After forfeiting $3 million a year in institutional funding from the Alabama Baptist State Convention, the president of Samford University announced he will not seek formal recognition of a student group dedicated to the discussion of LGBTQ issues and human sexuality.
Samford announced July 7 voluntary reduction of its anticipated budget allocation from the 3,200-church state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention to zero effective Jan. 1. In an email to employees and a video message to students, President Andy Westmoreland said the move is related to controversy over Samford Together, a forum for students to discuss topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity “in an open-minded and accepting environment.”
The group, approved by both the student senate and faculty, recently hit a roadblock when leaders of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions threatened to withhold denominational funding unless university trustees deny official recognition and revoke provisional status for Samford Together granted in the spring semester of 2106.
Westmoreland said before the ultimatum he had already determined it not in the university’s best interest to recognize a gay-straight alliance at this time, citing “misinformation” and “skepticism” about the group’s purpose.
“Some people have assumed it is based more in the area of political positions instead of fostering honest discussions on campus about these important topics,” the president said in a YouTube video message to students on summer break.
“In addition, the vote of our faculty last April to recommend formal recognition of the group has been interpreted by some as a repudiation of traditional views of human sexuality,” Westmoreland added in an employee memorandum that was shared publicly on social media.
Westmoreland said the decision to no longer ask the state convention for money is “somewhat related to Samford Together, but not as directly as you might assume.”
During his 11 years as president, Westmoreland has twice before unilaterally reduced the amount of receipts from Alabama Baptists in recognition of mounting financial pressures on the state convention and related ministries. “I have long contemplated the ultimate need for those of us at Samford to reduce our reliance on these funds to zero, and our budget office has been preparing for that eventuality for several years,” he said.
State convention president John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala., said if approved by the full State Board of Missions in August, next year’s budget will be reduced by $3 million, the amount of Samford’s likely allocation in 2018, creating what in effect will “be a base budget that better reflects our current Cooperative Program receipts.”
The Alabama Baptist allocation is less than 2 percent of Samford’s annual budget of over $163 million. Westmoreland said the university hopes to find ways to offset the loss of the funds, which are used to underwrite scholarships, by cutting spending in other areas.
Westmoreland said the goals of Samford Together “are truly worthy,” and he hopes after the start of the fall semester to meet with students and faculty about a fresh start for a similar group without the “ambiguity, confusion and rancor” of the current conversation.
“Indeed, this discord would likely damage the worthy goals of the organization and the heartfelt intentions of good people on all sides of the issue,” he said.
Westmoreland said no one at Samford is angry at the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and this disagreement does not signal “that we are about to enter a period of drifting away from our denominational roots.”
“The relationship between Alabama Baptists and Samford remains crucial to the mission of Samford and the ongoing work of Baptists in Alabama and Christians throughout the world,” Westmoreland said in a press release.
Thweatt said leaders of both groups “hope to ascertain what areas of ministry cooperation — that do not involve Cooperative Program allocations — could be developed for the future which will honor our 175 years of ministry together.”
Westmoreland said he agrees with two recurring themes in conversations he has had in recent months with students, faculty, staff, alumni, pastors, church members and others about Samford Together.
“First, among the vast majority of our stakeholders, there is the expectation that Samford must respect and uphold the understanding of biblical marriage as between a man and a woman and the long-held beliefs of most evangelical Christians regarding human sexuality,” he said. “Second, there is the hope that Samford may be a place in which differences are respectfully addressed through conversations that honor God and all people.”
“For some, these two themes create inherent conflict,” Westmoreland said. “I believe Samford is an ideal place for this dialogue to occur.”