Oklahoma Wesleyan University President "Confuses Defiance for Courage"


I know that some of you have been following this story.  Everett Piper, the President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, recently reported that a student at his university approached him after a chapel service troubled because the sermon he had just heard made him feel “victimized.”  The sermon was based on 1 Corinthians 13, the so-called “love chapter.”  The student complained that the sermon made him “feel bad for not showing love” and the preacher made him feel “uncomfortable.” Piper writes:

I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen. That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.

Piper’s public letter has received a lot of attention in the last several days.  Rod Dreher of The American Conservative said that Piper’s letter showed the OKWU president to be a “man among boys.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times have covered the story.

But the best thing I have read on this whole affair is Chris Gehrz’s blog post “This Is Not Leadership.”  Gehrz is sympathetic to some of Piper’s comments.  But as a good historical thinker he places these remarks in a much larger context.  I wish I could just re-post Gehrz’s thoughts. I strongly encourage you to head over to the Pietist Schoolman and read it for yourself.

(I have said it before and I will say it again.  Chris Gehrz is, without peer, our most thoughtful and insightful commentator on the state of Christian colleges.  I hope Bethel University appreciates him. It is only a matter of time before he will be working as a Dean or Provost somewhere in the CCCU).

Part of the larger context Gehrz notes is Piper’s decision in August 2015 to pull Oklahoma Wesleyan out of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) because the presidents of the CCCU institutions chose to take some time to deliberate about what they should do with Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen Colleges–two members of the CCCU that chose to allow faculty in same-sex marriages to teach at their schools. Eventually Eastern Mennonite and Goshen decided to leave the CCCU over this issue, but Oklahoma Wesleyan (and Union University in Jackson, Tennessee) criticized the CCCU leadership for not immediately kicking these schools out of the CCCU because of their positions on gay faculty.  (You can find some of our posts on the subject here. I even commented over at Inside Higher Ed).

Like Gerhz, I am having a hard time reconciling Piper’s approach to the CCCU-gay marriage issue with this statement from his public letter: “At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered.  We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict….”

As Gerhz notes, a leader must always be ready to communicate the following:  1).  The world is complicated.  2). There is no easy solution.  3).  We need to make decisions consistent with our values.  Gehrz shows how Piper has failed to exercise this kind of leadership (at least on the first two issues) in several incidents over the past year.  Gehrz concludes: “We need…university presidents…who will take the time to listen to multiple narratives, to empathize with diverse members of divided communities, and to hold ideas in tension.  We need leaders who can do all this and yet still make prudent decisions that extend long-held values forward into a fast-changing future.”

Shortly after I read Gehrz post, I read Tamara Venit Shelton‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Shelton teaches American history at Claremont McKenna College.

Here is a taste:

Early in the morning, on a Wednesday in November, an alliance of student groups at Claremont McKenna College sent faculty a “Call to Action.” A pair of events — an incendiary email from the dean of students and a racially charged Halloween costume chronicled on Facebook — had inflamed the long-standing, unanswered grievances of students from traditionally under-represented populations.

Their protest echoed similar movements at places like Yale University and the University of Missouri. At Claremont McKenna, the students rallied for greater administrative support, a more diverse curriculum and faculty, and a resource center. They asked for their feelings of marginalization and their experiences of exclusion to be recognized. They refused to remain silent any longer.

As a professor of history at the college, a feminist, and a person of color, I read the Call to Action feeling grateful for our students’ bravery and eager to lend my support. In addition to the demands, the Call to Action listed some two dozen recent microaggressions and acts of bias — someone had defaced posters supporting transgendered rights, an economics professor had used the term “welfare queens.” Then I noticed my course was on the list.

“There is a current class on the Civil War that simulated the pros and cons of slavery,” the Call to Action said. “Many students of color found this discussion to be extremely insensitive and hurtful.”

I reacted with surprise, embarrassment, and — to be candid — indignation. I have been teaching college courses on race and ethnicity for 12 years. Feminist and multicultural pedagogies inform my teaching philosophy. I have tried to equip students with tools to think about difference and inclusion.

How could someone like me wind up on a list like that?

The American Civil War was a subject that I taught regularly. But this semester, I decided to include an innovative curriculum called Reacting to the Past. In an immersive role-playing game, students assumed the identities of Kentucky state legislators during the crisis of secession in early 1861. Using highly detailed role sheets and historical documents, the students-as-legislators debated the merits of remaining in the Union or leaving to join the Confederacy. The game asked students to confront the complex motivations of Civil War-era politicians. True to the historical moment, very few were antislavery; most were slaveholders. The rules of the role-playing game prevented racist speech, but debates over slavery and secession necessarily reflected the entangled imperatives of economics, politics, religion, and — most uncomfortably — racism.

After the Call to Action, one colleague asked why I had assigned a role-playing game for a topic as serious as American slavery and secession. I hoped that it would enable my students to engage with primary sources in ways that conventional seminar-style discussion did not. Studies in education and psychology have shown that role-playing helps students practice empathy and communication. In my Civil War course, I believed that historical role-playing would encourage students to inhabit a worldview wholly unlike their own. I hoped they might emerge with a new understanding of the racist logic supporting slavery and the profound legacy that the Civil War Era had on the United States.

As I have argued many times, most recently a piece I wrote last night for the magazine of the National Council for History Education (not sure if it will be published yet, but if it isn’t published I will post it here) and in Why Study History, that empathy is required for true historical understanding to take place. Shelton knows this:

I expected that the exercise would be productively uncomfortable. Most of the students had to empathize with characters they found morally repugnant. Understandably, that is hard to do, but it is essential to the historian’s craft. To do the work of history, we must understand that real people — with all their virtues and flaws — made history. We need not sympathize with them or absolve them, but we commit to comprehending them on their own terms.

I wonder how Everett Piper would have responded in this situation?  Based on past experience I imagine he would tell Shelton’s students to buck-up and to stop being so sensitive and easily offended.

This is how Shelton responded:

Learning that my class contributed to a climate of racial insensitivity on campus has compelled me to reflect on how I teach. Have my courses overemphasized an intellectual, almost clinical engagement with the past that disregards the emotional and moral turmoil such an encounter can cause? As a historian I confront the brutality of racism in my research every day, and I treat it with the critical distance my discipline has taught me. Perhaps I have become desensitized to our painful past — like a doctor habituated to delivering a bad prognosis.

Perhaps in encouraging my students to practice empathy with people who lived in the past, I forgot to practice empathy with the very people sitting in my classroom…

I will not shrink from difficult conversations about race and power. I will probably assign a role-playing game again although I will do more to prepare students for the emotional difficulties such work can entail. Alongside critical engagement with the past, I will create space for contemplating the vital concerns of our present. I have heard the Call; this is how I will respond.

I do not know Tamara Venit Shelton.  I don’t know if she is a person of religious faith. But both she and Everett Piper recently responded to similar situations in their respective institutions.  Which response was more Christian?