After just two years at the helm, Southwest Baptist University president Eric A. Turner submitted his resignation to the SBU Board of Trustees during its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 20, according to a news release.
The move comes after apparent ongoing conflict between the university and the Missouri Baptist Convention and just days before the MBC’s annual meeting in St. Charles on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 26-27.
Turner’s resignation will be effective Friday, Nov. 20, at the conclusion of the fall semester’s commencement ceremonies, the release said.
“As the university and Missouri Baptist Convention rearticulate their long-standing relationship, I think it is vital for the two entities to have a fresh start with a new leader at the helm,” Turner said in the release. “It has been my honor and privilege to wave the purple banner for these past two years. I have fond memories of many I have encountered during my time of service at SBU.”
Brad Johnson, vice president of institutional advancement, will serve as acting president effective Saturday, Nov. 21, the release said. The trustees have begun developing a search process.
“We asked Dr. Turner to stay through Nov. 20 to facilitate a smooth transition and are thankful for Dr. Johnson’s willingness to step into the acting role,” Ryan Palmer, outgoing chair of the SBU Board of Trustees, said in the release. “We are confident his familiar face and vast experience in Baptist higher education will serve the university well at this time.”
John Yeats, executive director for the Missouri Baptist Convention, said the convention joins with fellow Missouri Baptists and university alumni “in praying for Dr. Turner and his family, for the students, staff and administration of SBU, and for the trustees who provide oversight for the university.”
“While Dr. Turner and the SBU board did not always see eye to eye on issues relating to the university, we have watched Dr. Turner exhibit outstanding administrative skills during his time at SBU,” Yeats said.
The executive director said Turner brought the university to “a healthy realignment of its mission and priorities.”
Yeats also said Turner “faithfully steered SBU through many challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, successfully addressing the health, safety and fiscal headwinds facing the school this year.”
“We pray for wisdom for SBU’s leaders in the days ahead, and we trust the Lord is already preparing the heart and mind of a new president to continue the positive steps SBU has taken under Dr. Turner’s leadership,” Yeats said.
Turner began his service as president-elect in August 2018 and assumed the presidency on Sept. 1, 2018, the BH-FP previously reported. Before coming to SBU, he worked in fundraising, academics and accreditation at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, for 17 years before becoming president of Black River Technical College in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 2014.
In his two years at SBU, Turner launched a strategic planning process, tackled historic budget issues and saw the university through governing document changes, the release said.
Turner helped welcome SBU’s first cohort of Bachelor of Science in Nursing students at the Bolivar campuses’ new Don and Carrie Babb Department of Nursing in January 2019.
He also led the many adjustments required by the COVID-19 pandemic, the release said, helping students, faculty and staff continue with the university’s mission despite uncertainty.
As the BH-FP previously reported, in March, Turner worked with state and local leaders to offer the use of SBU’s Meyer Wellness and Sports Center and a residence hall as overflow medical facilities should the need arise. The university finalized a memorandum of understanding with Citizens Memorial Hospital in the early days of the pandemic.
“We are thankful for Dr. Turner’s devoted service to SBU,” said Palmer. “Because of his leadership, SBU is well-positioned to thrive for years to come.”
However, Turner’s time at the university’s helm has also been embroiled in controversy.
Turner and the university’s board of trustees came under criticism after he dismissed Clint Bass, tenured professor with the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry, on Nov. 28, 2018. Bass had worked with the university for 10 years.
Bass’ dismissal notice “outlined personal behavior concerning conduct violations of SBU’s Faculty Handbook,” according to a previously released statement by Turner.
However, per previous coverage, Bass’s supporters contended the professor was “singled out for his strong convictions regarding the inerrancy of Scripture and as a Biblical view of matters, such as eternal punishment and justification.”
They said the issue at hand dealt with the university’s lack of adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and growing concern within Missouri Baptists about alleged doctrinal instability of the Redford School of Theology.
SBU’s Educational Policies and Personnel Committee, made up of members from its board of trustees, upheld Bass’s termination in December 2018, per previous coverage.
The following month, the university’s board of trustees censured and excluded trustee Kyle Lee, who was elected to serve as a trustee in 2018 and was an elder alongside Bass at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Bolivar — a decision based on a conflict of interest policy, per former board chair Mark Rains, but disputed by the MBC.
In July 2019, a review of SBU’s integration of faith, learning and doctrine by a peer assessment committee led by David Dockery, chancellor of Trinity International University, said the university’s statement of faith had not been implemented effectively across the fabric of the university, leading to mistrust between the university and Missouri Baptists.
Former dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry Rodney Reeves, who said Bass’s allegations against the theology department were untrue, left the university in August 2019, per previous coverage.
According to coverage in The Pathway, a Missouri Baptist Convention publication, the convention rejected SBU’s entire proposed slate of five trustees and appointed its own nominees, choosing to leave Lee in place as a trustee, during its annual nominating committee process in October 2019.
At the annual meeting, Turner reportedly told the convention he was “disappointed in the process.”
While SBU released a statement calling the lack of communication from the MBC during the nominating process “unprecedented,” the convention’s group of trustees was approved by delegates at the MBC annual meeting on Oct. 29, 2019, according to The Pathway.
Lee said he was reinstated to his spot on the trustee board in March of this year. His current term expires in 2023.
By June,the university had adopted a new University Sustainability Plan, “designed to guide the university through current and future disruptions to higher education,” according to previous coverage.
Leaders said the plan would save the university $3.2 million, or about 5% of the overall budget, over two years, in part by cutting 24 faculty and staff positions across all of the university’s campuses and increasing faculty workload.
The university didn’t specify how many of those eliminated positions will be in Bolivar, nor did it release names of faculty and staff affected.
The plan would also discontinue optional academic program accreditations, per previous coverage.
At the same time, Matt Kimbrough, assistant professor of theology, was named assistant provost for spiritual formation, according to previous coverage, leading both the Redford Division of Theology and Ministry and University Ministries.
According to an SBU news release, the board of trustees approved a resolution affirming and acknowledging the university’s relationship and common goals with the MBC during its Wednesday, July 29, board meeting.
“This is an important statement of SBU’s commitment to the Missouri Baptist Convention and our family of churches,” Palmer said in the release. “SBU and our trustees are committed to the process of working through the governing documents in good faith. SBU was a loyal member of the MBC family while other entities sought to distance themselves. SBU continues to be a faithful partner with no intention to sever these ties.”
Last month, SBU’s board of trustees approved revised Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, which affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as the university’s statement of faith, to be confirmed at the upcoming MBC annual meeting, per The Pathway.
As of press time Friday, SBU maintained its accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission. The university’s most recent reaffirmation of accreditation was in the 2015-16 academic year.
In January, an assurance review following an interim report request revealed the university met the Higher Learning Commission’s standards for the rigor of academic offerings.
The university’s next reaffirmation of accreditation is set for the 2025-26 academic year.