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Reaction and Response: ACTA Sends Letter to Hardin-Simmons Trustees

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The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) raised concerns about recent decisions at Hardin-Simmons University (HSU) in Abilene, Texas, to close its seminary and other programs.

ACTA is “a service organization, not an enforcement agency,” President Michael Poliakoff explained in an email to EthicsDaily.com. “For the past 25 years, ACTA has worked with a nationwide network of 23,000 trustees, helping them to ensure their institutions provide the best education at the lowest possible cost.”

Specific issues for the university to consider were set forth in a March 27 letter sent to HSU’s board of trustees.

The letter emphasized that “highly informed and highly engaged trustees” are essential to any university’s success, while lamenting that too often trustees “have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders and donors.”

Several specific items of concern were noted by ACTA, including:

  • Potential accreditation issues related to federal aid and subsidized student loans.
  • Lack of faculty engagement in the decision-making process.
  • Recent increases in administrative salaries at higher levels than faculty salaries.
  • Ongoing campus construction project costs in light of the financial reasons given for the decisions to cut programs.
  • Possible issues with endowment terms and agreements (specifically those connected with Logsdon Seminary) in light of program closures.

“Decisions regarding school restructuring, program prioritization and termination, tenure, and faculty management have lasting effects on the school community and its reputation,” the ACTA letter said. “While delegating management and implementation to the administration, an institution’s governing board still has the ultimate legal authority behind these choices and responsibility for them.”

Poliakoff told EthicsDaily.com that the organization began its independent investigation after being contacted by Jonathan Davis.

Davis is an EthicsDaily.com contributor who serves as pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Virginia. He graduated from Logsdon Seminary in 2019 with a doctor of ministry degree.

Poliakoff said that ACTA received a written response from HSU in early April.

In response to a request for comment on the ACTA letter, Jacob Brandt, director for university marketing at HSU, provided a copy of the university’s reply to ACTA (see here).

The April 3 response from HSU affirmed the importance of the issues noted in the ACTA letter.

It stated university leaders “have been engaging all of our stakeholders about the changes the university has announced” and noted that further details regarding the school’s strategic plan would be shared “in the coming days and weeks.”

HSU also said the ACTA letter “included some clear inaccuracies,” offering a brief response to ACTA’s findings related to administrative salaries, building project costs and seminary funding.

“We appreciated their quick reply, but their list of inaccuracies did not actually list any inaccuracies,” Poliakoff told EthicsDaily.com.

“According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System data feedback report, faculty salaries across ranks are lower than their peers – except at the instructor level (of which HSU only employs a handful),” he said.

“The number of administrators (management + finance) is one higher than the average of their peers; but in terms of enrollment, they are significantly smaller,” Poliakoff said. “Their retention, transfer out and graduation rates are another cause for concern, which makes shrinking their program portfolio without investment in new programs a highly questionable strategy from an enrollment management perspective.”

Poliakoff concluded, “ACTA does not look to fine or punish any individual or university. We believe that Hardin-Simmons can build on its rich history of providing a high-quality education.

“That means prioritizing academics and instruction in resource allocation decisions, working hard to engage faculty as the university makes very difficult decisions regarding its program portfolio, and ensuring scrupulous fidelity to donor intent in the management of its endowment. HSU’s governing board can lead in all these areas.”

ACTA’s letter is the latest chapter in an ongoing story that began on the evening of Feb. 7, when HSU leadership published its decision to close various programs at the university.

As EthicsDaily.com reported previously, Logsdon Seminary was among the programs being eliminated.

The seminary was formed in 2004 as part of the Logsdon School of Theology, which launched in 1983 and began offering a master of divinity degree program in 1995.

EthicsDaily.com conducted several on-camera interviews with current students, alumni, as well as the current dean Robert Ellis and former dean Don Williford, who commented on the decision.

Prior to the ACTA letter, alumni began raising questions regarding the stated reasons for the closures and expressing concerns about the school’s leadership.

These initiatives include the creation of a “Save Logsdon Seminary” initiative, which evolved into a “Save Hardin-Simmons” movement that includes a Facebook group launched Feb. 8.

An open letter to HSU leadership was published on Feb. 16 calling for financial transparency, open communication and integrity.

“Save HSU,” a website launched on Monday, April 6, contains a proposal called “The Better Way Forward” that offers 14 steps that HSU trustees are urged to consider and adopt.

In addition to contacting ACTA and HSU, EthicsDaily.com reached out to several people connected to the university for their reaction and response to the ACTA letter.

“When ‘Save Logsdon Seminary’ first started, we were a couple hundred members focused primarily on Logsdon, largely because most of us were Logsdon alumni and students,” Kyle Tubbs told EthicsDaily.com via email.

“The more we learned, the more we realized Logsdon’s closing was a symptom of a larger problem stretching across disciplines and programs throughout Hardin-Simmons. Our group has now expanded significantly to 1,200 concerned members, all hoping to ‘Save Hardin-Simmons’ together.”

Tubbs, who is president of the Logsdon Alumni Council and is part of the leadership hub of Save Hardin-Simmons, said “the concerns expressed in ACTA’s letter are troubling for HSU’s current trajectory, but also inspiring to our group to continue working together toward our goal.”

“ACTA’s thorough fact findings and evaluation is an encouraging substantiation to the entire movement,” he said. “Our energy is once again renewed, and we will continue our work in unity with our growing base of support.”

Don Williford was dean of Logsdon Seminary from 2011 to 2017, having served as interim dean of both the seminary and school of theology in 2010.

He told EthicsDaily.com via email “ACTA has been accurate in their assessment” and said that HSU President Eric Bruntmyer “has been absolutely unresponsive to letters sent to him by alumni, former faculty members and former administrators.”

“This is indicative of the lack of transparency and sense of accountability by administrators and trustees,” Williford said. “The administration and trustees have refused to disclose the financial audits requested by alumni and donors. The few public responses they have made to criticisms have been general in nature and offer shallow assurances of credible progress.”

“The ethos at HSU has undergone a significant change,” he said. “The faculty and staff are reluctant to speak out about their concerns for fear of retaliation. Faculty who have taken the buyout offered by the university are required to sign a non-disclosure statement or forfeit the incentive given them.”

Jonathan Davis called the ACTA’s involvement “incredibly encouraging to our movement.”

“It brings us comfort and courage to know that even while our concerns have largely been ignored and minimized by HSU’s current administration, one of the premier higher-Ed watchdogs in the country is listening,” he said.

“My personal hope is that the board of trustees will seek ACTA’s ongoing counsel in moving forward, so that Hardin-Simmons can begin to exit the current season of chaos and upheaval,” Davis told EthicsDaily.com via email.

“My prayer is too, that the current administration will begin to seriously listen to the legitimate concerns of so many graduates, students, current and former faculty and staff, donors and community members,” he said.

“I look forward to the day when all of the Hardin-Simmons family can again move forward in unity and cohesion, and I believe the influence of the trustees is key to that potential reality.”