The faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has enlisted the American Association of University Professors to help preserve academic freedom at the Southern Baptist school and stave off feared heresy hunts by a new board of trustees now dominated by fundamentalists.
All 33 of the elected faculty members have joined the newly formed AAUP chapter at Southeastern, which like the other five Southern Baptist Convention seminaries is expected to be the focus of fundamentalist forces now in control of the 14.6 million-member denomination.
Southeastern, located just outside Raleigh, N.C., is the first and thus far the only SBC seminary to take such a step.
"It became clear to us back last January or February that something very serious was about to happen to us and we felt we had better take measures to protect ourselves," said Richard L. Hester, professor of pastoral care and psychology of religion, who heads the local AAUP chapter.
The group was formed, he said, "to defend the right to teach without fear of harassment."
In the eight-year march of Baptist fundamentalists toward control of the denomination, the seminaries have experienced increased attacks from those who would like to impose a single view of the Bible and Christian beliefs on the church.
The prospects for academic freedom were considerably dimmed by the action of the SBC annual convention in June.
The body adopted a so-called Peace Committee report authorizing trustees to "determine the theological positions of the seminary administrators and faculty members" to assure theological orthodoxy.
Subsequently, administrators of some denominational agencies have moved to require theological loyalty oaths of staff members, which educators fear will set a precedent for all institutions of the church.
Southeastern's new board of trustees, the first in which fundamentalists are in the majority, gathers for its first meeting on the campus Monday.
Alumni, students and the new AAUP chapter will welcome the trustees with a series of events, including a three-day vigil and a public forum "to express concerns about the impending threat to academic freedom," Hester said.
Southeastern's president, the Rev. W. Randall Lolley, came out swinging in his fall convocation address in late August with a ringing defense of academic freedom.
"At Southeastern we do not believe that we pay for the expansion of our minds by the contractions of our hearts," he said.
"Nor do we subscribe to a theory of theological indoctrination wherein truth is determined always by majority opinon. We recall all too vividly that our Lord was crucified with the majority agreeing."
In the long and bitter struggle for ideological control of the denomination, fundamentalist leaders have sometimes offered payment to students who can produce evidence of "heresies" in seminary lecture halls. The atmosphere of free inquiry in classrooms has often been replaced by a climate of fear, with tape recorders spinning to catch an unguarded comment that could threaten a teacher's job.
Hester said that Southeastern, since its founding, has followed a tradition of "academic freedom with accountability to the policies of the school . . . . Now we are labeled heretics because we do not believe or teach to litany of New Right doctrines."
He said, however, there are "no specific actions pending" against any Southeastern faculty member.