At our upcoming Spring Trustee Meeting, I will be bringing a motion to revoke the degree that SWBTS granted to Mark Aderholt. In this post I will explain the rationale behind this action as it is grounded in SWBTS’s governing documents and the current state of our laws as I understand them. The motion that I will bring is, of course, just a motion from a solitary trustee. I will not be able to blog about any aspect of how the Board responds to or processes my motion. My purpose in authoring this post is simple: The Southern Baptist Convention has been through a lot of difficulty with regard to past instances of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. I think that a lot of Southern Baptists wish that they knew something that they could do. I think maybe I found something that I could do, and I’m hoping that you’ll be encouraged by that.
The Mark Aderholt Story
If you read the newspaper accounts of his indictment (click here) and of his arrest (click here), you’ll be introduced to the broad details of the story of Mark Aderholt. I have invited Anne Marie Miller to share her story with the Academic Administration Committee of the Board of Trustees in our upcoming meeting. Here’s what I expect her to tell us.
In 1996-97, Aderholt was a student at SWBTS. In response to Miller’s desire to start a See You At The Pole event at her public school, Aderholt initiated a relationship with Miller. He soon led the relationship to become sexual. He was 25. She was 16. Later, when Miller was herself in her 20s, the significance of the age differential became clear to her, and she realized the (criminal) wrong in what Aderholt had done to her. She then told her story for the first time. Aderholt was working for the IMB by then. The IMB investigated the claims, and at the end of their investigation, Aderholt was no longer employed by the IMB. He found employment with the state convention in South Carolina, but no longer. Now he is under indictment for his alleged behavior with Miller.
SWBTS’s Governing Documents
The Bylaws of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary explicitly state that, regardless of his or her academic achievements, no student is eligible for graduation if the faculty has reason to question whether the student’s conduct or character are unworthy of graduation. This has been an explicitly stated element of the governing documents of SWBTS since, as far as I can tell, the founding of the school.
It is not some forgotten aspect of our Bylaws, either. From time to time down through the years, we have expelled students for violations of the conduct that we expect from SWBTS students. Regardless of their grades or of the number of credit hours that these students had accumulated, they did not receive academic degrees from SWBTS.
Mark Aderholt, however, did receive a degree from SWBTS. This was not because SWBTS came to a different conclusion from the IMB when we investigated Aderholt’s relationship with Miller. Rather, we have never conducted any investigation into Aderholt’s relationship with Miller. We never received any report of any such relationship. If Aderholt was conducting a sexual relationship with Miller, then Aderholt knew full well that his behavior was grounds for his expulsion. If anything like what Miller claims happened at all, then Aderholt deliberately concealed his behavior from SWBTS in order to avoid expulsion and to obtain, in the end, a SWBTS degree.
The Law of the Land
Educational institutions can legally revoke degrees that have been obtained fraudulently.
Sometimes fraudulently obtaining a degree means submitting a plagiarized thesis or dissertation. But the freedom afforded to educational institutions by American law to revoke degrees is broad. An early case, much quoted in subsequent cases, is Waliga v. Board of Trustees of Kent State University, in which the court stated:
Academic degrees are a university’s certification to the world at
large of the recipient’s educational achievement and fulfillment of
the institution’s standards. To hold that a university may never
withdraw a degree, effectively requires the university to continue
making a false certification to the public at large of the
accomplishment of persons who in fact lack the very qualifications
that are certified. Such a holding would undermine public
confidence in the integrity of degrees, call academic standards into
question, and harm those who rely on the certification which the
degree represents. (emphasis mine)
The court in Waliga made explicit mention not only of the receipient’s educational achievement, but also of the institution’s standards. The fraudulent receipt of a degree can mean more than academic misconduct. In the 200 case Harwood v. Johns Hopkins University, the court upheld JHU’s right to withhold a degree from a student who, after completion of his degree, shot and killed another JHU student. Just one year before, in 1999, the case Dinu v. President and Fellows of Harvard College upheld Harvard’s right to withhold a degree from two students who had stolen money from Harvard Student Agencies. Lexington Theological Seminary v. Vance (1979) upheld a religious school’s right to withhold a degree from a homosexual student based upon religious convictions, and the cases Goodreau v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia (2000) and Yoo v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2004) affirmed the right of institutions not only to withhold degrees not yet awarded but also to revoke degrees already granted for non-academic misconduct.
If Mark Aderholt obtained his SWBTS degree fraudulently, then SWBTS has the right to revoke that degree. If Mark Aderholt concealed a sexual relationship that he was conducting with Anne Marie Miller, then he obtained his degree only by way of preventing the school from being aware of his behavior. Such a concealment would amount to fraudulently obtaining a degree from SWBTS.
The Only Question
So, the only question is whether things happened as Miller has claimed.
As mentioned before, the International Mission Board previously investigated these claims, and the results of their investigation (as those results have been reported) found that Miller’s claims were more credible than Aderholt’s denials. Tarrant County has found her claims to be credible enough to arrest Aderholt and indict him.
I find her story to be credible. I believe her.
Certainly, if her story is credible enough to launch a process that ended his employment at the IMB and credible enough to launch a criminal prosecution, it is credible enough for me to launch a process at SWBTS to consider the revocation of Mark Aderholt’s degree.
In a December 19, 2018, article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Miller encouraged victims of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct to come forward with their stories. “I think they’ll find a lot of people standing beside them (when they do so),” she said.
Among my other reasons for bringing this motion to our board meeting, I’d like to do my part in helping Miller’s prediction come true.