Leadership Battle at Bob Jones U Shows National Crisis for Christian CollegesBreaking News
tags: evangelicals, Christian Colleges, Bob Jones University
What started as a simple ultimatum — he goes, or I go — has now cost two top leaders at one of the nation’s most prominent Christian universities their leadership positions and thrown the institution into disarray.
Both President Steve Pettit (above left) of Bob Jones University and Chair John Lewis (above right) of its Board of Trustees have resigned in recent weeks over their struggle to shape the future of the South Carolina institution, which is popularly associated with its strict, fundamentalist rules about students’ behavior: It once had a strict ban on interracial dating. (It got rid of that rule in 2000 and in 2008 apologized for its racism.)
Such fundamentalist guidelines are at the center of the leadership schism, with Pettit acting to relax them and Lewis seen as opposing the effort. In 2018, Pettit relaxed dress codes, which now allow women to wear pants and not just dresses or skirts to class. He drew fire for music choices in chapel services, a fashion show put on by students, and who was invited to speak at university events and fund raisers.
But some facets of the dispute are familiar to veterans both religious and secular of college leadership. Pettit accused Lewis of overstepping his authority: for instance, by blocking an investigation into a board member’s comments about female athletes and whether their uniforms accentuate “boobs and butts.”
Pettit, the first non-Jones family member to lead the private university, announced his resignation — effective in May — two weeks ago. Less than a week later, the institution announced that Lewis himself had resigned from the board, giving no reason for his resignation.
It’s unclear how Lewis’s decision will affect Pettit’s decision to leave. Neither Pettit nor Lewis responded to requests for comment. Any decision about Pettit coming back would have to be made by the university’s board, said Randy Page, the university’s chief of staff.
What is clear is that Bob Jones University is now trapped in a vortex that many Christian institutions of higher education find themselves in: Do you move from your traditional approach, even slightly, and risk alienating your traditional student and alumni base, or stay tethered to traditional fundamentalist approaches and potentially alienate students looking for something different?