What’s Going on at Erskine? Have You Noticed That Reality at Erskine Ain’t as Real as It Is Outside of Due West?
May 30, 2012 | Comments 15
The sign at right greets motorists as they drive into Due West, SC. Does the sign identify Erskine College & Seminary as founded by the ARP Church? Therefore, if founded by the ARP Church, does that make Erskine College & Seminary the college and seminary of the ARP Church? The answer is “Yes,” unless one lives in the alternative reality that exists in the Erskine administrative offices in Belk Hall.
Attached and found at the end of this article is an article entitled: “What’s Going on at Erskine? A Perspective from the Current Administration.” And let the editor take this opportunity to congratulate President David Norman on a letter that is well crafted. A graduate degree in philosophy that introduces one to Jesuit casuistry must have prepared him for this level of dissimulation. After 40 years experience with six Erskine administrations, I have learned this one incontrovertible axiom: DO NOT TRUST ANYTHING SENT OUT BY ERSKINE ADMINISTRATORS TO BE TRUE UNLESS IT CAN BE DEMONSTRATED TO BE TRUE!
Before I get to an analysis of Dr. Norman’s letter, I have been reading the packet for Synod. A number of questions come to mind. Let me ask those questions as an introduction.
- How is the ARP Church an “external influence” (like the Alumni Association, EC Foundation, the Due West Subway restaurant, and the homeowners’ association) and not an “internal influence”? According to Dr. Norman and the EBOT, the guiding principle for Erskine is General Synod’s 1977 statement on Christian higher education. If the Erskine administration has committed itself to a statement framed by the General Synod and directed to Erskine for implementation (and not a statement by the Alumni Association or the EC Foundation), is not the General Synod an “internal influence”? Witness this from the Erskine report to Synod, Index 39, page 1, paragraph 2: “This statement continues to guide the board in all its activities.”
- If the ARP Church is an “external influence,” how is it that Synod’s view on Inerrancy is a part of Erskine’s hiring policy for new faculty members and administrators? Was this not also sent to Erskine for implementation? Does an “external influence” or “internal influence” control such a policy?
- If Erskine administrators say they are under Synod’s Manual of Authorities and Duties, how is the ARP Church an “external influence” and not an “internal influence”? An “external influence” cannot do the above things. Yet the ARP Church is now identified as an “external influence” by the administration.
Oh, the irony of the howling contradiction! And, pray tell, how is it that SACS and ATS are not turning flips over these things?
1: The PATRONIZING voice of Dr. Norman’s article is palpable. He attempts to sound grandfatherly, wise, and conciliatory. He fails. Rather, he disregards the events of the past and comes across as supercilious and untrustworthy. The underlying message of his tone is something like this: “We in the administration are attempting to referee this conflict between our willful children, the ARPs and the alumni.” That misconstrues the present and distorts the past to the point of fabrication. THE CONFLICT IS BETWEEN THE ARP CHURCH AND ERSKINE COLLEGE & SEMINARY! On the one hand, there is the vision of the ARP Church for Erskine College to be the “agency” OF the ARP Church in Christian Liberal Arts education and the corresponding vision for Erskine Seminary to be the “agency” OF the ARP Church in seminary training – particularly for the ARP Church. On the other hand, there are the actions of successive administrations that have not only betrayed the vision of the ARP Church by attempting to turn Erskine into a secular and independent college, but have also covered up their betrayal by falsifying to Synod their intentions. Finally, after 40 years of patience and frustrations, the stupid and nice Christians have figured out they have been betrayed and deceived. Dr. Norman is well aware of this. Dr. Norman is not an arbitrator in a conflict. He is an antagonist – ONE OF THE CHIEF PARTICIPANTS. He is also aware that the liberal alumni are the product of Erskine College & Seminary. As such, he allies himself with them in this conflict to wrest Erskine from the ARP Church. The ONLY reason the administration continues this charade is to receive the money the ARP Church contributes. Dr. Norman needs the money. Indeed, if the ARP Church withholds the money, Erskine will move to independency faster than a New York minute. There is no loyalty at Erskine to the ARP Church. That day is long past – long past!
2: The Editor has been in conversation with many ARPs and alums. There is a consensus among them regarding Dr. Norman and his administration. It is thought that Dr. Norman and his advisors are “boys” who are “over their heads,” “immature and inexperienced,” and “foolish.” I disagree with that assessment. I think they know exactly what they are doing. They have bought into and are attempting a post-modern deconstructionistic philosophy of Christianity and Christian education that cannot be squared with historic Christianity and the “Philosophy of Christian Education” the ARP Church has held dearly.
3: How did the ARP Church become the “sponsoring denomination” of Erskine? See the above sign. The first time I heard that language used it came from former Executive Vice President of the Seminary Dr. Harvey N. Gaston, the man who made a financial wreck of the Erskine Seminary. He referred to the ARP Church as the “sponsoring denomination” of the seminary. Is that why students are now hard to find in seminary classrooms and why the seminary bleeds an ocean of red ink? It is reported the administration is willing to acknowledge the deficit is $400,000 for this year.
4: With regard to the influence of the ARP Church on Erskine, how fascinating that the ARP church, the body that founded Erskine, supports Erskine, forms the EBOT, and sets the vision of Christian higher education, has now been reduced to nothing more than a group with interest in the college and seminary, much like the Alumni Association, or even home and business owners in Due West!
5: Dr. Norman complains bitterly about “communications.” He complains about blogs and social networks and accuses them of half-truths and disinformation. I suppose ARPTalk is included as a disseminator of half-truths and disinformation. Well, I cannot speak for others; however, let me assure the reader that ARPTalk does not participate in that kind of deception. That is the MO of Erskine administrations. Due West is the land were light goes to die; therefore, do not expect light to come out of that graveyard. In a conversation with Dr. Norman about a year ago, he grudgingly acknowledged that if my information was not spot on it was close enough not to dispute. Well, on second thought, I suppose he was not including ARPTalk in his blanket accusation.
6: Dr. Norman dismisses this conflict as a “misunderstanding.” He knows better! A misunderstanding does not involve more than 40 years of false teaching, cover-up, disloyalty, immorality, “a culture of intimidation,” and betrayal of the ARP Church.
7: Dr. Norman speaks of the trajectory of Erskine in this manner: “a steady progression from being a church-affiliated college to being a Christian liberal arts college. The decision to take this course was initiated nearly two decades ago and evolved over the course of several administrations.” Yes, it is true that the ARP Church (that “outside influence,” remember?) in its “Philosophy of Christian Higher Education” mandated that Erskine College should be a genuinely Christian liberal arts college where faith and reason are integrated, and various Erskine administrations have made the pretense of complying with this directive. But, really, how much progress has been made, and since when did the Synod’s call for an authentically “Christian liberal arts college” involve stealing Erskine away from the ARP Church?
8: Dr. Norman speaks of the issues between the ARP Church and Erskine as “blurred.” No, the issues are not blurred. If a house fire is a blur, then these issues are blurred.
9: Specious statements are made that this conflict hampers the focus of the administration and faculty on the student. Reader, beware of this red herring. This conflict is over the disloyalty and faithlessness of the administration and EBOT to the ARP Church that established the vision in 1839.
10: However, since “students” have been mentioned, have we forgotten that it was Erskine students that complained to the 2009 General Synod? Nearly 150 students and alums signed a petition sent to the Moderator. The students organized a website, video, letters, and personal appearances at the 2009 General Synod. It is not just “some within the ARP Church.” The students of Erskine College complained about the direction of the college, lack of integration of faith and reason, and lack of missional integrity. And the complaint was not that the college was moving too slowly toward a Christian Liberal Arts College, the complaint was that it was not moving in that direction at all. The term that was used was “systemic failure.” The following is a quote from one of those students:
Most of what I saw at Erskine was either silence about the integration of faith and learning, or professors taking the standard liberal approaches to their subjects. Neither of which constitute the God-honoring equipping of young minds with a coherent educational structure.
Finally, let us not forget that the impetus for the “Snow Synod” was the students!
11: “Suspicion and distrust breed more of the same” writes Dr. Norman. Indeed! Erskine administrators have created suspicion and distrust by not telling the truth. Do not complain that your house is on fire when you are the one that struck the match.
12: A PRIVATE Liberal Arts College is described in this manner:
- Independent in its operation;
- No, or only few historical, faith-related commitments;
- Board members, faculty students unrelated to a previous church relationship (if any); and
- Approaches education as pluralistic points of view similar to public institutions.
Though Dr. Norman writes that the administration’s desire is “Christian Liberal Arts College, as I analyze his article, I come to the conclusion that what is desired is a “Private Liberal Arts College.” Granted, the language Dr. Norman uses is confusing. Sometimes he writes that the ARP Church is the sponsoring denomination, sometimes Erskine is church affiliated, an arm of the church, an educational agency, and an institution of the church. However, my conclusion is that he wants an independent Erskine free from the watchful eye of the ARP Church. How do you read Dr. Norman’s thoughts?
13: Please, Dr. Norman, define “thrive.” What does it mean? You have avoided this question long enough!
14: To the right is a rendering of the new Due West town sign:
15: Expect the administration to show a “feel good” video next week at Synod. There will be testimonies, perhaps, of students who will tell of how they came to faith in Christ at Erskine. I rejoice that such things can still happen, but what about the students who go to Erskine and have their faith shaken and even destroyed? Also, according to a member of the Seminary Committee, there will be an unimpressive story unfolding about the seminary’s relationship to the US Army. The DMin program for the Army chaplains will be spotlighted. It is the only program that makes money for the seminary. Without this program, the seminary would be “CLOSED” instead of on life-support. How sad. The seminary that was founded to be “the seminary of the ARP Church” is now the consort of the US Army. Is this not a metaphor for Erskine? Go after everything and anything that is not the ARP Church or for what the ARP Church stands. As you watch this video, remember the words of Mr. Reagan: “TRUST BUT VERIFY!”
16: In a conversation with Dr. Norman some weeks after he became President of Erskine, he said to me that ARPTalk had accomplished its mission and it was time that ARPTalk was taken off the Web and Chuck Wilson held his peace. I was not convinced. The question for the Erskine elite remains: “How do we get Chuck Wilson to shut up and take down ARPTalk?” The answer is simple. Tell the truth! Eschew cover-up! Do not misrepresent what happened in the past! BE FAITHFUL TO THE ARP Church! Embrace the historic MISSION! Worship and trust God rather than SACS and ATS! Well, as much as I want them to do this, it will not happen. They have embraced cunning as meat and dissimulation as wine!
Finally, this article is another reason that we in the ARP Church need to let go of Erskine College & Seminary. Ours is a lost cause! We have demonstrated that we do not have the resources or resolve to remedy the situation. Erskine is a willful heifer that cannot be broken. These people have gone out from us because they were not of us. Let Erskine go! Let us put our money and efforts into rebuilding the ARP Church.
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
Below is Dr. Norman’s article which is found in the Spring issue of INSIDE ERSKINE. The Editor was not able to find an electronic copy. The article was hand-copied. The article is reprinted in order to be fair and to provide a wider audience for the goings on at Erskine.
What’s Going On at Erskine?
A perspective from the current administration
Through the years, there have been several seasons when various groups who have an interest in Erskine College & Theological Seminary have disagreed on some aspect of the institution’s policies or direction. Still, for the better part of two centuries, God has been faithful to preserve Erskine. And that is cause for great hope and expectation.
The most recent season of disagreement came to fruition in the spring of 2010. The resulting conflict has touched the lives of many across the Erskine family and our sponsoring denomination, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church. Clearly there were failures and wounds that do not easily heal. As a consequence there remains a lack of trust with many across both the Erskine community and the ARP. Our purpose here is not to recount or analyze the specific circumstances, but to provide a broader perspective and look to the future in the hope of working to restore trust.
While the specific governance issues that arose two years ago have been largely resolved, the effects linger. In the past two years, we have heard from people across a spectrum of those interested in Erskine. They have expressed a broad range of questions and concerns about the current and future direction of Erskine. Many have offered their encouragement and help, while others have voiced confusion, fear, or anger about what they have heard.
The need for clarity
In a communications landscape that includes blogs and social media outlets from which anyone can publicly offer an opinion or commentary on an issue to a virtually unlimited audience, it is not uncommon for suppositions, misunderstandings, or even intentional fabrications to be understood as fact. This makes it difficult to know what information to trust as authentic.
One of the most common concerns expressed has been that there is not enough information available directly from Erskine. Even when one hears a rumor that sounds “a little off,” there have been few official statements against which to check it.
Realizing this is the case, we wish to address the main areas of concern we have heard, and provide clarification and a current institutional perspective. We hope that this response will promote clarity and understanding among those who love Erskine, regardless of their individual opinions, about what is or is not “going on at Erskine.”
Some among the alumni have expressed particular concern that Erskine is becoming more narrowly sectarian in its Christian emphasis. They worry that Erskine is pursuing a course that will make it less diverse, less welcoming, or even intolerant of students and staff who represent the broad spectrum of faith they experienced as students. This shift, it is believed, is reducing Erskine’s appeal to high-quality students and faculty, thus threatening the overall quality of an Erskine education.
While some of these concerns are understandable given the nature of the events in the spring of 2010, as well as the coverage and commentary that flowed from them, we believe the core of this concern is based largely on misunderstanding.
Radical change or logical progression?
Indeed, Erskine’s trajectory looks and feels different now from the way it might have in the 1970s or 80s. However, rather than being a radical shift toward a narrowly focused sectarian school, Erskine’s path has been a steady progression from being a church-affiliated college to being a Christian liberal arts college. The decision to take this course was initiated nearly two decades ago and evolved over the course of several administrations.
Leaders worked deliberately and carefully to set this missional course. One of the likely causes of the current confusion and concern is that this strategy was not explained to the larger Erskine community -and with good reason. It was seen not as a dramatic shift, but as the appropriate next step in the incremental growth of Erskine.
The term “Christian liberal arts college” was commonly used, but the differences between a Christian liberal arts college and a church-affiliated college were not widely explained to Erskine’s alumni and friends as they might have been if the new direction were a more dramatic change. However, there is enough of a fundamental distinction between these two strategies that it has created some differences between the Erskine students experience today and the Erskine many alumni remember. (See “Types of Colleges Compared” below.)
As Erskine continued on the path toward a Christian liberal arts college, many who had known the school in a different time perceived these changes to be more sectarian and more extreme than they actually were. In that context, the events of 2010 and following served to further conflate what was actually happening at Erskine with fears that a more radical direction was intended. Meanwhile, some within the ARP Church expressed the opinion that Erskine was not moving far enough or fast enough toward the missional focus of a Christian liberal arts college.
The current administration does not intend to question the motives or management of those who have faithfully led and served Erskine recently or in the past. By acknowledging a distinction in purpose, we simply seek to clarify misperceptions and promote healing wherever possible. It is likely that some will remain unconvinced. Still others may come to understand and continue to disagree strongly with our position. However, we believe that pursuing clarity and genuine understanding can only improve the prospects for Erskine’s future.
Caught in the middle
Events in the spring of 2010 stirred up passionate responses from many who cared deeply about Erskine but whose perspectives and opinions varied widely. At the same time, there are philosophical differences within the ARP Church, some of which relate to Erskine, many of which do not. As the much-loved college affiliated with a small, closely connected denomination, the college became the central arena in which these differences were debated.
While every college desires an involved and passionate support base. in such circumstances, passion often makes it difficult to distinguish between what is happening and what seems to be happening. The line between who’s involved and who’s to blame becomes blurred. Critical consideration of the facts degrades into mere criticism. Rumor and hearsay replace informed dialogue. Passionate interest turns to protest. And those best positioned to be allies take opposing sides.
Much like the baby in the story of King Solomon and the two women claiming to be the child’s mother, Erskine is disputed over by opposing forces. As a result, regardless of how well reasoned or necessary an action may be, the risk of alienating either side is constant. Resources that would ordinarily help provide an excellent education for Erskine students are withheld, divided, or diverted. Ironically, the tactics employed do not influence the opposing position. Instead, strained resources and intrusive distractions put at risk the very constituencies both positions claim to have as their primary concerns: students and faculty. All the while, those who work daily to teach, lead, and serve the students must continue to concentrate on doing the work of educating and equipping young people.
The way forward
The Erskine community is a family. Occasional conflicts are inevitable in any community. They can even be useful, shedding light on issues that need to be addressed. Like plowing a field, they can allow for more fertile growth. Such is the case with Erskine. Opportunities abound to engage in dialogue, to understand diverse perspectives, to provide support and partner with others to ensure Erskine’s future.
Constant conflict, however, is toxic. Suspicion and distrust breed more of the same, creating an environment where growth and forward momentum are severely limited. Excellent Christian liberal arts higher education is not a spectator sport. Neither is it a competition between factions of liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and progressives. It is the challenging yet rewarding work of pursuing all learning and all living in service to the Lord of all.
Our path will be smoothed or made more difficult in large part by how well our community works together as a whole. Our administration, faculty, staff, and students have the honor of striving each day to carry out our mission. However, without the cooperative, active, and generous support of our denomination, alumni, and friends, their work will be all the more difficult, if not impossible.
We look forward to all that God has in store for Erskine. If you have questions or concerns, talk with us. We welcome your involvement. We need your partnership. And we are eager to see the role you will play in helping us continue Erskine’s legacy well into the future.
Types of Colleges Compared
(Adapted from “Integrating Faith & Learning in Higher Education,” presented by President David S. Dockery at the fall meeting of the research institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, September 200.)
Christian Liberal Arts College
- Strong denominational ties as part of campus culture and among board members
- Faculty and students are conscious of denominational ties
- Educational philosophy grounded in Christian world and life view
- Intentional examination of subject material from a faith perspective
- Approaches education as a holistic learning commu¬nity; integrating faith and learning and faith and living
Private Liberal Arts College
- Independent in its operation
- No, or only few historical, faith-related commitments
- Board members, faculty students unrelated to a previous church relationship (if any)
- Approaches education as pluralistic points of view similar to public institutions
- Acknowledges a Christian heritage
- Some cultural denominational ties
- Provides a caring context for education
- Approaches education in two generally unrelated spheres:
- Academic curriculum
- Chapel and ministry opportunities
- Preparation for Church-related vocations
- Studies generally limited to Christian material
- A kind of “undergraduate seminary”
Why Christian Liberal Arts? There are many excellent colleges across all of these categories. There is not necessarily a right or wrong educational structure. However, as a Christian liberal arts college, Erskine has the opportunity to accomplish things others can’t. Bible colleges focus more narrowly on doctrinal instruction. Many liberal arts colleges are quite prestigious, but lack any unifying philosophical or moral framework. Erskine seeks to pursue excellence in education in every way possible. Yet, we want to produce more than competent professionals. Our primary mission is to glorify God by equipping students to flourish as whole persons for lives of service. By offering an excellent and broadly challenging education, and by being intentional about why and how we integrate an authentic Christian worldview in both learning and living, Erskine offers something few others do.
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