Sad Accusations of Brewton-Parker

February 2, 2015

by SBC Today

“The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.”  Proverbs 18:17, HCSB

While the situation at Brewton-Parker College is disheartening, to say the least, it would be unfortunate for Baptists to jump to conclusions concerning the perceived motives and intentions of the trustees and public relations officials at the college.

In his SBC Voices blog post titled Sad Revelations at Brewton-Parker, Dave Miller appears to view the trustees and public relations officials at the college in a fairly negative light. While we, at SBC Today, share Miller’s lament at the crushing news of yet another scandal at the school, we are not nearly as certain that the existence of such charges point to a genuine cover-up of facts by the college.

Specifically, we are not certain that the college was responsible for including in Dr. Caner’s resignation announcement any details related to charges of inappropriate communication—especially if such charges were investigated by trustees and the matter was dismissed. In other words, just because additional information may come to light indicating charges of wrongdoing in Dr. Caner’s personnel file, this alone does not necessarily imply the existence of a cover-up by the college.

A Summary of the Situation

Brewton-Parker College has been dealing with accreditation issues, having recently overcome many obstacles to be restored in its accreditation. Its former President, Dr. Ergun Caner, is a polarizing figure in Southern Baptist life, having endured a barrage of charges over the things he is accused of saying through the years. Most of his critics happen to be Calvinists. Most of his supporters are not. Make of that what you will.

Following the tragic death of his son, Braxton, much light has been directed at the dangers of cyber bullying and the inappropriate use of social media. In all of this, Dr. Caner has endured a grief beyond words. In addition, he has been hospitalized for a period of time during this past year. When he resigned recently, the resignation press release made no mention of two charges of inappropriate communication, which we believe may very well have been investigated and dropped, that are possibly documented in his personnel records.

We can easily imagine a scenario in which trustees would not rush to report charges of wrongdoing in a resignation press release. It is a moot point. The man, having endured crushing personal grief, is stepping down. The practice of allowing an employee to resign rather than be terminated is so routine we barely recognize the distinction anymore. For example, on December 15, 2013, Mack Brown resigned as the Head Football Coach at the University of Texas at Austin. The press release was glowingly positive. But we all knew what was left unsaid. Many resignations come about with behind the scene pressure. Whether or not this was the case with Dr. Caner, it is simply not a “cover-up” on the part of the college to leave such information out of a resignation announcement. They typically don’t include such juicy morsels.

Perhaps the narrative could be summarized thusly. First, a few accusations of unbefitting communication by Dr. Caner came to light. Second, the charges were brought to those responsible for holding Dr. Caner accountable. Third, when the time came during an internal investigation for the actual hearing, the accusers may have decided not to present their concerns, perhaps out of a desire (a) not to hurt the President, (b) not to harm the reputation of the school, or (c) not to get involved in the matter any further. Alternatively, the investigation may have yielded no corroborating evidence. In any event, with insufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the matter may have been closed.

Please notice the preceding paragraph begins with the word “perhaps.” We cannot vouch for the authenticity of this narrative. It is simply one realistic example, in our opinion, of a scenario in which a President might resign, with or without pressure, and the institution would not be required, or even legally permitted, to report publicly the unproven allegations of wrongdoing that may be documented in the employee’s personnel file.

Remaining Questions

1. Is it fair to assume that the non-reporting of (possibly dropped) misbehavior charges establishes that the official story was “designed” to “cover-up” the facts?

It is now clear…that the official story was designed to cover up the facts of the story and the real reasons that Dr. Caner was forced to step aside at BPC.  —SBC Voices

That there was a scandal, an imbroglio or a controversy is beyond question. But that does not mean there was a determination of guilt, followed by a designed cover-up. Resignation notices do not read like termination notices. When one resigns, one’s stated reasons for resignation are usually listed in press releases. When one is terminated, reasons for the termination by one’s superiors are typically included. It would be highly unusual for someone to resign and include in their own resignation letter the charges of wrongdoing made by their critics. The fact that there is more to the story does not demand that the information shared by the college in the resignation press release was a “cover-up.”

2. Did Dr. Caner say something inappropriate in chapel?

At one chapel, 1/3 of the student body (present at chapel) walked out in protest of Caner’s racially insensitive speech. –SBC Voices

The impression given here may be that Dr. Caner made such a remark in chapel itself. However, while the walkout did occur in chapel, the alleged remarks were said to be made in private. They were overheard from another room by fewer than a handful of people. It may very well have been a misunderstanding. Other examples of inappropriate communication may be brought to light, but at least regarding the alleged racially insensitive comments, these were not spoken in chapel at all.

3. Did Dr. Scott follow proper procedures in presenting his concerns with leadership to the trustees? Is it not possible that there is more to his side of the story than has been made public thus far? Was he fired in retaliation or was he already planning to resign? 

In most workplaces, if one has a concern, there is a process for dealing with the matter directly and privately. Writing an open letter critical of one’s superior, for example, and distributing it to board members, administrators and others on campus is one of the boldest moves we could ever imagine. It is inherently risky, for this reason—if the board sides with your superior, you are now vulnerable to charges of insubordination or other breaches of policy or etiquette.

Such situations rarely turn out well. Most of the time, we would venture, it is a tactic in which both employees wind up losing their jobs. Let us be quick to say that we appreciate the fact that Dr. Scott had some concerns. C.B. is bold, honest and forthright. However, it is at least a possibility that he presented his concerns in a manner some might have considered a violation of personnel rules.

By all accounts, Dr. Scott had the opportunity to resign like Dr. Caner did. He would then have received a severance package and medical insurance for his family. While we respect his decision to choose the termination route, and especially his refusal to sign any kind of agreement to remain silent, the false narrative that the trustees had it out for C.B. Scott and mercilessly pushed him away because he knew too much may not be all there is to this story.

What if the non-disclosure clause was standard protocol in all college severance agreements and did not represent any kind of special effort to silence Dr. Scott? What if Dr. Scott had already provided college officials with written intent to terminate his employment prior to the resignation of Dr. Caner? As much as we truly admire C. B. Scott as a gentleman and a scholar, it is difficult for us to say with any level of confidence that we have heard all sides of this story.

4. Might there be some accusations in the SBC Voices article that are unfair to the trustees and PR officials at Brewton-Parker?

In addition to the quotes above, a few other nuggets from the article may eventually prove speculative:

1. I am upset that a Baptist school thought that covering over the truth with a false story was the best way to go.

First, regarding the facts, we can only hold the public relations office at the school responsible for reporting the facts that they are given by trustees and school officials. It is not “covering over” or “false” when a press release fails to mention privileged and confidential information in a personnel file. How can the official writing the report include what they do not know?

Second, regarding the motives, as discussed earlier, there is no cover-up or false story when a resignation letter does not choose to include the details of dismissed charges in an employee’s personnel file. If the case did not proceed, there is nothing to report. Resignation letters and termination letters will always sound different from each other in both tone and content.

2. We’ve seen reports in recent years of a lot of God’s money being used at Baptist colleges to hush people, to purchase silence and to keep people from reporting the truth.

One wonders if the author could not be more specific here. General charges like this are not particularly helpful. If he has knowledge of such, perhaps he should produce the goods. Instead, he paints with a pretty broad brush in providing a generalization without giving any supporting details.

We do not care for secrets at all. It grieves us that the records of the GCR proceedings have been sealed and we cannot view our own denominational records for ten more years. If memory serves, confidential personnel matters were cited in that case as well. We may not understand some of these legal maneuvers, such as non-disclosure clauses, and the shroud of secrecy regarding certain personnel issues, but in our litigious society these concerns crop up regularly—no matter which side of the denominational aisle one happens to prefer.

3. To me, the story is that a Baptist institution was willing to publish what it knew was not true to protect its own image.

Passions are very strong here, but perhaps more care is needed to be completely accurate. By “Baptist institution” do we mean the public relations office of the school and/or the trustee board? Trustees might have had access to personnel files but the public relations office writing the article certainly would not.

By “willing to publish what it knew was not true” what exactly was the untruth that was published? Did they lie about the resignation? Did he not resign? Or do we believe the school is morally required to elaborate upon his resignation by sharing various additional details that may not have been proven?

Do we really mean to suggest that the only way a college can accurately report the resignation of a President undergoing a family tragedy and a personal health crisis is to state clearly in the resignation press release the existence of possibly unproven and dismissed charges of wrongdoing that become moot the moment he is no longer employed by the institution?

Conclusion

We do at least share one thing with Dave Miller, and that is that our mood in exploring these matters is profoundly sad for everyone involved—Caner, Scott, the college, Georgia Baptists and Southern Baptists. We can all admit there is perhaps a good deal more to this story than that which was publicly released.

However, in our opinion, we should not be too quick to impugn the integrity of those at the college responsible for informing the public, for the manner in which the college conducted its internal investigations, and for the decisions of the board regarding resignations and terminations.

As Adrian Rogers said, “It’s a pretty thin pancake that only has one side.” As both sides of this story unfold over time, let us pray for peace in the midst of the current hardship, and that the school can move forward in serving the Lord.

*Editor’s Note:  No comments will be allowed on this particular post.