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SBU officials mum on president's exit

Eric Turner is leaving after two years, but officials won't address issues surrounding the move

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Southwest Baptist University officials are choosing to remain silent regarding details of the resignation of Eric Turner, the school’s president for the past two years.

Turner plans to exit the Bolivar university Nov. 20, when the semester ends. He submitted his resignation to the SBU Board of Trustees during its Oct. 20 meeting, according to a news release.

“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.

SBU spokesperson Charlotte Marsch said Turner’s comments about the Missouri Baptist Convention refer to the university’s updated articles of incorporation and bylaws. SBU, a Christian-based institution, is an MBC-affiliated entity.

“The Missouri Baptist Convention has asked all entities to update these documents, and our trustees have spent the past few years working through the updates with the convention,” Marsch said via email. “Those documents are now finalized.”

Turner and Ryan Palmer, outgoing chair of the SBU Board of Trustees, denied Springfield Business Journal’s interview requests.

Those familiar with the situation cite tension between the parties.

An Oct. 22 report by Baptist News Global pointed to disagreements on fundamentalism between SBU and the Missouri Baptist Convention, specifically citing interference in faculty decisions. Additionally, it cited reporting in the Word & Way monthly magazine covering the Baptist denomination-related news.

Word & Way cited leaders at MBC and SBU expressing disagreement over the trustee selection process and governance. The conflict came amid a controversy over SBU’s 2018 firing of theology professor Clint Bass for violating the university’s faculty handbook. Bass reportedly met in secret with MBC leaders in an alleged attempt to force out other theology professors. According to Word & Way, a trustee committee upheld the dismissal of Bass.

Prior to MBC’s annual meeting in October 2019, Baptist News Global reported the organization replaced SBU’s slate of trustees to place five new people on the school’s 25-member board. According to Word & Way, Turner criticized the action as counter to past efforts of collaborative board nominations by the two institutions. The magazine also reported MBC officially amended nomination rules in August to allow the organization more authority in the trustee selection process.

MBC spokesperson Rob Phillips said the organization’s leadership was unavailable for comment. However, a statement by MBC Executive Director John Yeats notes tension between the president and board of trustees: “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. He has brought the school through a healthy realignment of its mission and priorities, and he has 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.”

The ongoing conflicts between SBU and MBC spurred a St. Louis attorney to file a complaint against the university with The Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based college accrediting organization. The commission announced Aug. 24 that it found the complaint from SBU graduate Russell Jackson credible enough to begin a review.

Steve Kauffman, HLC spokesperson, said the nonprofit doesn’t comment publicly on complaints filed.

“We continue to be in contact with the institution as part of our ongoing relationship,” he said via email. “HLC reviews all complaints received in accordance with its policies and procedures.

In the interim
Brad Johnson, SBU’s vice president of institutional advancement, is slated to succeed Turner as acting president. The SBU board is developing a search process for a permanent successor, according to the release.

Marsch said Johnson is not granting media interviews before he assumes his new role, out of respect for Turner.

“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,” said Palmer, SBU board chair, in the release. “We are confident his familiar face and vast experience in Baptist higher education will serve the university well at this time.”

Turner became SBU’s president in 2018, succeeding C. Pat Taylor, who retired after a 22-year run making him the university’s longest-serving president.

Prior to SBU, Turner was president of Black River Technical College in Pocahontas, Arkansas.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic this summer, Turner led an expense-reduction plan that called on $3.2 million in cuts during the next two academic years. That represents about 5% of the university’s overall budget. Cuts included the elimination of 24 positions, with 14 to be removed through attrition and 10 from workforce reduction, according to past SBJ reporting.

Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.

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