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Continued: An identity crisis for a Christian college

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 21, 2010 - 10:09 AM

A debate dogging the quiet Christian campus of Northwestern College has the president apologizing, some alumni calling for his resignation and everyone doing a lot of praying.

A group of students and alumni has accused Northwestern President Alan Cureton of weeding out conservative professors and trustees to help push the campus toward "postmodern" theology. A protest group on Facebook has drawn more than 1,200 members.

Scholars, Christians and alumni around the country are watching to see whether the controversy at the Roseville school once led by evangelist Billy Graham will reach the heights of those at such places as Baylor University in Texas, where years of infighting led to that president's resignation.

Northwestern denies any shift in its Bible-based focus and attributes the hubbub to a small group of disgruntled alumni. Trustees say they have investigated the charges, Cureton has apologized to those involved and said it's time to "put this often un-biblical process to rest."

"I think we've reached the point where we have done everything we can to resolve the differences," said trustee Arnold (Bud) Lindstrand.

Northwestern espouses a "Christ-centered" philosophy, including the belief that Christ will physically return to Earth during his second coming -- a belief at issue in this recent controversy. Billy Graham was its president from 1947 to 1953.

Cureton, 55, came to Northwestern in 2002 and gets credit for building the number of students (more than 3,000 now), degree programs and radio stations operated by the college's media arm.

The trouble began -- depending on the version you believe -- when Prof. Douglas Huffman was demoted as chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies department. That move, coupled with the removal of several members of the Board of Trustees, triggered accusations that the administration was punishing the college's more conservative voices.

Several former trustees said in a letter that they had seen the college's culture changing and hoped it "might, by God's gracious intervention, be spared the fate of so many other institutions that have witnessed the dying of the light. ..."

Last January, the student government sent a letter expressing a vote of "no confidence" in Cureton and asking for his resignation or removal. The letter said that Cureton had committed "grievous sin, lies, slander, and unethical actions" --including lying about his reasons for demoting two faculty members and falsely accused another employee of viewing pornography.

Both Cureton and Huffman declined to be interviewed for this article. Cureton cited a recent Board of Trustees recommendation to "no longer respond to the questions and accusations."

There were obviously "major communication breakdowns," said trustee George Kenworthy. He said Cureton has apologized to faculty for "messages that he didn't intend to communicate."

The college hired a law firm to investigate. Using that firm's report and Cureton's apologies, a committee of trustees found that "many individuals had made mistakes" and "commend[ed] the president for taking the initiative in seeking reconciliation on these issues."

But the board's statement, released last month, did little to calm those running a website called "NWC Truth." A chief critic is Dallas Jenkins, a filmmaker, 1997 graduate and son of Jerry Jenkins, author of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of Christian novels about the end of the world. He said the trustees' statement merely continued "the pattern of lies, deception and corruption."

"When we would be proven correct about something (we have yet to be proven wrong about anything)," he said by e-mail, "there would be a perfunctory acknowledgement of 'mistakes' and an appeal to move on."

Dying of the light?

Beyond the administrative problems, Lindstrand said, the board's biggest concern were the claims that the college was losing its Christian focus.

Most private colleges and universities have loosened or abandoned their Christian ties, said Robert Benne, author of "Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions."

"That's been the story of private education," said Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Virginia.

Northwestern's board appointed a three-person task force (including the president of the Evangelical Free Church of America) to study whether the institution was deviating from its doctrinal statement, which outlines the Biblical foundation of the college's education and ministry.

After two days of interviews with faculty, administrators and students, the task force concluded that there was no "substantial evidence of theological drift at Northwestern." Given that report and the president's apologies, the board had enough information to settle the issue and encourage reconciliation, Lindstrand said. He called those who haven't moved on "a very small minority."

"But we live in an Internet age -- and sometimes small minorities can make lots of noise."

In December, the board wrote: "The Board is lovingly asking the webmaster(s) to close down the abrasive and divisive websites as well as the social networking groups."

But Jenkins -- despite "zero desire to make this a public spectacle" -- does not plan to kill the sites until the board answers the question: Is Cureton guilty of the accusations made by the student government?

"At this point, the only hope of resolution I have is of God doing a miracle," Jenkins said.

How to heal?

Throughout the months of unease, the college has focused on healing, even organizing a day of prayer and fasting. Last spring, Jim Johnson, director for alumni and parent relations, set up a weekly prayer gathering for faculty and staff. His office has served as a kind of "middle ground," fielding calls from worried alumni and communicating concerns to administration.

"This situation is a lot of finger-pointing at one another," said Johnson "The challenge was let's make sure we're all looking inward."

Peter Kemp, this year's student government president, said student interest in the debate ranges from "zealously engaged" to "completely indifferent."

"In my role, I have had the opportunity to interact with many involved and, as odd as it is, I still have respect and high opinions of each of them. In light of that respect, I hope each would reconcile with the other."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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