors decided to make modifications to the college's official offer of continued employment to them that were not agreed upon beforehand, and when the college rejected those unauthorized changes, that concluded their employment.
A side note about employment termination: Some opposing the current leadership frequently cite the lack of disclosure and forthrightness about why people no longer work at the college as an example of poor leadership. What this ignores is the legal landscape in the United States of America and Tennessee that specifically prohibits employers from disclosing some of these details. Further, it is possible that some of the people let go in disgrace are exploiting this limitation to draw sympathy from those opposed to and on the fence about the college's leadership.
With regard to the land deal, here again additional backstory information is helpful. The founder of Fort Bluff Camp got into some moral trouble and the camp was in financial trouble. Debt had mounted, lawsuits were pending, and without outside help the camp would likely have gone under. Remembering how God had used the camp in the past, and wanting to preserve the possibility of that happening there in the future, the camp founder's wife went to Bryan College President Dr. Livesay to ask for help. From there Dr. Livesay ended up on the board of the camp. Also recruited to help was Chattanooga's foremost expert on non-profit organizations to help find a way to work out the finances and legal matters. That person had been on the board of Bryan College previously, but had not been for some time, and his expertise was still valid and useful for handling this situation. They worked out a deal to transfer ownership of the camp property and debt to the college, and then the camp organization would lease back the camp property from the college but still operate independently. It was only after the college owned the camp that it would have become a conflict of interest for Bryan College President Dr. Livesay to be on the camp's board, and that's why he subsequently resigned from the camp's board. Dr. Livesay was never on both boards because he is not on the Bryan College board. As president of the college he is an employee of the Bryan College board.
On both of these matters, the accounting of events I heard from different sources were independently consistent with one another.
There have been other accusations against Dr. Livesay, and at this point that's what they are: accusations. It is well beyond my scope of involvement to exhaustively reach a final conclusion on every matter. I can say that some accusations appear to lack in credibility based on a lack of indicators in others who would have been affected or aware of the situation were those accusations true. Others give him credit (or blame) for actions that were for others to take and were, in fact, taken by others.
Dr. Stephen Livesay brings his own set of strengths, weaknesses, and management style to the job of Bryan College president. He is not his predecessor Dr. Bill Brown. Those who are expecting him to be someone else and to approach the job the same way someone else did will inevitably end up disappointed. It's worth noting, some leaders may simply be less comfortable with large groups or with people they don't know, and especially if those people might have an aggressive or hostile agenda.
It is not hard for me to see how differences over management style, even if it is different than what most would prefer, would fall far short of meriting the removal of someone from leadership, especially if the mission of the institution remains intact and is moving forward under that person's leadership.
The mission of Bryan College is “to educate students to become servants of Christ to make a difference in today's world.” From my observations on campus and in Dayton this weekend, that mission remains in effect, and for that I am grateful.
Bryan College Class of 1999
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