What the Hell is Going on at NNU?

Thomas J. Oord was recently fired by Northwest Nazarene University. For full disclosure, before I was Orthodox, I spent time as a Nazarene. I have met Oord once or twice at conferences, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy. What I do know is the man had name recognition in the academy. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider the packed playing field. Not many theologians from Nazarene institutions garner the kind of respect he has.

Thomas J. Oord. Respected by his peers, loved by his students, tenured, and looking for work.
Thomas J. Oord. Respected by his peers, loved by his students, tenured, and looking for work.

So what the hell happened? I have no idea. Really! I don’t know. I joined a Facebook Group to stay informed about the situation. (It is actually the second Facebook Group I have joined in less than a year to support wrongfully terminated faculty, but more on that in a moment.)

Okay. I know I just said I have no idea what happened. That was hyperbole. Let me restate: I don’t have first-hand familiarity with the facts on the ground, but based on official university statements (which are all basically the same statement with a sentence changed), I have reasonable cause to suspect that an injustice has been done.

According to NNU president, Dr. David Alexander, Oord was one of a couple of people fired purely for budgetary reasons. Never mind that NNU is on solid financial ground, and that insofar as budget cuts were needed, they seem to have been the result of the president’s own buffoonery. So when it comes to president Alexander’s official statement. I call, “Bullshit!”

I suspect that Alexander might say I am not a holy person because I cussed. Well I say Alexander is not a holy person because he lies. (I am speaking Nazarene here.) I normally want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but in this case I am offended. I am offended because David Alexander has insulted my intelligence. This statement is pure spin. Those involved in this situation should be insulted as well. When are we going to tire of Christian leaders pissing on our heads and telling us its raining?

David Alexander is a leader in the Church of the Nazarene. He is an avowed Christian. Because he is in a leadership position in a holiness church, he must have professed to being “entirely sanctified.” That means he believes his heart has been cleansed by the Holy Spirit and original sin no longer holds any power over his soul. This holy man is lying to us. And if he keeps doing it, he is a hypocrite.

Pres. David Alexander
Pres. David Alexander

For those who say my statement is too strong, in a sense I think you are right. Alexander probably is not “lying,” at least not technically. I know a good many Christians (and Nazarenes are particularly skilled at this) who are masters of the art of lying-by-not-lying. That is, they phrase their words in such a way so that, literally, they are not false. Nonetheless, the purpose of their words is to deceive people. Kids do this, or at least my kids do, which is why I have learned to ask not, “Are you lying,” but “Are you trying to deceive me?” So for those of you who may balk at my accusation, I promise I will make a full apology if Alexander will answer a simple question:

Dear Mr. President, are you trying to deceive us? 

Come to think of it, that might not be the best way to put the question. A master of weasel words will know that the statement, “I am not trying to deceive you [i.e. right now]” is a factually true statement. Deception is not about accuracy of words but purity of intention. It is reasonable to expect a Christian leader’s statements to match his intentions, to let his “Yes” be “Yes” and his “No” be “No.” So let me put the question to Dr. Alexander a different way.

Are the reasons you gave the only reasons you dismissed Professor Oord?

I have seen this happen before. Oord is a man respected by his peers, a professor that his students do not always agree with, but almost universally admire. Yet he also has a “liberal” reputation among ignorant reactionary types, many of whom give money to the university, sit on the Board of Trustees, or otherwise harass the administration. I have seen too many good scholars get marginalized by fools — yes fools! — more concerned with maintaining the fabricated theological purity of their tradition than actually struggling with and seeking hard truths in an environment of mutual freedom and respect.

How do I know something fishy is going on? Because you don’t just fire a tenured professor. You just don’t! Absent a crime, firing a tenured professor takes years of Machiavellian scheming.

There are rumors swirling that one or more wealthy donors threatened to withhold funds if Oord was not removed. I do not want to contribute to gossip. So let me be clear that I have no idea if these rumors are true in this case. But I do know that they are true in general. Whatever else one might think about the tenure system, petty recriminations from donors is the very thing it was designed to prevent.

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

Thomas J. Oord is seen by many as a problematic intellectual. Let me be clear that I really, really despise disagree with Oord’s “open theology,” or as a friend once called the movement, “process theology lite.” But the fact that he is wrong does not make him a “problematic intellectual.” There is no such thing as a problematic intellectual in academe. Anyone who thinks, and thinks well, should be welcomed at any institution of higher learning, no matter what others say.

Some might wonder why I am so incensed by this, especially since I’m not Nazarene. I am incensed for the same reasons I was incensed last fall, when eight faculty (many of them tenured) were summarily fired from General Theological Seminary (Episcopal). I am neither Nazarene nor Episcopalian, but I am a scholar, or at least I try to be. I read books by dead guys and publish articles in books and journals. I have kids who will go to college one day. They will be taught by people in the academy, and what I see happening in the academy right now sickens me.

I am not the only person to have railed against the downfall of the academy. In general, I think what is happening owes a great deal to the nonsensical idea that business people make good university administrators. In this case, Alexander is not a business person. Nonetheless the idea that higher education should be run like a business is ubiquitous and pernicious. If it has not infected President Alexander, it has infected most of the university’s trustees. To this way of thinking I say, No! Just no. Businesses focus on profits. Profits often involve the kind of scheming we have witnessed Dr. Alexander engage in in recent days. Institutions of higher education are (typically) non-profit institutions. Colleges and universities exist to expand our knowledge and develop the human capacity for thoughtful reflection. That’s it. While they must be profitable, the bottom line is never…well, the bottom line.

So maybe I am wrong. Maybe a financially solvent institution of higher learning fired Oord only for budgetary reasons. Maybe it had nothing to do with the complaints against him, and his attempted forced resignation the prior year is just coincidence. Even then, the decision to let him go was still the wrong one.

Whatever else one might say about this situation, it is absolutely clear that Alexander did not need to have fired Oord in order to maintain profitability or the long-term health of the university. It is clear that he could have taken steps to consider alternatives, but didn’t. And it is pretty safe to guess that the true reasons behind Oord’s firing had more to do with the mandated ideological purity of moneyed persons than any of Alexander’s stated reasons. Thus a reasonable person would conclude that the president and administration of NNU are lying.

To the rest of the holy people involved in this situation — particularly those of you who know more than you are saying — your silence makes you complicit. I am not advising you to rush to judgment or even to agree with me. Personally, I have seen this sort of thing happen enough to feel reasonably confident in my opinion, but I have no problem with you if you want to take your time to hear out both sides. I only have a problem with you if you don’t say anything. If you sit on your hands in silence in your pews, then you need to rethink your commitment to holiness. There is no holiness without transparency. There is no holiness without justice. That warmth you feel? That’s not the presence and power of the Holy Ghost. That’s deception “raining” down upon your heads from an avowed holy man, a Christian leader, whose will you refuse to question, and whose bluff you refuse to call.

Holiness unto the Lord? I call bullshit.


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