Rubicon Crisis at NNU?

A fierce firestorm is raging on the campus of Northwest Nazarene University.

Last week, Tom Oood, a well-loved and controversial professor, was given notice of being laid off at the end of the semester. 

Although the president claims this is a financial necessity due to decreased enrollment in Oord’s department, the broader NNU community smells a rotten fish.  For details of the controversy, consult the fact sheet at the Facebook group: Support Tom Oord.
   I have been reluctant to blog about this issue because I do not bring disfavor upon Christ, the Church, and specifically the Church of the Nazarene.  However, the truth is I’m terribly unconnected geographically and socially to Northwest Nazarene University.  I am only part of this conversation through friendship and loyalty to the Church of the Nazarene.  With the hope of working for justice and hope in this situation, I am posting now.

First, let me say that I am hopeful. 

True, I’m also terribly grieved for Tom, for NNU, for progressive Nazarenes around the world, and for our denomination as a whole.  However, above all that, I am hopeful.  The massive outpouring of support for Tom gives me hope.  But even more, I’m simply hopeful that we (Nazarenes actively moving forward into the 21st century) will win this war. 

   We have already suffered casualties with other high profile dismissals or demotions ranging back to at least the 80s - and with countless lower profile firings, push-outs, and quiet walk-aways.  However, not only is “the Old School” dying, but our growth is outpacing their decay.  

   The good news that may not be obvious is that many of “them” are slowly becoming “us.”  Conservatives are turning into moderates, and moderates are becoming progressives.  It may feel slow to all of us in the thick of battle, but in terms of eons of history, this pace of change is incredibly fast.

   Honestly, though, this is not an “us vs. them” fight. 

We are all on the same team.  We are simply wrestling together over how to guide the fleet and all its many ships.  In fact, it is this very realization that is turning the tide.  As our elders and siblings to our right listen to the hearts of us progressives, they are more and more acknowledging that we do in fact authentically serve the same Christ, and thus begins their progressive movement.
   We are not a fundamentalist denomination.  We have resisted the lures of fundamentalism for more than a century, and I have full confidence that we will not succumb now.  We are moderates, centrists, even progressives.  Nazarenes are a people who are always looking into the future, working with the Spirit to bring God’s eschaton into the present.
   Further, I’m hopeful that the close sequencing of crises: NPH, MNU/Beckum, NNU/Oord — and the subsequent outcry from the Nazarene constituency will coalesce into a Rubicon of sorts:

  • This must be the end of backroom political maneuvering.  Backrooms will eventually become front page news now.  
  • This must be the end of clumsy public statements shrouding obvious ulterior motives.  Social media will find you out.  
  • This must be the end of intolerance of divergence.  We must learn to live together.  Our leaders must facilitate environments of creative discourse and even loving discord, or we will find other leaders who will.  

   This is our opportunity to cross the Rubicon of change for the Church of the Nazarene.  This disastrous personnel move (in combination with the preceding crises) could thrust us all kicking and screaming across the Rubicon to a place of healthier conflict management and genuine community.

   I am and will remain hopeful for the Church of the Nazarene.

 

   Second, as to the specific crisis now at Northwest Nazarene University, I feel compelled to speak out. 

I honestly ask forgiveness from God and others if a blog is not the correct forum for this voice. However, in our social media age, I’m not sure where else to raise my voice, and I’m convinced I must speak.  Again, I would refer anyone unfamiliar to the situation to the fact sheet available in the files section of the Facebook page “Support Tom Oord.”  

Policy Violations

  I will attempt to outline a brief sketch of what appear to be violations of the Northwest Nazarene University Faculty Policy Manual (sometimes in letter, sometimes in spirit), following sequentially through the manual rather than in terms of importance or degree of violation:

1. The award of tenure shifts the burden of proof concerning the faculty member’s continuing appointment from the faculty member to the University.  (4.25 first paragraph)  [There has been no attempt on the part of the university to fulfill this burden of proof requirement.  Instead, shoddy financial logic has been offered up.  The official statement is so poor and clumsy in comparison with the overall situation that the statement itself has become a secondary problem in addition to the actual lay-off.]

2. Layoff is a severance action by which the University terminates the services of a faculty member without prejudice as to the faculty member’s performance. Layoffs may occur as a result of the decreased enrollment of academic programs not involving financial problems or retrenchment. If within a two-year period of a faculty member’s layoff the University opens a position in the same discipline or in another discipline for which the faculty member may qualify, the faculty member laid off will be the first one to whom the position is offered. (4.25.d)  [This is the policy invoked.  However, the justification given is not only the decrease in enrollment, but more specifically financial problems.  The financial problems would seem to preclude using this section of the Faculty Policy Manual based on the following phrase in the second sentence: "not involving financial problems or retrenchment."  In addition to the actual statement of policy, we must acknowledge that this is a violation of standard university protocol to lay off junior faculty before senior faculty - causing seniority and academic productivity to shield faculty from cutbacks.]

3. The Board of Trustees has the ultimate obligation and authority to govern the University. If the Board of Trustees or the President of the University determines that a serious financial problem exists or that other circumstances require consideration of a serious reduction in existing programs or an involuntary elimination of administrators, faculty, administrative personnel, or staff positions, the Board of Trustees may undertake action resulting in reduction or elimination of existing programs or administrators, faculty, administrative personnel or staff positions. (4.25.e)  [Based on the purported rationale that the layoffs were financially motivated, 4.25.e would seem to apply.  However, this raises several problems. Most glaringly, the Board of Trustees was not consulted in this decision.  Second, the criteria for "serious financial problems" was not met, given the university's self-proclaimed excellent financial standing.  Third, it seems that what is actually in play here is Alexader's claim (not publicly stated, but still widely known) that "other circumstances require consideration of ... an involuntary elimination of ... faculty ... or staff."  If this is the actual situation, then these "other circumstances" should be publicly considered by the BOT, and clearly Alexander has avoided this step.]

Core Values Violations

Beyond these violations of policy, Dr. Alexander's actions here seem to violate each of NNU's core themes: transformation, truth, community and service (1.2). 

Before I continue, a small caveat.  I do not know Dr. Alexander personally.  Many attest to his Christ-like character.  My assumption here is that he is a good Christian leader who has made a big mistake.  I believe he has violated his own core values as well as those of NNU.  Let me quote and explain with notes within the text:

Transformation (1.4.1): We believe education fosters transformation. NNU engages and affects all domains of life—intellectual, social, physical and spiritual—thereby advancing the transformation of the individual, the church, and the world.  [However, this layoff plan is decidedly UN-holistic.  It frames the layoff of a well-loved (and controversial) professor within the simple dynamics of adjusted financial priorities such as spending money on marketing.  This is counter to NNU's core identity.]

... In addition to academic transformation, we aim to transform students’ beliefs and values from varying degrees of narcissism to a willingness to engage in conversation people and value those who hold other points of view, even those with whom the student may disagree.  [Clearly, Dr. Alexander's actions imply that he does not "value those who hold other points of view."  Furthermore, reports from other administrators indicate that Dr. Alexander refused to engage them in conversation regarding this decision.]

As a Christian institution, we seek to hold up the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate expression of the transformed life. We pursue His life of love and His teachings as the ultimate source of transformative energy, given through the presence of the Holy Spirit ... [Nothing about this decision seems loving or Christlike. A simple point of evidence is that the news was delivered (a) by email, (b) while Dr. Oord was on vacation with his wife in Hawaii, (c) at the last possible moment, (d) without consultation with the leaders of his department.  On the contrary, this action stinks of old-school political maneuvering, rather than love.]

NNU is committed to fostering Christian spiritual maturity. We believe this is essential in the education of the whole person. [Forgive my crassness, but this decision speaks of immaturity on many levels: aggressive action despite contrary advice from several advisers, personal vengeance, and seeking personal ease over institutional good. Although I expect Dr. Alexander believed he was working for the good of NNU, I also expect that time will tell he was sorely mistaken not only in that but also in terms of assessing his own personal motives for this decision.]

At NNU, we consider the transition toward mature and independent thinking fostered in a liberal arts education to be an important part of the Christian formation in the Wesleyan tradition. [As so many have stated, this attack on Oord is an attack on the "independent thinking" which stands as one of NNU's core values.]

Truth (1.4.2): One of the primary components of an NNU education is the pursuit of truth. Students at NNU explore knowledge,the wonder of God’s creative activity, the story of human civilization, and achievements in the arts, sciences, and professions—and in this way, NNU casts the word truth in its broadest sense; the pursuit of accurate knowledge is the pursuit of truth.  [However, the public statement about layoffs seems to have been intentionally deceitful.  It fudges budgetary considerations and omits key elements such as why Oord was selected over others and why other financial cutbacks were not chosen instead of layoffs.  Further, it falsely declares one faculty member as subject to layoff when in fact that faculty has simply been reassigned.  Lastly, it is widely expected that the staff layoffs will not actually occur.  In short, this whole scenario seems to have been manufactured purely as a means of getting rid of Dr. Alexander's "thorn in the flesh" - namely Tom Oord.  By cloaking this personal vendetta in false pretenses, Dr. Alexander has specifically contradicted NNU's value of pursuit of truth.]

As a people of faith, working for an institution that holds to a Christian view of the world, we also believe in a higher Truth, a set of Truths that are embodied in the life of Jesus Christ. We believe that there is great congruence between the discoveries of the natural, social, and behavioral sciences with the truth represented in the core tenants of Christian theology. [As a simple side note here, it is widely alleged that Oord's views on creation through evolution and open theism are critical components in his disfavor with Dr. Alexander.  However, we should note that Oord is specifically embodying the words of this value in seeking the "great congruence between the discoveries of the natural, social, and behavioral sciences with the truth represented in the core tenants of Christian theology."]

... We hire faculty who actively model the life of truth-seeking for their students.  [Unfortunately, Dr. Alexander seems to have modeled the exact opposite here.]

Community (1.4.3):  NNU is a community of faith and learning whose members teach, challenge, and encourage each other to grow intellectually and spiritually. We believe that education flourishes in community through co-curricular learning and living experiences that enrich and reinforce academic learning. Indeed, neither the process of transformation nor the robust exploration of truth should occur in a vacuum. Community forms, reinforces, corrects, and propels our academic endeavors. [Dr. Alexander's actions have deeply violated NNU's experience of community, terribly weakening the foundations of mutual trust.  Futhermore, he seems to have taken these steps "within a vacuum" - isolated at least from the other leaders of NNU, even if as is reported in the newspapers he did seek advice from attorneys.  Now, the great outpouring of protest from the NNU community and broader Church of the Nazarene are the community's attempts to correct course here.]

Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships within a university community is a constant challenge. Students, faculty, and staff are intelligent people with passionately held beliefs. It is the goal of our community to understand our differences and be strengthened in our diversity. [As has been widely noted, Dr. Alexander's actions in relation to Dr. Oord have undermined NNU's actual tolerance of difference and diversity.  It's hard to proclaim being "strengthened in our diversity" while pushing out those who disagree.]

Service (1.4.4):  NNU has a unique responsibility to prepare and position students to have a positive, loving impact wherever they live. Truth-seeking transformation in community is stunted if it does not seek an outlet. Indeed, service to the broader community is an essential goal for a Christian community in the Wesleyan tradition. As a result, we believe that education cultivates service. NNU teaches the importance of a life of servanthood as modeled by Jesus Christ.  We nurture students to creatively apply their knowledge and skills to the problems they encounter. We want our students to understand, and experience the world, then see themselves as God’s creative agents, who use their NNU education to bring hope and healing, peace and justice, to the communities in which they live.  [NNU faculty have embodied the value of creative and selfless servanthood by offering (a) to forgo raises to avoid the planned layoffs and (b) to creatively rearrange the budget to find the resources to avoid the planned layoffs.  Dr. Alexander rejected both of these appeals out of hand, indicating that neither finances nor decreased enrollment are the primary motivation for the layoffs. These layoffs, the motivation behind them, and the public obfuscation of facts do not engender: "hope and healing, peace and justice."]

I believe Dr. Alexander is a good leader who has made a bad decision - a terrible decision. 

We must now call the Board of Trustees to action. 

They hold the trust of the university and the university's values in trust.  Fundamentally, their job is to ensure that Northwest Nazarene University lives by her values.  

Policy violations notwithstanding, Dr. Alexander's violations of NNU's stated core values are egregious.  The only reasonable response is for the Board of Trustees to appoint an independent committee to perform a full review of this situation, to offer tangible recommendations for action steps to help NNU move forward, and to make the unedited report public for the full Nazarene community.

Please understand that NNU’s Board of trustees is now handling an issue that is having massive impact around the Church of the Nazarene.  Young leaders around the globe are questioning on blogs and in social media whether there is still room for them in the Church of the Nazarene.  Everyone everywhere knows this was a politically motivated decision to remove a controversial professor.  How the NNU Board of Trustees handles this situation will have lasting implications for the Church of the Nazarene and our willingness to engage young leaders who think outside the conservative boxes.  Their action or inaction will send a message of either inclusion or exclusion to young Nazarenes around the world.

The only remaining question is this: Will the NNU Board of Trustees act with bold faithfulness to be true to NNU's stated values and to Christ?

I look forward to carrying on the conversation, but more so, I look forward to hearing that the Board of Trustees is taking action to initiate a full, public review.

And, regardless the outcome of this particular battle and its consequences for my friends at NNU, I remain hopeful for the Church of the Nazarene. 

We will win this war.