More from the archives…
Life after Dilday
School still feels academic, financial aftershocks of firing
By Christine Wicker
The Dallas Morning News
February 11, 1995
Dr. Ken Hemphill visited Midland twice late last year, hat in hand, hoping to salve some raw feelings and snag a $3 million to $4 million gift.
The new president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth wanted oil and ranching millionaires Tom and Evelyn Linebery to help fund a new conference center. But he had a problem. Last March, Southwestern trustees fired the Lineberys’ friend Dr. Russell Dilday from the presidency after years of wrangling over his unwillingness to impose initiatives from the conservative-led Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Hemphill’s fence-mending plan was to name the new conference center in honor of Dr. Dilday. He was courteously received at the Linebery Foundation’s Midland office, but he returned home without meeting the couple.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Dilday was received at the Lineberys’ Frying Pan ranch by the Lineberys themselves.
“You might say Dr. Dilday has a key to the ranch,” said Kelley Brown, president of the Linebery Foundation.
“He’s got a key to a lot of places around Texas,” said Jerry Yowell of Fort Worth, who is still a Southwestern supporter.
In the 11 months since his forced departure from the school he led for 16 years, the name Russell Dilday has become a rallying cry for some Texans, a Baptist version of “Remember the Alamo.” One admirer likened his dismissal to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Another compared the continuing unhappiness of some seminary faculty and staff to grief.
From the outside looking in, the nation’s largest seminary seems beset on all sides.
Enrollment has fallen. Operating money is tight and fund raising is almost at a standstill. The seminary was notified a week ago that the Association of Theological Schools had put it on probation.
The association had three major concerns; all were related to the forced departure of Dr. Dilday and his clash with trustees.
But trustees who ousted Dr. Dilday say that from where they sit the seminary looks better than ever. The school is now in line with the wishes of most Baptist churches and its major funding source, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Miles Seaborn said.
“There’s a completely different attitude and atmosphere on the campus,” said Mr. Seaborn, pastor at Birchman Baptist in Fort Worth. “It’s very optimistic.”
“People tell me that the spirit at Southwestern is more positive than it’s been in 20 years,” said Ralph Pulley, chairman of the board of trustees. “We’re ready to go into the 21st century.”
There has been no exodus of professors and staff since Dr. Dilday’s termination amid charges that he was insubordinate to trustees who wanted the school to be more practical, evangelistic and fundamentalist.
Students are going on with their lives, said Dr. Bruce Corley, dean of theology.
“There’s a kind of relief that this is over with and we’re moving on,” according to a fourth-year student, who said his position on biblical inerrancy was attacked in class during the Dilday days as dogmatic and unthinking. He asked not to be identified.
“Before, if you had really conservative views, you were looked at as an intellectual peon,” said third-year master of divinity student Robby Bolden. “Dr. Hemphill has brought a new, fresh spirit.”
Because the December graduating class was one of the seminary’s largest ever, some students who were unhappy with the new administration are gone. “People on the negative side have pushed to get their credits and get out,” said Tom Priester, president of the Diploma Fellowship, a group for students without bachelor’s degrees.
But a plethora of problems has surfaced since March 9, 1994.
The number of students at the 3,117-student seminary dipped six percent this spring and fall. Not an alarming or even unusual drop, said the new president. But enrollment at five other Baptist seminaries rose last fall, according to the Associated Baptist Press.
Perhaps more telling, requests for admission to Southwestern’s doctorate program in theology fell by almost half, from a five-year average of about 40 students to 22 students this year.
The seminary’s financial vice president is looking at finding extra money or cutting a combined $1.5 million from the operating budgets of this school year and next.
“We reduced this budget and we reduced the one before. This is not something new to me,” said vice president Hubert Martin. The two-year budgets average $22.8 million.
Outside fund raising is pretty much stalled, say sources inside and outside the school. Some estimate the school lost $15 million in promised donations.
Many of its most loyal and generous patrons have bolted, among them former Cowboys coach Tom Landry, investor Robert Glaze, Aerobics Center founder Ken Cooper and Kathryn Sullivan Bowld, for whom the music library is named.
In response to the dismissal of Dr. Dilday, the executive board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has appointed a committee to study the need for additional theological education in Texas.
Despite its problems, administrators say the school is moving forward. Administrators said a new music dean has been appointed with unanimous approval from faculty and administration. The theology department hired its first woman professor, an appointment Dr. Dilday favored. Three new academic chairs have been established. Two are named for leaders in the conservative camp, Dr. W.A. Criswell and Dr. Jimmy Draper. The other is named for Dr. Rebekah Naylor, a physician and missionary in India.
Contention between moderates and conservatives continues to simmer at Southwestern. In the music school, for instance, conservatives want to shift emphasis from “high church” music to newer and less formal songs. Conservative trustees care less that a wide variety of theological positions be explored than that future preachers get practical lessons for the little churches where they are likely to start out. “More heart and less head,” trustee T. Bob Davis calls it.
On the surface, little has changed in the past year. The curriculum is the same, said Dr. William Tolar, vice president of academic affairs and provost. No one has been fired or demoted for their views, he said.
But some faculty believe hiring, promotion and other academic perks are based on what one administrator, who asked not to be identified, calls “shadow criteria” – an example often cited has to do with where professors stand on abortion.
Comments made by trustees outside board meetings have led some faculty to believe that they may be required to vigorously support anti-abortion rights positions.
But Dr. Hemphill said, “You’ve always got to distinguish between expressions of opinion on the board and actions.”
Some professors are uncertain where they stand as a result of the change in leadership. “With Dr. Dilday, we felt like we had a buffer between us and the trustees,” said one professor who asked not to be identified. “With Dr. Hemphill we feel like we lost that buffer.”
Suspicion between some students and some faculty remains high. Some Southwestern professors won’t allow tape-recording of lectures for fear that students will use the tapes against them. Rumors of students sent by fundamentalists pastors with instructions to spy on their teachers abound.
Some Texas Baptists say the only way to heal Southwestern is for certain trustees to resign.
“I think you’ve got to get rid of all of them that went against him,” said Midland’s Mr. Brown, who withdrew his support from the seminary after Dr. Dilday was fired.
But trustees aren’t going to resign, Mr. Seaborn said. “I did what I think God wanted me to do,” he said.
And so, the battle for the soul of Southwestern and the pocketbooks of Texas Baptists continues.
The moderate Texas Baptists Committed has sent out a survey asking its 2,700 members if they want money in the Baptist General Convention of Texas budget shifted to support Texas seminaries other than Southwestern. Conservative ministers are rallying their churches, too. “We’ve got a thousand churches who are going be giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Southwestern,” said Mr. Seaborn, president of Southern Baptists of Texas.
In his short tenure, Dr. Hemphill seems to have made few enemies and a number of friends. Some faculty question whether his background in church growth has prepared him for running a seminary.
Trustees are happy with him, Mr. Seaborn said. “Our hearts are the same as Ken Hemphill’s,” he said.
The new president may even be making progress with the fund raisers.
Mr. Yowell hung on with a lay fund-raising group called the Southwestern Council even though his spirits were low.
But at a recent meeting, Dr. Hemphill and students were able to inspire him again.
“I think with Ken Hemphill’s leadership we’ll rise again,” he said. “I’m going to stay with them until they run me off.”
Gordon Swift, the new chairman of the Southwestern Council, is also intent on putting the past away.
“We’re all there to do one thing and that’s help the students,” he said. “Although I loved Dr. Dilday and I’m beginning to love Dr. Hemphill, the people we really love are the students.”