Carson-Newman College trustees this week are hearing firsthand complaints of faculty members who want them to fire President James Netherton.
Faculty at the Baptist-affiliated school in Jefferson City, Tenn., passed a resolution of no-confidence in Netherton’s leadership on Oct. 5 by a vote of 129-71. Trustees declined to act on the resolution at a board meeting Oct. 20 but agreed to meet with faculty, students and alumni about concerns that led to the no-confidence vote.
A trustee subcommittee met with the faculty council Nov. 16. Today groups of “non-leadership” faculty are scheduled to meet with trustees in a series of two-hour sessions. Department chairs and deans will meet separately on Friday.
Critics of the administration of late have aired concerns through a series of Internet sites.
One formed in August “out of a concern for the state of Carson-NewmanCollege with regard to the current administration.”
Another is a Web forum with more than 1,000 posts and 200 topics.
A long-time faculty member at Carson-Newman gives an “insider” view on a blog launched Oct. 15.
A fourth forum started in the last few days discusses issues of theology and Baptist politics involved.
Criticism of the administration includes a poor working environment resulting from Netherton’s leadership style, declining enrollment and a resulting financial crunch that has limited faculty raises.
Poor relations between faculty and administration have reportedly been going on for years. Critics of Netherton said the no-confidence was a last resort to gain attention of trustees, who before then were only hearing the president’s side of the story.
Netherton has not commented publicly on the no-confidence vote, except for remarks to faculty released to the Baptist & Reflector saying the concerns would be taken seriously and committing to “doing everything in my power to be the president you and this college need and to work with you in securing a better future.”
Concerned Carson-Newman Alumni and Friends followed the faculty vote with a petition calling for trustees to replace the president.
Further fueling the rift is growing suspicion from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, with a leadership increasingly controlled by fundamentalists, that the east Tennessee school is too liberal. Two years ago the convention studied all three of its colleges after allegations were made on the convention floor that Carson-Newman professors accept evolution and teach that the Bible contains errors.
Netherton, 59, became president in February 2000. Before that he was provost at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and vice president and chief operating officer at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. At both schools he worked through negotiations to redefine relationships with sponsoring state conventions, a situation similar to Carson-Newman’s when he took over.
His predecessor had supported a change to the school’s charter to remove the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s power to elect trustees. Tennessee Baptists responded by holding funds for the school in escrow.
Netherton worked out a compromise and received credit for improving the situation. But his critics say that was only the beginning of a pattern to cater to fundamentalists while at the same time trying not to alienate the school’s traditionally moderate support base.
In November the convention adopted a policy requiring that trustees of convention entities affirm support of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. That would disqualify many moderates, including those aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, who oppose narrow restrictions in the faith statement like a ban on women pastors and a call for wives to submit to their husbands.
With its passage, one pro-Carson-Newman observer wrote on a discussion board at BaptistLife.com: “We are facing the threat of a takeover by the fundamentalists unless we withdraw from the TBC. Our current president has followed a policy of appeasement, and I have no idea what percentage of the trustees are already in the fundamentalist camp.”
An article on the Web site of Concerned Tennessee Baptists, a group of Southern Baptist Convention loyalists and leading critic of moderate influence in Tennessee Baptist life, confirmed as much.
“The theologically liberal Religion department at C-N should be replaced with Bible-believing faculty members,” it said. “The Biology department should be replaced with teachers who do not teach evolution as fact. The trustees from CBF churches should be replaced with trustees from churches whose theology and worldview are representative of Tennessee Baptists.”
The newly elected president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, Ron Stewart of Grace Baptist Church in Knoxville, supports the conservative group. Prior to the annual meeting he published a column on the Web site asking, “Is there a change in the air?”
The column “turned out to be prophetic,” said another article posted after the annual meeting applauding conservative gains.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.