Leaders of a movement to prevent Hardin-Simmons University from closing its Baptist seminary are emboldened by a major donor who publicly chastised HSU’s leadership for what he described as financial and spiritual failings.
In a letter to trustees, Jeff Sandefer also demanded his family’s name be removed from buildings on the campus in Abilene, Texas.
Organizers of Save Logsdon Seminary say the letter has energized their efforts to keep the seminary open by intensifying pressure on the board and HSU President Eric Bruntmyer.
“People are encouraged knowing they are not alone in this,” said Sarah Neeley, a 2019 Logsdon Seminary graduate, hospital chaplain and administrator for the movement’s growing Facebook group.
The Sandefer family heritage at HSU gives the letter clout, she added.
Sandefer’s great grandfather, J.D. “Prexy” Sandefer, served as Simmons College president from 1909 to 1941. His name adorns multiple facilities and his remains are interred on the Abilene campus. His father and grandfather also served as trustees.
“It is with great sadness that my father’s widow, my sister and I ask for the Sandefer name to be removed from all HSU buildings and that we be allowed to relocate” his great grandfather’s remains to “a more suitable resting place,” Sandefer wrote in the March 5 letter published by KTAB/KRBC/Telemundo in Abilene.
He cited “poor leadership, unwise financial decisions and a disregard for HSU faculty, students and alumni” and warned that the university is headed for “financial and spiritual bankruptcy” with its current policies.
“My aunts would be particularly saddened by the gutting of HSU’s most important religious programs,” he added.
Sandefer concluded his letter with a pledge of “financial support for legal actions by any member of the HSU community who has been or will be wronged or wishes to contact regulators or accreditors with their concerns.”
The university said it respects the issues Sandefer raised.
“We are aware of and have made contact with Jeff Sandefer about his concerns,” HSU responded in a statement provided to Baptist News Global. “Hardin-Simmons University will continue to work toward a resolution with the Sandefer family.”
The university said its “priority as a faith-based institution has always been and will continue to be ensuring our students are prepared to learn, grow and lead – personally, professionally and spiritually.”
However, it added that its focus currently is on ensuring the safety of the HSU community during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
‘Embolden other donors’
Reading the letter was a powerful moment for Save Logsdon Seminary, said Jonathan Davis, a graduate of the school and senior pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia.
“We see it as a sign that pressure is mounting on the administration to change course in some very significant ways,” said Davis, a regular opinion contributor to BNG. “I believe that his letter will embolden other donors who were thinking about coming forward in similar ways.”
The Sandefer name by itself provides credibility, he said.
“They have a history and a lot of sentimental connection for a lot of people. His great grandfather was the longest serving president in the history of the university.”
The letter also packs a punch because Sandefer is respected “outside the Baptist bubble” as an activist in national higher education circles, Davis said.
The concluding promise to cover legal expenses also is encouraging, he added, noting that “several parties are considering litigation.”
So far, the university has been unwilling to engage with members of Save Logsdon Seminary, organizers charge. In his public statements, Bruntmyer has said the seminary is being eliminated as part of a larger plan to cut low-performing and financially struggling programs.
Members of the Save Logsdon Seminary movement are skeptical and want to see details.
“We would like to see a total reversal by the board,” Davis said.
Sandefer’s reference to the university’s spiritual bankruptcy struck a chord with many.
“I see it in things like a steady movement away from theological education and the training of ministers,” Davis said. “To me, that does not indicate a spiritually healthy environment.”
Nor does succumbing to pressure from religious conservatives to close the progressive seminary, which is a key suspicion of the movement, said Robert Sellers, Logsdon Seminary emeritus professor of theology and missions.
“From my perspective as a progressive Baptist, it is moving toward spiritual bankruptcy to use a theological wedge to shut down a seminary,” he said.
Sandefer’s concerns about HSU’s financial and spiritual health is a wake-up call for those who have been focused primarily on the seminary, said Kyle Tubbs, president of the Logsdon Alumni Council and church starting manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“We are learning that the movement is much larger than Logsdon Seminary,” Tubbs told BNG via email. “Many of us are newer to this movement, but Jeff Sandefer has been saying for years what some of us are just now seeing: Hardin-Simmons needs saving, right now.”
Otherwise the university’s decline, and the seminary’s closure, will send shock waves well beyond the university, added Neeley.
Especially painful would be the lost opportunity for theological education and training for moderate and progressive Baptists across the state, she said.
“And this would be absolutely devastating for Baptist women in Texas and for ministers coming from immigrant backgrounds.”