At first glance, this news seems like a win for academic freedom and respectability in Baptist higher education. Like OBU President David Whitlock and unlike recent Baptist college presidents that have pushed their schools toward fundamentalism (including Shorter's Don Dowless and Cedarville's Thomas White), Dr. Oliver does not hold academic degrees from post-Takeover SBC seminaries. This alone may be an indication that he has little appetite for fundamentalist encroachment in academic institutions.
Oliver's ETBU is more moderate than Union and most other Baptist colleges. Along with a handful of schools, ETBU is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. After the Conservative Resurgence progressed from the national SBC to the state conventions, moderates in two states (Virginia and Texas) successfully resisted the resurgence. In those states, conservatives formed rival conventions in order to avoid sharing power with moderates. Today's SBC leaders have a complicated relationship with the BGCT. The BGCT pours millions of dollars into SBC seminaries and agencies through its Cooperative Program giving. At the same time, many Texas Baptist congregations contribute to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The BGCT contributes to organizations that post-Takeover SBC leaders loathe, such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.
While solidly committed to distinctively Baptist Christian higher education and employing only believing Christians as faculty, ETBU is nowhere near conservative enough for today's SBC leaders. They will not be pleased that Union's new president did not personally intervene to prevent ETBU from hiring a female Bible professor. They will also not be pleased that at Oliver's former institution, the religion department does not employ a single post-Takeover SBC seminary graduate. ETBU's religion faculty typically present their research at the mainstream American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meetings rather than the Evangelical Theological Society's conference. The fact that Oliver tolerated moderates will not inspire the confidence of certain SBC insiders. At least he had the good sense to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate.
However, Union University is a very different environment than the ETBU that Oliver leaves behind. Union is widely considered to be the flagship of Baptist state convention-affiliated colleges. Numerous SBC agency staffers and seminary faculty send their own children to Union. Like Cedarville, the only female employee in Union's religion department is the secretary. The exclusively male religion faculty is largely composed of SBC seminary alumni.
Union is not a fundamentalist university. It is a strong, thriving, growing institution. There is no evidence to suggest that it is on the same trajectory as Cedarville and Shorter, let alone Baptist colleges that are in danger of losing their accreditation. Like Bob Agee, a former Union administrator who was president of OBU from 1982 to 1998 , David Dockery masterfully earned and kept the trust of two forces in Baptist higher education that, since the Conservative Resurgence, are increasingly at odds with one another. These tensions will continue to exist at OBU, Union, and many other universities. I wrote about the two competing forces in my last post:
First, there is a majority among the trustees, faculty, and alumni that wants [the school] to remain academically strong, respected, and rigorous (while, of course, being true to its Baptist heritage). At the same time, there is a powerful force within Southern Baptist life today that wants doctrinal conformity, is more trustful of authoritarian leadership, and is less tolerant of dissenting perspectives (while also desiring, if possible, academic respectability).
Hiring a president who has never studied or worked in a post-Takeover Southern Baptist institution is a big step for Union. It proves that Union is ultimately run out of Jackson, not out of Brentwood, Nashville, Louisville, or anywhere else. Though a few SBC leaders have tweeted out congratulatory messages to Dr. Oliver today, it seems reasonable to assume that some would have preferred a more fundamentalist-friendly president at Union.
Oliver's inauguration service at ETBU in 2009 included greetings and blessings from friends at Baylor and Carson-Newman. That alone is enough to make today's Southern Baptist power brokers wary. Presumably his installation service at Union will be more SBC-centric. The dynamics of relating to the Tennessee Baptist Convention will be different than how Oliver's ETBU relates to the BGCT. But ultimately Union's trustees have the responsibility to protect and defend Dr. Oliver's stewardship of the institution when he finds himself opposed to forces that would erode academic freedom and encroach upon fragile Baptist freedoms.
Deservedly, Dr. Oliver will begin his tenure with reservoirs of trust and goodwill from both "sides." He will have an inestimable ally and confidant in Chancellor David Dockery. There will be plenty of time in years to come to speculate about the role of the Union presidency in the Baptist battles. For now, it is enough to congratulate Dub Oliver and wish him our best. Remembering that his election was unanimous, let us be unanimous in our prayers for him for Union, and for all the Baptist institutions we so dearly love.