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Published Oct. 18, 2005

For 103 years Stetson University has been affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention, and in 1957 the two strengthened that bond with a gentleman's agreement that survives to this day. That agreement has worked this way: The Baptists pledged ongoing financial support for the university, whose main campus is in DeLand and whose law school is in St. Petersburg. Stetson, while maintaining its legal autonomy, allowed the Baptists a strong role in nomination of the university's trustees, the people who chart Stetson's direction.

For the better part of three decades, the relationship worked, with occasional ups and downs. But times are changing _ and so are the bonds between religious bodies and the universities they help finance.

Next month, at their annual meeting in Tampa, the Baptists will vote on a landmark proposal to loosen the ties that bind them to Stetson. Under a plan proposed by Stetson President Douglas Lee and overwhelmingly endorsed this summer by Convention leaders, Baptist financing for the university would fall nearly 50 percent by 1995 and perhaps sink to zero by 2001. In exchange, the university would assume greater autonomy in choosing trustees.

For Stetson, the plan is perhaps more symbolic than substantive. Money from the Florida Baptist Convention makes up less than 3 percent of Stetson's total income, and university officials do not expect the cuts to have a major effect on the school's future.

Still, next month's vote will be significant, partly because it signals a major shift in priorities for the Florida Baptist Convention. The group, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, says it wants to put less of its limited resources into higher education and more into evangelism, church building, social issues and church leadership training.

Why the shift? Some of it stems from a change in philosophy and needs within the Florida Baptist Convention.

"Our executive director .


. believes we need to get back to the basics of reaching people for Christ in this state," says Convention spokesman Don Hepburn. "In order to accomplish that, we have to give our financial, programing and staff priorities to the matters of evangelism, starting new churches and training lay leadership."

But the change in priorities also underscores the strong shift to the right within the Southern Baptist Convention and a growing tension among state Baptist organizations in the South and the universities to which they contribute money.

At Baylor University in Texas, for example, trustees recently changed the school's charter to thwart a perceived takeover threat by hard-line Baptist conservatives. University officials were concerned that a small group of extremists would try to severely limit academic freedom at the school.

At Furman University in South Carolina, a school founded by the South Carolina Baptist Convention, trustees recently amended the charter to put trustee-election power in their hands rather than the Convention's. While no "overt" problems had arisen lately over academic direction, a spokesman says, the change was made "in hopes that nothing in the future would happen."

Tensions over academic freedom have flared recently at Stetson, though not with the same degree of acrimony as at Baylor. Part of the reason is that the Florida Baptist Convention does not have the same degree of control that Texas Baptists had at Baylor.

While Stetson is "affiliated" with the Florida Baptist Convention _ the college's president and 18 of 24 of its trustees must be Baptist _ the Convention does not own or control the university and thus has no legal leverage in imposing its wishes on the administration.

Still, many of the same sore spots found at places like Baylor are present at Stetson, where about 25 percent of the 2,400-member undergraduate student body is Baptist. Many Florida Baptists have complained that creationism is not emphasized in Stetson classrooms and inerrancy of Scriptures is not taught, Hepburn says.

In addition, the distribution of medical literature on abortion and the presence of a National Organization for Women chapter on campus have upset many Baptists. And an alleged rape at a Stetson fraternity house in 1988, stories of student drinking on campus and another alleged sexual assault last month involving a Stetson student have deeply disturbed many Florida Baptists, Hepburn says.

"If we're going to call Stetson a Baptist university, it ought to walk and act like a Baptist university," Hepburn says in explaining the feelings of Convention constituents.

While tensions between the Baptists and Stetson are not new _ the Convention almost cut off money for the university in 1969 _ Hepburn says concern over the recent campus incidents "highlighted the potential for turmoil and confrontation between the university and state Convention."

To keep those tensions from exploding _ and to accommodate the Baptists' changing ministry priorities _ both sides moved to deal with the situation without severing the Baptist-Stetson relationship, spokesmen for both groups say. It is that affirmative approach to resolving the differences between the two sides that distinguishes the proposal from situations such as Baylor, they say.

"My feeling (is) that universities and denominations need and ought to stay together," says Lee, the university president. "They need to find positive ways to focus on their mutual commitments and ways to accept their legitimate differences and to move forward in a positive way."

Lee praises Dr. John Sullivan, the Convention's executive director, as "a man of courage" for his role in bringing the proposal before the Convention. Lee says he discussed the Baptists' new ministry priorities last spring with Sullivan and, responding to Sullivan's "concerns," offered to bring forth the plan.

Sullivan was not available for comment, but he recently was quoted in the Convention's state newspaper as saying the proposed changes would "take the abrasion out of the relationship" with Stetson. "I believe in this proposal," he said.

Lee says he doesn't perceive the recent campus incidents as the "heart and soul of what's going on" with the Convention. "In my mind the significant issue is the shift in priorities toward evangelism and away from higher education," he says.

He also contends that a substantial number of Southern Baptists, though they may be in a minority, "would like to see funding continue at the present level" for higher education.

Still, he acknowledges that sharp differences do exist between many Baptists and Stetson.

Issues such as biblical inerrancy and creationism, Lee says, "would be welcomed to be discussed" at Stetson. "We've had a creationist speak on our campus," he notes. But he adds, "Our biology and physics and chemistry would be taught as in any other university environment."

"As a university our obligation is a free flow of ideas. The notion of being a proponent of one idea or another, that's something that would contradict our mission," he says.

As for such issues as alcohol and charges of sexual assault on campus, Lee says Stetson "has had problems in recent years," but adds, "Those are the same problems every segment of society deals with, and that churches deal with."

Whether a majority of the estimated 1,800 Baptist delegates at the November convention will endorse the proposal is an open question.

"It's our feeling that the recommendation will be approved," Hepburn says. But he adds, "We do anticipate some negative reaction to the proposal (from) people who probably feel we just ought to cut off the funding totally and immediately."

Under the proposal, Baptist support for Stetson would decline by nearly $5-million over the next 10 years, according to a Stetson spokesman. It would drop from $950,000 this year to $500,000 by 1995. (About 10 percent of the Baptists' current contribution _ about $94,000 _ goes to Stetson's law school, Lee says.)

Between 1995 and 2000, Baptist financing would remain at $500,000 annually and be used to help build a $3-million endowment. Stetson, meanwhile, would try to raise an additional $3-million for the endowment from outside sources.

In 2001, the Florida Baptist Convention could decide not to send Stetson any more money, though presumably the endowment would maintain a link between the denomination and the university.

While the proposed financing changes are significant, they are not likely to alter the basic direction of the university. In the current budget year, Baptist money accounts for only 2.5 percent of Stetson's total income of $37.5-million.

What's more, the percentage of the Baptist Convention's budget devoted to Stetson has been declining for years. It amounted to 18.5 percent of the Convention's budget in 1960, but is only 4 percent today.

Stetson officials say the university will compensate for the reduced Baptist money with more aggressive fund-raising from alumni and other sources. "Part of the virtue of (the) proposal is that it gives Stetson time to make other funding plans," says Doyle Carlton, a university trustee from Wauchula.

In exchange for the cuts in financing, the Florida Baptist Convention would give up some of its role in selecting Stetson trustees.

Since 1957, all 24 trustees have been nominated by a six-member committee made up of three current trustees and three people chosen by the Convention. The Convention then has been allowed to approve those nominees before they were elected by the board of trustees itself.

Under Lee's proposal, the nominating committee would grow to seven with the addition of a fourth trustee. The committee would fill only the 18 positions that under Stetson's charter must be Baptists. The Convention would be informed of the committee's nominations but would not approve them.

Lee says despite the changes, Stetson will remain committed to its role as a Baptist-affiliated university. "What you are seeing here is a redefinition of a relationship with the Florida Baptist Convention that is amiable," he says.

"To simply walk away from the commitment and the relationship would be contradictory to who we are."