A dispute between the president of Bob Jones University and the chairman of the board of trustees has led to the president’s resignation and the chairman’s apparent consolidation of power on the private school’s board.
President Steve Pettit — the first president in the school’s history not to be a Jones — resigned March 30 during the spring trustee meeting, fulfilling a pledge he made if John Lewis were not removed from chairing the board.
According to some concerned alumni, Lewis, who is from Davison Mich., has mounted an unethical and unchristian campaign to oust the president.
In an email to trustees prior to this week’s meetings, President Pettit said: “The bottom line, and the decision before you is this: I cannot continue to work in a relationship with Dr. John Lewis as chairman of the board, and I request that he step down from his position as chairman and off the Executive Committee at or before the March 29, 2023, board meeting. If Dr. Lewis remains the chairman of the board or a member of the Executive Committee, I am prepared to tender my resignation as president on March 31, 2023, to be effective immediately. You may agree with some, all, or none of my reasons for reaching that conclusion. But either way, the fact remains: you will have to make a choice between two possible outcomes.”
“You will have to make a choice between two possible outcomes.”
Reports circulated through an alumni group called Positive BJU Grads and Friends indicate that Chairman Lewis began the meeting today, “the first order of business was to amend the bylaws to concentrate powers” with a six-person Executive Committee. Then the terms of two board members supportive of the chairman were renewed and the terms of two board members supportive of the president were not renewed.
According to this report, as the two trustees who were removed from the board walked out of the room, five new prospective trustees — previously unknown to the board — waited to be called from the nearby lobby.
Prior to that meeting, Positive BJU sent a letter from an attorney urging the board not to add new members at this time because none were needed to satisfy requirements of the bylaws.
The letter notes in passing that “open Title IX and Title VII cases against various board members exist, and the board remains deeply divided and dysfunctional.”
The alumni group then warns: “The optics of quickly nominating, hurriedly vetting, and summarily approving new trustees in the present environment will not enhance the board reputation of BJU. Choosing qualified board members is a very special duty of the board and should not be hurriedly achieved based on possible political motivations, regardless of one’s viewpoint.”
“The optics of quickly nominating, hurriedly vetting, and summarily approving new trustees in the present environment will not enhance the board reputation.”
The letter further asked Lewis and the board to fill a vacancy on the Executive Committee with a board member favorable toward Pettit to create more balance there: “We believe that increasing the one-sided majority control of the Executive Committee is not wise. It is common knowledge that the EC has multiple members who, over the past 18 months, have not been favorably inclined towards Dr. Pettit and his administration. We believe it would accomplish much in the way of unity (both in the public eye of perception and in reality) by filling the EC position vacated by Tim Stanley with a board member who has been a strong advocate of Dr. Pettit.”
Although not a blood member of the Bob Jones family, Pettit came to lead the university in 2014 with a pedigree well-suited to the environment of the notoriously socially conservative and biblically fundamentalist school. He is an alumnus of the school and former trustee. He earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from The Citadel in 1978 and then a master of arts in pastoral studies from BJU Seminary in 1980.
He and his wife, Terry, spent five years at First Baptist Church of Bridgeport, Mich., where he served as youth pastor. Then they became traveling evangelists for the next 29 years, leading more than 800 evangelistic campaigns, crusades and camps in the United States and preaching in 21 countries.
By alumni, student and insider accounts, what has erupted at BJU in recent years is an intense battle over slight nudges into modernity. Once a bastion of white Christian segregationists, the school has sought to recast itself as still conservative but not racist and bigoted.
One of the most curious skirmishes in this tug-of-war occurred in 2022 through the school’s bachelor of science degree in fashion design. BNG broke the national story about reaction against a student’s fashion design project involving a wrap coat on a model intended to represent Jesus. Some critics, including trustees, said the student project made Jesus look like a gay man.
In a project fully embracing a biblical theme, student Matthew Foxx created a wrap coat for the Jesus figure that was “red to signify blood,” he said. “Jesus bled and died. He covered our sins; completely and fully like a wrap coat covers the body completely and fully.” The model also wore a crown of thorns.
“The crown of thorns on the model was supposed to be a dose of reality to our view of the crucifixion,” Foxx said. “I wanted to solidify Jesus’ death as a physical violent act of redemption and not just something we see in old paintings and get kind of excited about at Easter.”
But the wrap coat is what got more attention than the crown of thorns. Reaction was hugely divisive and became emblematic of some of the larger cultural divides between supporters of the old Bob Jones University and the still-fundamentalist modern Bob Jones University.
Other issues of reported contention include the Title IX investigations, a $40 million art collection, funding for BJU Press, and a threat of investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a national accrediting body.
BJU was not fully accredited until 2017, even though it was founded in 1927. For decades, the school reveled in its rebellion against conformity to secular standards. But that made it difficult for BJU students and alumni to transfer their credits to or have their degrees recognized by other institutions.
BJU was not fully accredited until 2017, even though it was founded in 1927.
“Being granted regional accreditation is one of the biggest milestones in Bob Jones University’s 90-year history,” Pettit said at the time. “We set out to obtain regional accreditation and strengthen our mission and, by God’s grace, we’ve accomplished both objectives.”
Positive BJU told its followers earlier this week: “These are not normal times at BJU. The board leadership needs to decide this week which direction it will take: continue on the positive path that Steve Pettit and his team have taken (with board approval) or persist in their plans to revert to a more ‘conservative’ style of standards and discipline.”
None of this is about biblical authority, the group said. “Not one biblical or doctrinal foundation is in question here. These remain absolute and non-negotiable.”
According to Ministry Watch, “tension between Lewis and Pettit led to the cancellation of a major event that had been in the planning stages for two years: ‘Bruins Athletic Club 10 Year Anniversary Gala: An Evening with Trevor Lawrence,’ which was to feature the acclaimed Christian NFL quarterback.’”
But some members of the board complained Lawrence was not sufficiently fundamentalist. The sudden cancellation reportedly cost the school $100,000 in expenses and $1 million in potential donations to the Bruins Athletic Club.
According to a statement from Chairman Lewis, the board “regretfully” accepted Pettit’s resignation. “The chair and the full board voiced overwhelming support to him, but each one of us respects his decision to resign and are deeply thankful for his years of dedicated service to the mission of BJU and its faculty, staff, and students. We wish him God’s best in his future endeavors.”
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