Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NIV)
1 There is a time for everything,
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
Regular readers of mine are well aware that I in no way tolerate bigotry. I have spoken out against racism. I have spoken out against homophobia. I have spoken out against transphobia. I have spoken out against opposition to marriage equality. I have spoken out against sports writers being allowed to editorialize about the evils of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as if they were editor-in-chief of the newspaper in question (here's lookin' at you, Phil Morgan). The list goes on and on.
As the Bible passage I've quoted above states quite accurately, there is a time for everything, and while the extended present time has been and continues to be that for speaking out against mistreatment of minority groups by society as a whole, the immediate time has come -- for myself and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others -- to speak out against an organization we hold very near and dear to our hearts: Spring Arbor University.
In case the ever-strengthening hurricane of national media coverage has avoided landfall on your patch of informational coastline, SAU requested and was granted exemptions from Title IX on the basis of sex, parenthood as pertaining to marital status, pregnancy as pertaining to marital status, employee leave (for pregnancy, childbirth and abortion) as pertaining to sex or gender identity, housing as pertaining to sex or gender identity, bathrooms and locker rooms as pertaining to sex or gender identity, and athletics participation as pertaining to sex or gender identity.
In other words: if you wish to be an employee or student at Spring Arbor University, you must be a heterosexual, cisgender, single person with no children living with only members of your same sex or as one half of a married opposite-sex couple (in which case kids are okay). Gay, transgender, single fathers who once had an abortion and now live out of wedlock with their partner -- or any singular or combined qualifiers in that list -- need not apply. Because, according to SAU president Brent Ellis and his administration, those people aren't deserving of dignity.
I don't think I have to rehash the scientific or Biblical evidence that proves wrong every last premise in which this abhorrent position of the school's is based. I've cataloged them all before, here and elsewhere. If you need to refresh your memory, just read through some of my previous writings and you'll get the message pretty quickly. No, what I want to talk about here today is specifically the problem as it relates to Spring Arbor University and how it needs to be fixed.
Now, before we go any further, there are three terms you need to know: liberal arts, The Concept, and The Bubble.
Liberal arts is an often misunderstood term. No, it has nothing to do with politics, nor does it have anything to do with social issues. To boil it down to its essence, a liberal arts education teaches you how to learn, not what to learn. Certainly there are plenty of "whats" to learn, as well -- language, history, math, science, psychology, art, music, literature, et cetera -- but at a liberal arts college, you learn how to learn through the practice of learning those subjects. The end goal is to produce a lifelong student, someone who constantly studies and makes well-informed decisions in all that they do. Spring Arbor University is -- or, at least, once was -- a liberal arts institution.
The Concept is the short name for The Spring Arbor Concept. Yes, that is an official, proper name. Officially, The Concept is as follows:
Spring Arbor University is a community of learners distinguished by our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts, total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, and critical participation in the contemporary world.
Sounds like a great basis for a Christian university, doesn't it? It is! ...when it's being followed. The problem is that The Concept is used in two ways that were not at all intended by those who wrote it.
The first, most obvious use of The Concept is by the students as an explanation for why something is not allowed. "Against The Concept" is the phrase you'll hear repeated all around campus rather frequently. Visiting an opposite sex's dorm outside of open hours is "against The Concept." Skipping Chapel is "against the concept." Reading erotic literature is "against The Concept." Breathing is "against The Concept." That last one is said in jest, but I'm far from the first person to say it and even farther from the last. If you're doing something wrong at Spring Arbor, you're "against The Concept." It's a great little reminder that you're in serious trouble whenever you so much as put one toe over the line, even by accident.
The other use of The Concept is by the school itself, which wields it as a weapon against the outside world. "In this world but not of it" was a good enough standard for Jesus, but it's not enough for Spring Arbor University. The "total commitment to Jesus Christ" has morphed into a "total commitment to the Free Methodist Book of Discipline," a document that is apparently so sacrosanct in the eyes of President Ellis that he even included it as part of the basis for his request "that the University may discriminate on religious grounds." (I'm not making that up, those are Ellis' exact words.)
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but last time I checked the Christianity: The Forgiving rulebook, it still said that when you play the Jesus card, it renders all powers of the Man card ineffective with no XP given. The Free Methodist Book of Discipline is a document of religious laws written by man to enforce compliance. Jesus' words are teachings directly from God Himself, sent to spread and demonstrate His love for His creation. The Book of Discipline did not come from Jesus' mouth. Upholding it over Christ's teachings is bound to cause problems... and wouldn't you know it, doing so is causing problems!
Thirdly, we have The Bubble, which, like its counterpart, is shorthand for The Spring Arbor Bubble. It isn't official, per sé, but it's no less real. You've seen the show Under The Dome? It's like that, only it doesn't do all the freaky Stephen King stuff. In fact, when CBS first began promoting that show, my very first reaction was, "wait, when did Stephen King write about Spring Arbor?" The Bubble is permeable, and there are those who find ways to escape and return as they please without notice, but by and large, the students find themselves trapped in it by The Concept and a general unwillingness to go out and engage in the surrounding community. They see Spring Arbor as having everything they need to thrive as a Jesus-committed lifelong learner. Critical participant in the contemporary world? Bah... that's for after graduation. And the mandatory cross-cultural term. No need to waste time with it now.
So how does this recent move fit into the big picture at Spring Arbor University?
Well, basically, it doesn't. At least not if you look at "the big picture" as what SAU was intended to be. Approaching this from the position of what SAU was intended to be, these exemptions go entirely "against The Concept." Let's look at The Concept again, shall we? "Spring Arbor University is a community of learners" -- nothing wrong there -- "distinguished in our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts"--
Whoa, hold on there just a second! What did we say "liberal arts" meant? Learning how to learn, right? And two of the subjects intended to teach us how to learn were science and psychology, correct? So when science and psychology have very clearly proven (as I've pointed out many times before) that sexual orientation and gender identity are natural, in-born, biological traits that cannot be changed, it would be a foregone conclusion that those who are "distinguished in [their] lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts" would seek to fully comprehend and adjust their perspective to account for those facts. Spring Arbor University has, with these exemptions, effectively disqualified itself as a liberal arts institution.
Let's continue: "[...] total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning"--
Whoops! We've hit another snag! Already! Take a moment to think about what that phrase truly means: "Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning." Jesus was quite obviously a loving man. So pointedly, so outrageously, so arrogantly contradictory to convention, in fact, that the powers of the establishment, both religious and political, conspired to murder him. He loved everyone He came across: tax collectors (the lowest scum of the political realm), prostitutes, homosexuals (need I reference Matthew 8 for the bajillionth time?), the poor, the diseased, the cursed, adulterers, and not less than a few promiscuous women. He welcomed them all. He showed love to them all. When others turned someone away, Jesus embraced them.
In other words, if Jesus Christ is supposed to be the perspective for learning at Spring Arbor, they would be welcoming of people they perceive to be sinners. They would be showing Christ's love to those people. They would be standing up against the modern Pharisees in the Christian fundamentalist establishment and opening their arms as wide as possible to everyone. Spring Arbor University has, with these exemptions, effectively rejected Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning.
And finally, we come to the last portion: "[...] and critical participation in the contemporary world."
Not again?! Yes, I'm afraid so. Gerald E. Bates -- the university's president for only one academic year after Gayle Beebe left -- gave this brilliant explanation of that phrase in his 2007 convocation address:
And, lastly, we are called to critical participation in the contemporary world. The word CRITICAL is critical to the concept. A chip in the river in some sense “participates” but our aspiration is to be world changers, counter-culturalists in the Jesus sense, Kingdom workers to do all we can to make wrong things right, to heal pain, solve problems, to advance justice, to bring people to God, in short, to do what Jesus showed us to be God’s priorities here on earth. We do not wait passively for the GREAT ESCAPE (the rapture, or whatever); we have work to do in the here and now. We maintain an invigorating tension with our world.
So now we have to ask ourselves: what is counter-cultural, in the Jesus sense, about Spring Arbor's actions in this situation? Are they making any wrong things right? Are they healing pain? Are they solving any problems? Are they advancing justice? Are they bringing anyone to God? Are they putting God's priorities ahead of their own?
Answer Key: Nothing, No, No, No, No, No, Hell No.
And here's the kicker, the coup de grâce in Bates' explanation of The Concept:
All of us have this choice before us—to be chips on the river of history, or swimmers, sometimes cross-current, sometimes upstream to find where the damage is coming from.
OUCH! God damn it! And I do mean that in the very literal sense of the phrase! That is in direct contradiction to SAU's current positions! That fucking hurts!
This brings me to my own personal experience at the school. I was a student there as a freshman in the 2003-2004 school year. I had been heavily recruited by the radio program, and apart from the University of Miami -- to which I was accepted but didn't attend for reasons of appeasing family -- Spring Arbor was my first choice.
I was battling some demons at the time -- both figuratively and probably real -- and I left after it became apparent that A: I was failing, B: I lacked the drive to continue in an academic setting, C: I had no money, and D: the only thing I really cared about was radio, and I was practically giving lessons on broadcasting from the day I set foot on campus because I'd already had eleven years of prior experience in the industry.
Basically, I wound up owing thousands of dollars for the opportunity to earn $7.40 an hour doing something I could have been doing anywhere else.
It was a lousy personal situation that wasn't entirely within my control for various reasons, but the people at SAU helped me make the best of it as much as they possibly could. They went above and beyond for me, going out of their way to try to pull me out of my problems. That wouldn't happen at most other schools. I was (and still am) very grateful to the people there who made that effort, ineffective though it was at the time.
Despite my problems, for the most part, I had a great experience at SAU. I made lifelong friends, I had new experiences I never thought I would have, I learned more about myself than I think I ever had in a single year up to that point... it had its bad moments, but it was largely rewarding overall.
Now, as far as LGBT issues go, they weren't a very major concern on campus at that time. That's not to say they weren't a concern -- they were -- but they weren't the focus of attention. Think back to that time. The national conversation had more to do with terrorism and war back then. Spring Arbor was no exception.
The Student Code of Conduct had, even then, prohibited "homosexual behavior." I personally did not know anyone there who was gay; at least not anyone who was out to me, but I was aware that there were gay students on campus. Despite that fact, there were no witch hunts. No one in the staff or faculty, to my knowledge, was going out of their way to condemn gay students. In fact, the attitude while I was there was one of -- gasp! -- welcoming, opening arms to people from various walks of life who had different experiences to share, so that we all could learn from each other.
Can the same still be said for Spring Arbor today? Hardly.
Think back to 2007 now; the last time SAU made national headlines. It was for almost the same reason as this time. A professor of 17 years -- an associate dean, no less -- came out as transgender and began publicly transitioning. Today we know her as Julie Nemecek, and she's a prominent speaker on LGBT issues here in Michigan, but that didn't come about without a fight from the university. The whole thing started in 2005, when she came out to then-president Gayle D. Beebe. As a result, she was demoted, given a new contract with a 20% pay cut, assigned only online courses, prohibited from appearing on campus as a female, prohibited from "discussing his transgender situation with Spring Arbor University personnel or students," and eventually fired. She dragged the school in front of the EEOC and, two years later, basically won, agreeing to an undisclosed settlement.
That long, protracted battle didn't come without additional cost to the school, either. Lansing Community College and several other schools across the state were building their "University Center" in Lansing, where the various schools would offer classes to LCC students who wouldn't otherwise have had access to them. Spring Arbor was one of those schools. Prominently one of those schools. They were going to be one of the more heavily involved institutions in the venture. But when the Julie Nemecek story broke, all hell broke loose. The media pounced on it almost instantaneously. Both schools were hounded by the public -- Spring Arbor for causing the problem, Lansing Community College for planning to associate with Spring Arbor. The City of Lansing even got involved because they had just passed a non-discrimination ordinance that included LGBT language in it. The uproar was tremendous, well outdoing what we're seeing and hearing about these Title IX exemptions today... at least to date.
In the end, LCC kicked SAU out of the University Center project, costing Spring Arbor a lot of money that they had already put into it and even more money in lost future revenue.
Did they learn their lesson? Apparently not.
Now, let me put my own personal feelings on the topic aside. From a purely political standpoint, Spring Arbor University should have every right in the world to exclude who they wish to exclude. They could transform themselves into the Ku Klux Klan of higher education, and there shouldn't be a damn thing anyone can do about it.
And yes, that's a "very big 'if.'" Nobody should be able to tell Spring Arbor that they can't exclude people IF they are not accepting money from the federal government. Title IX compliance is required to receive funding from federal grants and loans. There should be no exception to that requirement, religious or otherwise. Why? Because the federal government does not exist to give money to anyone, let alone religious institutions of higher learning. But if Washington is going to insist on giving my money and yours to these schools, they cannot be allowed to violate federal law for any reason. If you borrow money from the bank, you have to abide by the loan agreement. This situation should be no different whatsoever.
Take Hillsdale College for example. They fought Title IX throughout the late 70's and early 80's, and rightly so, because as the first college in the country to include a policy of non-discrimination on the bases of race, religion and sex in their 1844 charter, they found that federal demands to prove compliance were overbearing, intrusive and unnecessary. Which, frankly, they are. And, in 1984, after the Supreme Court ruled in Grove City College v. Bell that federally-funded student scholarships could be withheld if colleges refused to sign "assurance of compliance" forms, Hillsdale began rejecting all federal funding, thereby exempting themselves entirely from Title IX. As a result, all 1,500 students are on privately-funded tuition, many of them on various scholarships made available only to Hillsdale College students by private donors, and the school has an endowment of $295 Million.
Spring Arbor University, by comparison, spreads their mere $9.5 Million endowment among almost 3,000 students... if you'll pardon the expression "spreads their endowment." And don't get me started on that giant phallic symbol in the middle of campus.
Guess it pays not to discriminate, huh?
Now I'll put my own personal feelings on the topic back into the conversation.
As a former Spring Arbor student who has, in the past, been very proud to make that claim, I can no longer be proud to do so. Not only have Ellis and company completely erased my pride in the school, I fully anticipate any future business dealings I'm party to requiring a renunciation from me of Spring Arbor's shameful bigotry and incredibly un-Christlike behavior. And I shouldn't have to defend myself over a school on my résumé which, after I left, became a worldwide symbol of hatred and intolerance. That's a personal detriment to my life caused by Ellis, the school, and many people whom I once thought better of. There is no lawsuit that will undo the damage that has already been done. There is no change of course that will entirely heal the wounds that the school's actions have torn open. I now have to live with the consequences of their despicable choices, and that infuriates me. That beyond infuriates me. That makes me mad. It makes me mean mad.
But it gets even worse. I can deal with that aggravation. That's peanuts compared to the greater issue at hand. Spring Arbor University purports to be an entity in this world that shines as a beacon of the faith that I adhere to. They are perverting it into something it is not and claiming that they represent values that all Christians share, and that I will not allow. They do not speak for me. They do not speak for anyone but themselves. I will not sit silently while the school I once loved abuses my Lord's name in their acts of hatred. I, and many others like me, are now forced to sever ties with Spring Arbor University because the school has become grossly antithetical to everything it was founded to stand for.
As verse five says above, there is "a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing." This is a time to refrain from embracing. I no longer embrace Spring Arbor University. I cannot so long as they continue this bigotry and hatred.
As verse seven says, there is "a time to be silent and a time to speak." This is no time to be silent. I will speak out against Spring Arbor University for as long as these deplorable practices continue. I must to satisfy my obligations as a critical participant in the contemporary world.
Brent Ellis can throw we alumni and former students all the bones he wants by facetiously praising us for enacting what we learned at his school, but we're not settling for that. These policies will change. It's only a question of when and how hard the Spring Arbor administration wants to fight their losing battle against reality.
Against Christ's love.
Against The Concept.