DUE WEST - Disappointment, confusion and more than a little anger abound at Erskine College after the firing of nearly half of the school's trustees.
Those firings - orchestrated by the Presbyterian group that oversees the school - now are at the heart of a legal dispute between the college and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian's General Synod.
But the reverberations of the Erskine shakeup could be felt beyond the school's Due West campus.
Nineteen of South Carolina's private, four-year colleges are affiliated with a religious group. Another, Greenville's Furman University, had church ties until 1991, and the school's motto remains "For Christ and Learning."
Religious affiliation means financial support. That money and private-school status have served as a shield from the state budget cuts that have blasted holes in the budgets of South Carolina's public colleges and universities.
Some at Erskine, however, now worry that shield will block academic freedom, prized on every college campus.
"A few professors have expressed a concern, but I've not heard from most of them," said outgoing Erskine president Randall T. Ruble. "I do not think academic freedom will be jeopardized at Erskine. It is a fundamental value of this institution."
Officials at S.C. private schools with religious affiliations make the same point.
"Being a Methodist-affiliated institution - a distinction we share with some 120 other colleges and universities, including Duke, Emory, Southern Methodist and many more - does not imply a sectarian agenda," said Benjamin Dunlap, president of Spartanburg's Wofford College. "It means we regard values and the search for spiritual understanding as an essential part of the education of a complete person."
INTEGRATING FAITH AND LEARNING
How religious faith and learning are integrated at S.C. private, church-affiliated schools varies.
Erskine students are required to attend convocation, where speakers address a variety of topics, most religious.
Wofford students are not required to participate in religious functions.
"We do not proselytize, but we encourage 'the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the creative search for truth' as a crucial part of our mission," Dunlap said.
Similarly, at Sumter's Morris College, operated by the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina, students are not required to take part in religious functions.
"Students are encouraged, but are not required, to attend and/or participate in religious functions," said Morris president Luns Richardson. "The decision to do so is strictly voluntary."
David Dangerfield, a 2005 graduate of Erskine who was student-body president, said there has long been some tension between instruction and faith at the college.
He said Erskine students know they are at a Christian school because of the way professors treat them, not because of what they teach in the classroom.
"They might not have involved the Bible in class, but you felt it," he said. "I remember discussing creation in history as a freshman. The professor said she respected all viewpoints."
That approach - Christian concern and respect for the well-being of students combined with a rigorous demand that intellectual precepts be questioned - is what has made Erskine special, Dangerfield said.
Some, however, thought the school was not living up to its religious traditions.
A group of students posted a video on YouTube.com last year to call attention to what they said was the school's unwillingness to fully embrace religion.
"As a student here, I repeatedly see this institution fail to represent Christianity as the faith of redemption wherein men and women find freedom from sin and real purpose for their lives," said Hudson Smith, then a rising junior.
"Rather, Erskine tends to treat Christianity as one might treat a favorite sport or a beloved hobby. Erskine doesn't seem to view Christianity as a unifying principle for life but as a facet of life - something that you throw into the mix to make it better, but it's not necessarily essential."
President Ruble said student concerns "certainly precipitated the move by the General Synod to appoint a Moderator's Commission to investigate Erskine College and Seminary."
That investigation found "the oversight exercised by the Board of Trustees and the Administration of Erskine College and Seminary is not in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church and the synod's previously issued directives."
The synod then fired 14 of the school's 30 trustees and attempted to create a new board, prompting the legal challenge by the college.
While Ruble said he does not think the conflict jeopardizes academic freedom at Erskine, the school's lawsuit says something else.
BECOMING A 'BIBLE COLLEGE'
The suit says the General Synod "intended Erskine to lose its academic independence, to lose its standing and (academic) accreditation, to create a perception of instability which would discourage and inhibit the effectiveness of the ongoing college presidential search committee (to find a successor to Ruble), and to allow them to control the presidential-search process for their own gain."
Attempts to reach the Rev. John R. de Witt, moderator of the General Synod, were unsuccessful.
In addition to highlighting the fractures at Erskine, the lawsuit raises other important questions: Who owns the school? And, if the General Synod can't remove board members, who can?
Erskine spokesman Rick Hendricks said the school gets 2 percent of its income from the Associate Reformed Presbyterians. Alumni account for 11 percent of the school's income.
Ruble said he worries the school could be harmed by the way the changes have come.
"I am concerned about the potential loss of alumni support and also about the potential impact on recruitment, admissions and retention of students, plus the general morale of faculty, staff and students," he said.
Some alumni have said that they do not want Erskine to become a Bible college, that they want it to remain as it has been.
Some students say they feel like bystanders.
Robert Burnett, a 20-year-old Erskine sophomore, said he and his fellow students feel powerless as they watch their school wrestle with thorny legal and philosophical issues.
"If Erskine loses funding, the students will be paying through the nose," he said. "Students here are not informed. A lot of us feel like we don't have a say in the matter."