Two weeks after Shorter University revealed its new Personal Lifestyle Statement for employees, gay staff fear witchhunts, local citizens are planning petitions and protests, and some alumni worry that their degrees will appear less valuable in the eyes of employers.
The campus in Rome, Ga., has canceled classes for Thursday and Friday after a bomb threat this morning, according to the Rome News-Tribune. The threat, which has since been cleared, came as about a dozen people gathered to protest Shorter’s new policy.
Another protest is planned for 10 a.m. Friday on the sidewalk of Shorter Avenue, in front of Shorter University, Rome resident Gary D. Harrell told GA Voice. It is timed to coincide with the inauguration of Shorter President Don Dowless.
Shorter University is a private Southern Baptist college with its main campus in Rome and satellite learning centers in north Atlanta, Riverdale and Duluth.
The new Personal Lifestyle Statement was approved by the university’s board of trustees on Oct. 21 and announced to staff on Oct. 25. The policy includes, “I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.”
The statement also says that employees must be active members of a local church and includes requirements about being loyal to the mission of Shorter; not using, selling or possessing illegal drugs; and not drinking alcoholic beverages in public (including at restaurants), in front of students or attending university events within six hours of drinking.
“We now will live in fear that someone who doesn’t like us personally or someone who has had a bad day will report that we’ve been drinking or that we are suspected of being gay,” said one gay employee, who declined to reveal his name due to the policy and said he is “not likely to stay with the university.”
Shorter will not grant any further interviews on the policy, according to university public relations staff.
But Dowless, who took office in June and is to be officially tomorrow, and Trustee Chair-Elect Joe Frank Harris, Jr. have defended the policy in press statements.
“The ‘why’ is really simple: What you stand for matters,” Harris said in a university press release. “Proverbs 3:5-6 tell us to ‘Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.’ If we acknowledge Him, He will make this university’s path straight.”
Employees must sign the statement that stresses that they can be fired for violating the policy: “I have read and agree with the Personal Lifestyle Statement and will adhere to it in its entirety while employed at Shorter University. I understand that failure to adhere to this statement may result in disciplinary action against me, up to and including immediate termination.”
While students are not required to sign, the statement still sends a horrible message to them, according to Melissa Bugg, a heterosexual Shorter graduate who has spoken out about the new policy through petitions, letters to local media, and in online conversations with alumni and Shorter staff.
“I have so many issues with this statement I almost don’t even know where to begin. But the biggest issue I take with it is that it not only condones bigotry and exclusion, but it promotes it. The fact is, gay Christians exist. And forcing people to sign a document isn’t going to change that fact,” said Bugg, who graduated from Shorter in 1996 with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree.
“But what it will do is create a hostile environment not only for the faculty and staff who now have to live their lives in fear of losing their jobs, but also for the students,” said Bugg. “What message does this send to them? That if you’re gay, you’re good enough pay tuition to go to school there but not good enough to work there after you graduate?”
Tamara King Henderson, who identified herself as a bisexual current Shorter student in comments on a GA Voice online article about the new policy, said she is afraid that the policy will lower the quality of her education.
“This could hurt the university’s ability to attract the best and the brightest professors available,” wrote Henderson, who could not be reached for a follow-up interview.
A petition at SignOn.org, addressed to the president and Board of Trustees of Shorter University, had 4,688 signatures as of Nov. 10, coming from Georgia and around the nation.
Several other petitions at Change.org also target the new policy.
The Personal Lifestyle Statement drew criticism from bloggers ranging from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post, but none more vociferous than Shorter’s hometown newspaper.
The Rome News-Tribune has published multiple articles, editorials and letters about the controversy, including one from a Shorter graduate who said that he and his wife would rescind a $10,000 pledge to the university, which was to be annual, and urge other benefactors to do the same.
In a Nov. 5 editorial, the paper noted that in one highly rated division of the university, every faculty member has told the department head they intend to seek new jobs.
The newspaper reminded readers that Shorter is up for accreditation review from the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools next year, and included information about how to file complaints. Shorter has already received a “tongue lashing” from SACS due to “threats to academic freedom.”
Harrell is among those organizing protests of the policy. He launched a Facebook campaign, Boycott Shorter, to encourage parents of LGBT students not to send their children to the college, to encourage people to “reconsider any community-oriented events that fund Shorter,” and to demand that Shorter not benefit from use of taxpayer-funded facilities in Rome.
“There are large numbers of LGBT students and faculty who have many times spoken about their feelings of being ‘voiceless’ on that campus in open meetings, etc., in Rome over the years,” said Harrell, adding, “I have talked to several alumni who are now wondering what the effects the words ‘Shorter University’ on their resumes will mean to employers.”
The Southern Baptist faith has been among the most vocal opponents of gay equality, including organizing an unsuccessful boycott of Disney because of its alleged support for LGBT rights.