An ounce of prevention


Between 1732 and 1758, Benjamin Franklin published an annual edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of poems, aphorisms, and sundry information that sold as many as 10,000 copies a year. One of Poor Richard’s better known proverbs goes like this:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Last week, we sent a letter to the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Jason Allen, that both recognized the remarkable turnaround that institution has experienced under the new administration and called attention to the seminary’s ongoing accreditation sanction by the Higher Learning Commission. The letter also raised questions about the seminary’s participation in federal funding programs, plagiarism issues involving newly-elected faculty, and other matters.

That post, which can be read here, was the sixth most-accessed post on our blog since the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention. It was surpassed only by three posts about Southwestern Seminary, one about a recent sermon delivered by the president of New Orleans Seminary, and one about a sermon preached at Hunter’s Glen Baptist Church in Plano, TX.

I’m not certain of everything that means, but it is clear that there was considerable interest. Site traffic rose, and the count of IP addresses originating from Kansas City, MO, and Fort Worth, TX, spiked. Over a three day period, more than 5,000 clicks on the federal express tracker we posted were recorded.

And then the phone rang.

It was Jason K. Allen.

What followed thereafter was a series of phone calls and text messages leading to a face-to-face meeting on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning this week. A few more telephone calls and email exchanges occurred until last evening, shortly before takeoff from Louisville’s Standiford Field, when we received his written response.

A few observations:

  1. Jason Allen is sincere when he tells Southern Baptists he welcomes the oversight and accountability that the convention’s ownership of the school necessitates. When confronted with a challenge to that promise, he wastes no time in seeking to (a) ascertain more information about the purpose and nature of the inquiry; (b) understand more about the person inquiring; (c) notify his trustee leadership, and (d) initiate a process that brings greater transparency and resolution rather than dig in his heels.  All of this is both commendable and reassuring.
  2. In his response letter, Allen provides a more thorough disclosure about the seminary’s handling of its accreditation notice than has been made heretofore. None of this information, had it been disclosed contemporaneously or included in concise language as part of the seminary’s published report to the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention, threaten the school. It was simply omitted from any report to the convention — perhaps unintentionally — with a result that exposed rather than protected the school. There is NO word limit on a convention entity’s contribution to the book of reports, and the rule of thumb for all entities should be providing more information, not less. We’re talking about billions of dollars in assets and hundreds of millions in annual contributions. A publicly traded company that withheld pertinent information from its shareholders could be penalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission. As a whole, Southern Baptist entities should exceed the reporting standards prescribed for those trading in public markets. Jason Allen gets this, and his response letter indicates a promising trend.
  3. Allen has now reported the seminary’s accreditation response plan, confirmed the key dates and benchmarks going forward, and promised additional information about the seminary’s counseling program later this academic year. He has also assured us that while he did not report these matters to the Southern Baptist Convention in annual session, he did report them during plenary sessions of the SBC’s Executive Committee.
  4. We first learned of Midwestern’s accreditation notice while visiting the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this past August. The information was shared in the context of suggesting that Southwestern was not the only Southern Baptist seminary in trouble. In his letter, Allen himself notes that other seminaries have resolved similar accreditation in the past. When we found publishednon-privileged confirmation of Midwestern’s accreditation notice, we pushed for a more thorough public response from the seminary. Had Midwestern provided any disclosure in its convention report, our letter would have likely never been written. An ounce of prevention, and all.
  5. Allen’s response letter does not address in any way the issues of federal funding or faculty plagiarism, though he has personally and thoroughly conveyed to me his commitments to academic integrity. The seminary has a strongly worded and unequivocal policy on plagiarism. We are confident that it will be enforced and that any form plagiarism by students, faculty, or administrators — even those explained by “inadequate” citations and note taking  — will not be tolerated.
  6. Allen does not vow to make public the follow-up report the seminary will provide to its regional accreditors on Dec. 1, 2018.  We hope he will.

Now for some concluding remarks.

The Baptist Blogger, other blogs, and various forms of social media have become — for better not worse — an instrument of denominational accountability in the information age. In fact, our conversations across the Southern Baptist Convention reinforce — rather than relieve — our growing concerns about the broken trustee system.

Or to put a sharper point on it: Southwestern Seminary would not be where it is today if trustees had done their job. Which is to say, if the convention had done its job in selecting, equipping, and empowering its trustees to do their job correctly.

Which is also to say this: Midwestern Seminary, despite its accreditation notice and efforts by some to extrapolate from that status a concern about the seminary’s health, seems to be on solid footing. At the very least, it has at the helm a president who — unlike Southwestern for the past fifteen years and Southeastern before it — pays more than lip service to the convention’s ownership and governance structure.

It is indeed a new day at Midwestern Seminary, and for the entire convention.  Sunlight has always been the best disinfectant, which is why we wait now to see what happens at trustee meetings occurring next week.

Stay tuned . . .