It is difficult to fathom the ineptitude that would cause a top-tier Christian university to become so blinded to its rightwing constituency that it throws away decades of ecumenical goodwill and then doesn’t even have the wherewithal to acknowledge what it has done.
As a journalist who has been covering Baptists for four decades, I am stupefied by current events at Samford University and the administration’s failure to manage crisis communications.
The No. 1 rule of crisis communications is to tell your story first before someone else sets the narrative for you. In the current matter — as in a previous matter last year — the Samford administration has failed beyond comprehension.
What university, knowing it has made a decision that will give it a black eye in the general public’s view, not only refuses to tell its story upfront but then goes totally silent when national headlines break about its actions? As I write this, officials at Samford have gone more than 24 hours without answering any questions, offering any explanation for the exclusion of LGBTQ-affirming ministries from its campus.
Then, just in the midst of writing, I was alerted — not by Samford but by an alumnus — to a statement issued to the campus — not to the media or the public — doubling down on the school’s new policy of exclusion. We still have not heard from President Beck Taylor or the board of trustees.
Do the university’s top officials have no defense for their actions? Or do the president and trustees know their actions will put such a taint on their name that they simply hope to hide and let the storm pass?
As BNG reported yesterday, the school’s campus pastor intentionally excluded Presbyterians and Episcopalians from a back-to-school ministry expo because their denominations allow same-sex marriages. But since then, as we have heard from Samford alumni and others, we’ve learned the story really is worse than that. It appears the Baptist-affiliated university is on a mission to expunge any church or student ministry that is inclusive — including Baptist churches.
This is especially perplexing since Samford in years past worked hard to build a reputation as an ecumenical campus built on a Baptist heritage. Its Beeson Divinity School began as an intentionally ecumenical training ground for clergy. It’s top-ranked Cumberland School of Law is among the leading educators of trial lawyers in America.
“Alumni of these programs are so disgusted with their alma mater that they are threatening to return their diplomas. And yet the university remains silent.”
Yet now, alumni of these programs are so disgusted with their alma mater that they are threatening to return their diplomas. And yet the university remains silent.
The current brouhaha appears to trace back to the university’s campus pastor, Bobby Gatlin, who assumed that role in 2019. According to news reports, including ours, he is the one who informed the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians they no longer are welcome on campus. Did he do this of his own accord? Was he acting on instructions from the president or trustees?
We don’t know, because the university has been silent. Not a word from anyone.
We join the chorus of Samford alumni to say this: If Samford is going to intentionally exclude any organization or church that in any way welcomes LGBTQ Christians — including Samford students who are gay — the administration ought to explain itself and its policies. Not today, but yesterday.
For now, it appears an ill-informed policy has morphed into a self-inflicted communications nightmare that will do nothing but besmirch the reputation of the university.
Samford, how long will you remain silent?
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.