Our family has strong, historical connections and generational affinity for Baptist-affiliated institutions of learning.
Both our parents graduated from Louisiana College in the 1960s. I (Kevin) graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in 1987. I (Todd), and our brother Brad, graduated from Samford University in the 1990s.
All three institutions were founded by, and have been historically, affiliated with Baptists.
Our continued relationship with all three institutions includes not only emotional connectedness but also financial support. We are not what most would consider to be a wealthy family, but we have been fortunate as a family unit to establish scholarships at all three institutions.
None of our four grandparents went to college, but they were all committed to making available the pursuit of higher education for their children and grandchildren. They sacrificed and saved so that their children and grandchildren would have this opportunity if so desired.
The pedigree in our family ran through Baptist institutions. We were taught in, believe in and financially support these schools.
Reports emerged on Wednesday evening that a student-led petition resulted in Pulitzer-winning author, historian and commentator Jon Meacham being disinvited from addressing the investiture ceremonies for Samford University’s new president.
According to a Baptist News Global report, the university said that Meacham’s lecture will be rescheduled “at a more appropriate time to an event not so closely connected to the symbolism of the inauguration.”
Full disclosure: I (Kevin) have served previously on Samford University’s Board of Overseers, and I (Todd) was president of the student government association (SGA) as a student. The SGA appears to have played a leadership role in galvanizing the petition to disinvite Meacham.
Having hopefully demonstrated our bona fides in terms of fondness for, and support of, Baptist higher education, here are several thoughts.
It would be an understatement to say this decision is disheartening. For us, it goes beyond that.
Many might assess this action based on their view of Meacham’s character, academic credentials, organizational affiliations and perceived political leanings.
However, something more is at stake when a university takes a step like Samford did this week. It lacks academic integrity and the pursuit of knowledge unencumbered by political machination.
This decision — resulting, at least in part, from a student-led petition that claimed Meacham’s “beliefs and core values do not align with those of Samford University” — strikes at the heart of academic freedom.
It signals that university leadership is unwilling to consider the ideas and thoughts of someone perhaps at odds with some within the university community, including students, faculty and alumni.
Navigating the balance between freedom of expression and adherence to institutional principles is not unique within academia. However, there may be a perceived rigidity in Baptist higher education historically weighted toward religious dogma over the free exchange of ideas.
Because of this, we urge our institutions to pay particular attention to such decisions and how they may be perceived in both the religious and secular communities.
For us, this decision is not only disingenuous but also dangerous. It is contrary to the lessons we learned at our alma maters. These simple lessons included:
- Respectfully engaging people who may think or believe differently than you do.
- Keeping an open mind that what one has been taught elsewhere may be viewed differently by others.
- Acknowledging that “I could be wrong” is the starting point for further learning.
Openness to hearing and discussing different perspectives is how one learns and grows not only as a student but also as a person of faith.
We believe the decision to disinvite and reschedule Meacham is shortsighted and not in keeping with the stated mission of the university.
Our world is becoming more diverse, nuanced and complex. Institutions that retreat into the shell of dogma over tolerance for diverse opinions will be on the wrong side of history and are likely not to prosper moving forward.
Perhaps ironically, according to an Oct. 18 press release from the university, Meacham’s lecture was to “incorporate themes from The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels … which examines the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in U.S. history when hope overcame division and fear.”
Integrity and a sense of moral “oughtness” – the moral center – binds one to follow a certain path. This is something students need to learn. And perhaps, if they have not encountered it previously in their lives, so, too, do a university’s parents and donors – as do its faculty and administrators.
This is what an education requires of all.
Faith-based educational institutions should take the lead in enriching conversations and encouraging civil discourse. They should be the exemplar of preserving the best of our traditions while promoting the learning of virtue.
This decision does neither.