One of my greatest points of pride is the fact that I am a graduate of Shorter College (now University.) When I applied to Shorter in the spring, 2000, I didn’t really know much about it. For one, I didn’t know it had an award winning School of Fine Arts. In fact, at the time I didn’t even know that I wanted to sing opera, but that’s a whole other story. All I knew was that I loved music, that there were great voice teachers at Shorter, and that when I heard the Shorter Chorale sing, it was like going to church.
Four years later, I graduated from Shorter College with an excellent education in my field. It is difficult to describe the amount of focus and work it takes to earn a music degree at all, but to get one from Shorter University is one that, I’ve come to learn, is a true statement of skill. Hundreds of artists have emerged from the close-knit School of Fine Arts on the top of “the Hill” to go on to great things. Every one of us who went through Shorter’s undergraduate program and who has a career of any sort in the arts owes it to the professors we had and their unrelenting expectations for us to strive for perfection. These Shorter College faculty members made sure that we graduated with nothing short of superior musical training.
I LOVED my time there. Not only did I earn a degree that prepared me for the dream career I am currently experiencing, but I also walked away with a new family — my Shorter family. I still try to get up to Shorter University and sneak in to see my Shorter family as often as I can get back to Rome. This “family” consists of friends I gained when I was there, as well as members of the faculty and staff who became a support system for me. I grew socially and intellectually at Shorter, but one of the greatest areas in which I experienced growth was my own spiritual life. This personal growth was due to the love and acceptance I found in my friends and professors, the encouragement to ask questions and discuss matters of life and faith, and the example that was given by the employees of Shorter that I came in contact with on a daily basis. It mattered not if they were Baptist or even if they were Christian or not. Each one wanted me to be the best person I could be, and it showed. That, to me, is a greater witness of God’s love than an impromptu sermon.
All of this being said, it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I was beside myself when I heard that the new administration at Shorter University had released documents that require employees to practically sign their civil liberties and personal lives away. All of this was done in the guise of it being the Christian thing to do (Donald Dowless, Shorter University president, has indicated that employees should have no issue with these documents, as he believes that the documents represent what the Bible represents) while simultaneously issuing the threat of job termination if employees did not comply. How could the college I love even think of making their employees sign statements such as these, which forces them to “reject homosexuality as acceptable” and to never have an adult beverage in a public restaurant again? Does Shorter not trust its own faculty to be academically unparalleled as well as morally exemplary?
AS IT turns out, the reactions from the alums, students and employees have been quite similar to mine, and there are a lot of grievances beyond the hot-button topic of Shorter’s rejection of homosexuality. One of the major points of concern with this Personal Lifestyle Statement is that there was little warning that such a thing was in the works. Dowless has called for Shorter University employees to be “transparent,” but if the clandestine nature surrounding the creation and enforcement of these documents is indicative of his own transparency, well… it’s just about as clear as mud. Betty Zane Morris, a retired faculty member who served at Shorter for 46 years, has questioned in her guest column in the Rome News-Tribune (“Heartbroken over changes at Shorter, Nov. 6) how the board of trustees and the president can “assume such arrogant control and superiority when the [Georgia Baptist Convention] contributes only 4.2 percent of Shorter’s annual income?” Mrs. Morris goes on to also question how President Dowless (who is less than a half of a year into his very first term at Shorter, and has not even yet been inaugurated) dares to risk the financial wellbeing of Shorter considering the countless number of individuals who have vowed to withdraw their support.
Considering my own career successes and the knowledge of how often Shorter has used my name for Admissions and School of Fine Arts promotional materials, I, myself, have contacted Shorter University to request that they stop using my name in any way. Seeing as how one of President Dowless’ first actions was to cut the opera “L’elisir d’amore” from the performance schedule this year because of the involvement of wine in the plotline, I do not want any student interested in the arts to be under the impression that they will be able to receive the high quality education that I received when I was a student at Shorter.
JUST FOR THE sake of information, “L’elisir d’amore” is currently recorded as the 12th most performed opera in the world, with 252 performances having been produced in 48 different opera houses just this past year. To assume that this opera would not have been beneficial in a major way to the students involved in this production, or to presume that it can be omitted from an aspiring vocalists’ operatic education without putting the students in a position of being at a disadvantage, is simply an incorrect assumption. Furthermore, I am certainly not on my own in this opinion, as several dozen of my closest alumni friends have written letters detailing their own concerns regarding this departmental censorship. Contrary to Dowless’ assertion that, “This is our view…,” it would seem as though the majority of the Shorter University community is not very pleased with the direction in which the administration is bent on going.
Many of us are cognizant of the fact that we’re speaking to a group of people who do not want to hear any voice of opposition at all, no matter how large the voice might be. They’re used to getting their way without any official complaint (and that mainly has to do with the fact that they’ve never put anything like this in writing before.) We’re also aware that the people who are making these decisions about our beloved alma mater are doing so from a stance of biblical inerrancy, which is something many Christians, including the majority of people fighting this, do not believe in. Furthermore, we know for a fact from the interviews that Dowless has done and from the responses we’ve received from members of the board of trustees that these people truly believe that their version of Christianity is the only one of validity.
DESPITE the suspicion that we’re talking to a bunch of people who would rather stick their heads in the sand and pretend that we’re not there, we feel a great responsibility to let our voices be heard. Our greatest hope is that the administration will realize their missteps and recall this document, but at the very least, we are working hard to get the word out so that anyone who might look to Shorter as a prospective undergraduate institution will know exactly what to expect.
Prospective students and donors need to know that we believe that the Personal Lifestyle Statement being forced upon Shorter University employees is neither biblical nor Christ-centered; we believe it to be purely a statement of fundamentalist dogma. As such, we believe that it should not be used as a litmus test for employment at a Christ-centered institution of higher learning. These obtuse actions have angered the majority of alumni, as well as students, faculty, and staff in every discipline within every department at Shorter University. It is extremely telling that this issue has angered people around the world as well. While we know that Shorter has every legal right to do what they’re doing, we simply cannot see the benefit of it from any angle. Shorter has always been a faith based collegiate institution, but the current Board and President’s invasive and intolerant version of Christianity is only hindering Shorter’s ability to “transform lives through Christ.”
I honestly and eagerly pray for the day when I might be able to add my name back to the list of supporters for Shorter University. It gave me so much, and I owe the college I went to as much as I can give back to it. I hope that the current administration has not damaged the reputation of Shorter University so much that it cannot recuperate easily from this terrible ordeal, but I fear the damage could already be done.
I WANT young people to experience the greatness of the Shorter University that I experienced. My spiritual growth was encouraged there, and no one pushed me to reject people for any reason whatsoever. I learned and saw that each and every person has something beautiful to offer, whether they be gay or straight, black or white, an alcoholic or a teetotaler, or happen to like Georgia Tech instead of the Bulldogs.
In the end, the most important spiritual lesson (and perhaps the most important lesson of all) that I learned at Shorter was that the Bible is a book about unconditional love. I personally believe that any person who looks into the Bible and does not see that the whole point of it is love, tolerance, and acceptance is not reading with their heart open.
I pray that this administration might be able to understand the damage they are doing to Shorter’s ability to “transform lives through Christ,” and I ask that they consider reversing this legalistic policy which is a complete negation of the rich academic and religious tradition of Shorter University’s 138 year legacy.
Floyd County native Jamie Barton, a winner of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a recent graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, is currently singing with the Chicago Lyric Opera.