Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s blunder is Lipscomb University’s bonanza
On a dark day in April 2020, he received the news. Sheltering in place due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) precautions, archaeologist Steve Ortiz, a tenured faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) and Director of the Tel Gezer Excavation Project, was terminated from his position at the seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. A loophole at SWBTS allows a tenured faculty member to be dismissed if his entire department is eliminated for financial reasons. At the direction of the new president, Adam W. Greenway, and citing the financial hardship created by the COVID-19 pandemic, SWBTS cut funding for its entire archaeology program and for the Tandy Institute of Archaeology and Museum, fired Professor Ortiz and other colleagues, and left the fate of 25 archaeology graduate students unresolved.
When Christianity Today published the details of the termination, the world of biblical archaeology was stunned.
Ortiz was not surprised—but still could not believe that the seminary had actually pulled the trigger. It was widely known within SWBTS circles that the newly appointed president did not support archaeology with the same enthusiasm as the former president, Paige Patterson. The Tandy Institute was Patterson’s baby, and, despite the acknowledged expense of archaeology as a discipline, he had been committed to keeping it funded. He viewed biblical archaeology as an important, scientific component of biblical studies, as well as a powerful recruiting and marketing device that attracted students and contributors who sought evidence of and firsthand experience with the places otherwise only read about in the Bible.
But with the departure of Patterson went the security of biblical archaeology at SWBTS, which was ultimately sacrificed to budget cuts as a luxury that could no longer be afforded.
That’s when Mark Lanier stepped in. Long the archaeological benefactor, the ASOR philanthropist saw an opportunity. He called up his alma mater and inquired about the possibility of having Lipscomb University, the Church of Christ-affiliated liberal arts university in Nashville, hire Ortiz along with classical archaeologist Tom Davis.
An old friend from my Pepperdine years (another Church of Christ-affiliated school), who now teaches at Lipscomb, contacted me about Steve Ortiz. He said they might have the opportunity to hire him.
“Hire him if you can!” I wrote immediately. “Steve Ortiz is an exceptional archaeologist. I don’t know what they were thinking letting him go. If you can get him, it would be a coup for Lipscomb.”
And that’s exactly what Lipscomb University did. But they didn’t stop there. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Lanier, Lipscomb University also hired Professor Davis and acquired the research of the Tandy Institute, some of the museum’s archives and study collections, and the M.A. and Ph.D. programs—the whole works!
In the end, Ortiz, his colleague, his research, and his students all wound up in a much better place. While SWBTS continues to recalibrate itself to focus exclusively on the “training of pastors and other ministers of the gospel for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Lipscomb University has brought profound resources to its institution almost overnight, while earning the praise of the archaeological community worldwide.
The summer of 2020, when many archaeological excavations were canceled due to a global pandemic, will be remembered by archaeologists, and especially by veterans of the Gezer excavations, as the summer that Lipscomb University saved biblical archaeology.
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I suppose South Western’s loss is Lipscomb’s gain–and to those of us that follow biblical archaeology we are grateful.