All in the Family

More ugly accusations from the world of evangelical higher education. They raise a perennial question: Why do fundamentalist college leaders create dysfunctional family dynasties?


What Junior wants, Junior gets…

The news from Ohio Christian University is grim. According to Inside Higher Education, the president’s son is alleged to have compiled a long record of shocking behavior, including the following:

  • Told a co-worker that “I hate black people” and that “all black people act like they are entitled to everything.”

  • Told a co-worker he hated Mexican people and viewed them as freeloaders.

  • Told a co-worker he hated gay people.

  • Made jokes about Jewish people, including pretending to speak Hebrew in a mocking tone. Further, he is said to have told a co-worker who dropped a ladder to “stop being such a Jew.”

  • Told a co-worker that another co-worker had been hired for being sexually promiscuous. Then he is alleged to have tried to put his finger in the mouth of another female co-worker. When she stopped him from doing so, he reportedly said, “That was a slut test. If they close their mouth, they are a slut.”

  • Attempted several times to take photographs of a female co-worker’s behind, and after obtaining such a photo, posted it to social media with the caption, “This is why we hire women.” (The lawsuit says that some time later Doug Smith deleted his social media accounts.)

We don’t know if these charges are true. But we do know that conservative evangelical college leaders have a long history of building family dynasties that seem unhealthy for their schools. These days, the most obvious example is Liberty University, now under second-generation Jerry Falwell. In the twentieth century, the most blatant example was Bob Jones U.

As I describe in my book, the Bob Jones dynasty grew out of a fundamental structural dilemma in evangelical higher education. In interdenominational fundamentalist institutions, the structure of authority was very unclear. By the 1930s, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones College struggled to figure out how to handle basic disagreements about the nature of fundamentalism and the goals of their colleges.

At Wheaton, an awkward house of cards was built to figure out such problems. The leadership weighed opinions from powerful fundamentalist celebrities, conservative trustees, faculty members, students, alumni, and loud-mouthed fundamentalist bystanders. The process took a long time and created a lot of bad feelings, but it had the benefit of spreading authority over a fairly broad group of people.

At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, founder Bob Jones Sr. took all authority into his own hands. Dissenters were dismissed as “gripers” and Bob Jones elevated his own opinions into something approaching dogma.

As Bob Jones Jr. grew up, the family elevated his peculiarities into institutional mandates. Most obviously, Junior’s love of thespianism and classy art became part of the Bob Jones brand. Other fundamentalist leaders at the time pointed out the obvious problems. In 1949, J. Oliver Buswell, who had moved to New York after being booted from Wheaton, publicly called Bob Jones Sr. to account for the college’s embrace of drama. No other fundamentalist college allowed students to put on plays, but at Bob Jones it was mandatory. And, as Buswell put it,

Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

As Junior aged and took over a bigger leadership role at Bob Jones University, the dynastic clash created more and more problems. Some of them came to light in the biggest shake-up in BJU history. When long-time administrator Ted Mercer was suddenly fired with prejudice in 1953, he publicly accused the Bob Joneses of creating a hugely dysfunctional family vibe that threatened the very existence of the school.

mercer statement

No tittering.

As Mercer told his tale, the tension between the father and the son led to terrible effects. When Junior told a group of administrators that Junior was in charge, the group “tittered,” and Junior reacted furiously. All in all, Mercer reported, the high tension created by the father/son dynamic promised to destroy the school.

So why do conservative-evangelical college leaders do such things? Why do they create institutions that elevate their children to heights of authority and leadership when the second-generation leaders aren’t ready for it? The future of the legal case at Ohio Christian is unclear, but the pattern of dysfunctional family dynasties isn’t.

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  1. This is the son of OCU’s previous president. Now father and son have apparently moved on to Columbia International University, which is also an evangelical school.

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