NAMPA — The decision announced April 8 to shift $1.3 million in Northwest Nazarene University’s budget to increase reserves and lay off six people in the process seemed fairly benign in the beginning.
But within hours of that announcement, a firestorm erupted over one of those layoffs: the popular — though controversial — theology professor Thomas Oord.
After a few short weeks, NNU president David Alexander, who was behind the decision, resigned from his post just a few months after his contract had been renewed.
But the controversy, and the contention between Oord and Alexander, go far beyond that April announcement. Their history extends to at least 2010, according to documents obtained by the Idaho Press-Tribune.
The move to remove Oord — a tenured professor who has many published works and is well known in the Christian community — stirred up a movement of protest on the NNU campus and beyond. T-shirts supporting Oord were worn around campus, a Facebook group supporting him quickly gained 2,100 members and many wrote letters to and asked questions of Alexander.
Alexander has responded to accusations that he singled out Oord for layoff by saying, “I realize that many in the faculty thought that this layoff was targeted. Again, I want to state that this is not true, no individual in this process was targeted for academic or theological reasons.”
University officials decided to form a review committee to examine the budgetary decision after 77 percent of about 90 voting faculty members expressed “no confidence” in Alexander’s leadership. A few days after that, the president placed the layoffs on hold pending the review committee’s decision.
The documents obtained by the Press-Tribune sent by an anonymous source who is close to Oord include copies of Oord’s testimony before the review committee, as well as the supporting documents he submitted to the committee showing letters sent back and forth between the professor and Alexander. The documents suggest there is more to the relationship between the two than the administration indicated.
Alexander, through a spokesperson at NNU, declined to speak to the Press-Tribune for this story. Oord said he did not want to speak to media until the NNU Board of Trustees made its decision about the review committee’s findings and decides whether or not to keep him in his job. The board put Oord on part-time status, and his contract will not be renewed for three years.
The Intermountain District Church of the Nazarene declined comment.
BACK AND FORTH
The first document Oord submitted to the NNU review committee is from 2010, when Alexander sent Oord a letter a little more than a year into Alexander’s presidency. Oord had been teaching at NNU for eight years by that time.
Alexander references a meeting in September when he told Oord how “various parties perceive you locally, regionally and denominationally.” He told Oord his style of “gaining attention … by being a polemic has worn thin,” and that he would no longer be permitted to teach introductory courses — only upper division and graduate courses. That would allow students to be instructed in “essentials long before non-essentials are considered,” Alexander wrote. He stressed that Oord provided value to the university and that NNU was stronger with him, but the move would allow them to change perceptions Alexander said people had of Oord.
In November 2013, documents show Alexander launched a process of “administrative inquiry” into Oord’s theological perspective on Christian orthodoxy and other specific philosophies. In addition, Oord was asked to go over what shaped his faith, relationship with God, sense of calling and more. It also asked questions about his views on original sin, atonement and other topics.
The responses were to be submitted to Jess Middendorf, general superintendent emeritus in the Church of the Nazarene; H. Ray Dunning, professor emeritus of theology at Trevecca Nazarene University; and Stephen Borger, former Intermountain District Church of the Nazarene superintendent.
Within a few months, Oord told the review committee he submitted an 80-page response to the questions.
In a letter to Alexander, Middendorf wrote he and Dunning believed Oord to be “a man of genuine Christian character,” devout follower of Christ and a scholar of depth and ability. He added many of Oord’s positions would be well within what most Nazarene scholars would consider acceptable orthodoxy. But he added there were “areas of troubling disagreement” that gave them pause, including views on the virgin birth and that the nature of God is “noncoercive” love rather than holy love.
Kevin Timpe, a philosophy professor at NNU, said those areas of difference were more at the heart of controversy surrounding Oord than any of his teachings on evolution — which is what many pointed to initially when Oord was selected for layoff.
“Tom has to believe that God created, which he does,” Timpe said, “but the exact details of the way that creation happened are unspecified. So since nothing is explicitly stated, Tom can’t be in conflict with details about the how.”
Timpe said the two main issues that caused the most outside criticism are open theism and the nature of love. To some, open theism challenges the idea that God is an omniscient presence because it says the future is not pre-determined.
On the nature of love, the ideas are similar.
“(Oord) thinks that love can never be coercive, so God can’t coerce us or cause us to do anything because God is essentially loving and love is never coercive,” Timpe said. “So some people think this doesn’t mean God can guarantee an outcome we want.”
Oord again wrote back to Middendorf and Dunning’s theological concerns in March, but by April 2014, Alexander and Oord were having discussions about a severance package for Oord. In his narrative to the review panel, Oord says he already knew he wanted to stay, so he asked for an exorbitant package that totaled more than $1 million.
“Upon hearing my requested amount, Alexander tried to negotiate,” Oord says in his narrative. “... Alexander was flustered and frustrated with me. He concluded our meeting saying that our failure to come to an agreement put him in an ‘adversarial’ (his term) relationship with me.”
In a follow-up letter, Alexander told Oord if at any point in the future he would propose “an amicable separation on more reasonable terms, I would be most pleased to talk with you.” But Oord’s contract was renewed for one more year.
That seems to contradict what Alexander told students during a question-and-answer period at NNU in April. When a student asked if one of the people selected for layoff was asked to resign in the previous year, Alexander said, “None of the people involved now were asked to step away by me last year.”
For his part, Alexander explained to students at a Q-and-A session in April that the layoffs were not personal. A video recording of the session was posted to a website called “Support NNU.”
The university has a $40 million per year budget, Alexander said in the video, and the administration determined $400,000 was needed to fundraise for faculty and staff and to cover a 10 percent increase in health care costs, plus $500,000 to allocate toward a fund balance goal of $2 million by the 2016-17 school year. Another $400,000 was needed for marketing, recruitment and new programs, he said.
To do that, Alexander said six layoffs of faculty and staff were necessary. The four staff positions have not yet been identified. Aside from Oord, another faculty person in the theology department was moved from a graduate position in one department to an undergraduate position in another, according to Oord’s statements.
“When my school dean, Mark Maddix, asked to make a similar move to save me from being laid off, Alexander rejected his request,” Oord wrote to the review committee.
The situation he is referring to involves Timpe, who has taken another job in the philosophy department at Calvin College that begins next year.
“(Maddix) knew I was in the running for this job and he called and asked me for an update on it,” Timpe said. “I said I still think I’m going to get it, but I haven’t gotten an official offer yet. And he couldn’t tell me anything, but it became clear to me that he thought somebody else would be losing his job. It didn’t dawn on me at all that it would be Tom. If somebody in the school of theology was going to lose his job, Tom would be the last one on my list.”
When Maddix asked Timpe if he could share with the administration that his position might be opening up, Timpe gave the go ahead. But the offer was rejected.
Alexander said he chose the theology department because it has 13 full-time professors, which he said is the most significantly staffed religion department of any college or university of the Nazarene in the U.S. That department could survive cuts and still have a substantial amount of gravitas, he said in the video.
Even so, Oord argued, he had more years of service to the university than nearly all of his 12 colleagues, and he is a tenured professor. According to the metrics used by those who were examining the issue of layoffs — student course evaluations, scholarship, length of service and contributions to the church — Oord said only two of the 13 faculty in the department had a better overall score than his.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Lilburn Wesche, who spent 30 years of his career at NNU first as a professor, then head of the education department and several other departments, offered his own perspective on the situation Tuesday. As someone who served in leadership positions at the university, Wesche said there is a push-and-pull dynamic that occurs between those who interpret parts of the Bible as allegories or open to interpretation and those who believe it should be read and followed literally.
“NNU has a faculty right now that does ask students to ask questions, so these kids are going home and getting their pastors all shook up,” Wesche said. “... That’s the problem of being a president, is having to try to mollify these outside groups.”
That can have implications for the university’s budget, he added, because major donors could decide to pull funding over theological issues.
It extends further down the hierarchy too, he said. He took calls from parents and religious figures alike who demanded action if there were disagreements with teaching styles.
“They badger,” Wesche said. “‘That guy is a heathen, get rid of this guy.’ You have to keep people happy.”
Several faculty members, including Maddix and economics professor Peter Crabb — who has defended Alexander in the past — declined to comment on the subject.
Faculty members and Oord have also accused the administration of causing the enrollment decline that was used to justify selecting the theology department for layoffs. In the Q-and-A session with students, Alexander said the university contracted with a third party to market NNU and strengthen recruitment, but he said it wasn’t a successful endeavor.
“We committed money to them with the thought they would help us experience growth,” Alexander told students in the video. “We invested it in them. That did not prove to be a worthwhile investment, so we backed out of that.”
A letter sent to the review committee from George Lyons, former faculty chairman at NNU, calls out the marketing company, as well. Faculty were prohibited from discussing the company by name as part of a settlement agreement, but Lyons said Alexander went against the advice of department and faculty leaders and entered into the contract. Lyons said the School of Theology and Ministry lost 40 to 50 percent of its students’ tuition to the company, and the university spent more than $1 million to buy out the contract.
“We were convinced that, if we had even a fraction the money wasted … our enrollment picture would have been quite different,” Lyons wrote. “The president created an unnecessary crisis.”
RELATIONSHIP WITH FACULTY
Students and faculty alike who have spoken out about Oord have often said the situation was just the most public of many frustrations that have been present with Alexander for years. After the no confidence vote, Alexander acknowledged he heard the faculty’s complaints.
“I’m a hard charger, and sometimes I just need to slow down and listen,” he told students at the session. “I get that, I receive it. … Is it an aggregation of communication frustration? Perhaps.”
Timpe started at NNU one year after Alexander began his presidency, and said while he can’t speak for all of the faculty, he was aware of growing dissatisfaction with the way Alexander was leading the university.
“I do think that frustrations with the president and his leadership style and the way he did not listen to and take advice from the faculty on issues … had been increasing significantly during the time that I was here,” Timpe said.
Joel Pearsall has taken the helm as interim president of the university for up to two years. Pearsall started out as a student at NNU in the 1970s, then returned to work at the institution about 10 years ago. Pearsall has said he is working to move the university forward in the coming months and examining communication processes between the administration and faculty.
In the future, Pearsall said he expects the same types of criticism Alexander had to grapple with during his time as president.
“In higher ed and most organizations I’ve ever worked with, there will always be time when there are disagreements within the organization,” he told the Press-Tribune earlier this month.
“I think the key is what organizations do when they get in that place and how they work through those differences of opinion, and how they resolve any misunderstandings and how they move forward together. NNU has got a long track record of doing that effectively and successfully, and I believe NNU will continue to do that.”