5 N.C. Colleges Seek Independence from Baptist Body

A new proposal is underway in the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina that may result in the split of five colleges and universities by 2009.

The five colleges, which are the last higher education institutions that have remained in the state convention, want complete autonomy in governance and a "change in relationship" with the largely conservative Baptist group.

The proposal, affirmed on March 6 by the State Convention Executive Committee, would constitute a split and at the same time a continued affiliation.

"They want to stay part of the family," explained Norman Jameson, spokesperson for the State Convention, "but they want a different relationship."

After years of talks on breaking away, the five colleges proposed over a four-year period beginning in January 2009 to elect all their own trustees, give up Convention funding of $6.2 million, and establish a scholarship program (for Baptist students) to be administered by the Baptist State Convention staff.

The proposal comes as the schools have raised concern over the increasingly conservative direction of Baptist life which might limit academic freedom, according to The News & Observer. In the wake of attracting more students who have no Baptist background, the schools also want to appoint trustees and directors who are non-Baptists.

Last November, a proposed bylaw that would have given the schools more influence over the appointment of trustees and directors was rejected – a move that some at that time said could trigger an exodus of Baptist colleges.

Governance and funding issues date back to at least the 1950s, according to Brian Davis, BSC executive leader for administration and convention relations.

"The denominations continue to set boundaries that are ever-changing, and it makes it difficult for universities to negotiate," Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University divinity school, told the local newspaper. Wake Forest was one of two Baptist convention-founded schools in North Carolina that had left the convention – the second being Meredith College.

Unlike Wake Forest and Meredith, the remaining five schools – Campbell University in Buies Creek, Chowan University in Murfreesboro, Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, Mars Hill College in Mars Hill and Wingate University in Wingate – do not want a complete split.

While seeking more autonomy in choosing trustees, the colleges and universities included in their proposal a commitment to "[continue] to have a significant portion of trustees who are members of churches in friendly cooperation with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina," stated the convention's press release.

Also, the schools would "continue to promote and advance Christian principles and beliefs as reflected in traditional Baptist doctrine," the proposal stated.

"This will be moving the relationship from a sense of obligation to a spirit of cooperation," said Milton A. Hollifield Jr., BSC executive director-treasurer, in a released statement by the convention. "There has been the sense that the convention was obligated to fund them in this way. Some North Carolina Baptists felt the schools were obligated to do certain things. This is moving us from a relationship of obligation to a relationship of cooperation. The presidents seemed to like that spirit."

Hollifield called it a "trust" and "faith" relationship.

Still, the convention explained that "because this proposal would actually sever the relationship between the institutions and the Convention – and begin a new relationship – significant work must be done before it is ready to present to messengers. The full board must next consider the proposal."

The proposal is scheduled for vote at two consecutive annual meetings beginning in November 2007. It must be approved by messengers of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in both the 2007 and 2008 meetings.