It didn’t take Ben Elrod long to learn that there were major differences between being the vice president for development and being the president of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.
“The main difference was having the ultimate responsibility and the weight of that,” Elrod said in a 2005 interview that looked back on his tenure as president. “I didn’t deal with that much as a vice president. The president is really the one who bears the brunt of that pressure. This was difficult because I had been a pastor. I had told Dan Grant way back there in the 1970s: ‘I don’t think I could be president because I would want to be pastor to all the people, and you can’t be pastor and administrator at the same time. You can’t be very objective if you’re going to be the pastor.’
“I had difficulty firing people when they needed to be fired. Delivering bad news was difficult for me. I had some doubts that I should serve as president. But between the time I left Ouachita and came back, I had the experience of being a president and felt that it went well.
“There is a sense in which you can’t be too close to anybody because of the danger of being partial. You’ve got to think in terms of everybody in the organization and the ways of properly communicating with them. I think the main duty of the president is to interpret the mission of the institution for the inner family and for the outside publics and then represent the institution. I got a great deal of personal satisfaction out of doing it and felt that it was a worthwhile investment for my life. I’ve loved Ouachita since I was a student there, so it was a labor of love. I felt good that it turned out the way it did and that we were able to accomplish the things that we did.
“I was conscious of the fact that I depended on a lot of people to get things done. I tried to give credit to others for the things that we accomplished. But I also knew that I had to carry the ball on interpreting the mission, providing the vision and setting the direction.”
The roughest waters that Elrod had to navigate as president came during the period when many Baptist institutions of higher education felt that the fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention constituted a threat to academic freedom.
Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which was chartered in 1845, is the largest Baptist university in the country. In 1990, Baylor President Herbert H. Reynolds engineered a change in the university’s charter, a move that allowed the Baptist General Convention of Texas to elect only a quarter of the school’s trustees rather than all of them. Reynolds said at the time that he would not allow the university to be taken over by fundamentalists who were “more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment.”
The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.
Elrod issued a statement in October 1990 that said: “While it’s strictly their business, I’m saddened by the fact that the Baylor University trustees felt it necessary to take such action. Fortunately, the relationship between Ouachita and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention could not be stronger than it has been in recent years. We have excellent leadership in Dr. Don Moore as executive director and Rev. Mike Huckabee as president. They have provided rock-solid stability. For the record, I want to state that Ouachita will continue to be an institution of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Ouachita owes its very existence to the Baptist churches of the state. They have loved and nurtured Ouachita for more than 100 years.”
Huckabee, a Ouachita graduate from Hope who later would serve for more than a decade as Arkansas’ governor, had helped keep the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from fracturing during his two terms as convention president.
“My prayer and my commitment will be that, long after the controversies that divide Southern Baptists have subsided, Ouachita Baptist University will still be dedicated to the principles on which it was founded in 1886,” Elrod said in that 1990 statement. “We will continue to adhere to the mission statement adopted by our faculty, staff and board of trustees: ‘To provide students the opportunity to experience growth in Christian ideals and character, to develop their intellectual and physical abilities, to think critically and creatively, to mature in their understanding and appreciation of the world, to communicate effectively and to accept their obligation to be of service to God and mankind.”
Under Elrod’s leadership, Ouachita would revert to its original charter, which called for a self-perpetuating board in which board members elected their successors.
“It was the most difficult thing I dealt with as president,” Elrod said in the 2005 interview. “It became apparent to me that the nominating committee of the state convention was not communicating about the appointment of trustees. With the denominational situation divided, I could read that and knew what was happening. We were about to be taken over. It was an organized group that wanted power, and they wanted Ouachita. They had no business with Ouachita.
“I insisted that we had to minister to all Arkansas Baptists, not just a few and not just those of a particular persuasion. To do this, we were going to take back the authority we gave the convention soon after Ouachita was chartered to nominate and elect our trustees. We later did what we could to get the convention to agree to go ahead with the process. That system has worked quite well.
“The convention sequestered our money for two to three months and threatened not to support us further, but that was soon settled. The forces of reason won the battle. Ouachita people came out of the woodwork from all over the state. It was just an overwhelming show of support. A majority of Arkansas Baptists won that battle. It was a battle that had been lost in some other states.”
For Elrod, it might have been easier at the time if Ouachita had simply separated itself entirely from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention rather than crafting a compromise. Elrod, though, was determined to keep the relationship intact.
“It was difficult to decide how to do it,” he says. “I decided that the best way to interpret our actions was to say very little but to say the same thing every time we addressed the matter. What I said was: ‘We want Ouachita to be out of the line of fire when it comes to denominational warfare.’ I was determined that we would not be swallowed up by a fight that didn’t involve us. That’s what I said over and over.
“At schools in other states where that group had succeeded in taking over the trustees, there were just unbelievable problems. The matter of academic freedom just went out the window. The trustees would interview every prospective staff and faculty member. These people were required to sign certain things. There were all sorts of goofy restrictions. We were determined to avoid that. I’ve never had such a groundswell of support for anything I did.”
Of course, Elrod had a track record in Arkansas that dated back decades. It wasn’t as if he were new to the state, to Ouachita or to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
“I’m sure it helped,” he says. “Trust is so important in a leader. Once you lose trust, there’s not much that you can accomplish. I felt I did have the trust of Arkansas Baptists. I had been a pastor in Arkansas. I had been very supportive of the convention and its work. I was pretty well a theological fundamentalist, but I was not a warring fundamentalist. I didn’t want a warring faction to take over the institution. I had many friends among fundamentalists, but they were not part of the group that wanted to go to war and take over the school. So they supported us. I really appreciated them for doing what they did because it made them very unpopular in that group.”
Though there have been tough times and will be more hard times, Elrod is an optimist when it comes to the future of Christian higher education.
“It’s by the grace of God that these institutions have survived for as long as they have,” he says. “I have a feeling they will survive a long time yet to come by the grace of God. I’m not sure that those who abandoned their Christian commitment will do as well as those who have stuck by it. I think there’s a strong support structure out there for institutions that maintain their dedication to Christian values and to the lordship of Christ. I have great hope that this will be the case for Ouachita. I have confidence in the Ouachita family.”
Elrod says he could always feel “the presence of God” at Ouachita.
“When I walk across this campus, I’m as convinced as I can be that his presence is here and that it brings about all sorts of miracles,” Elrod says. “That confidence is what keeps me optimistic about Ouachita’s future.”
In a September 1989 address to the Ouachita student body, Elrod said: “The nicest tradition going at Ouachita since its founding in 1886 is what thousands have agreed is a sense of the presence of God. Of all the ways in which Ouachita has influenced those who have been a part of the family, nothing has compared to the impact of the unmistakable presence of God in the lives of students, faculty and staff.”
In a speech titled “Why I Believe in Baptist Higher Education,” Elrod said: “I believe in Baptist colleges because they are conservative institutions in the best sense of that term. Conservative in its best sense refers to the preservation of things of value. Our Baptist colleges have through the years been conservative in that sense. They had laid heavy emphasis on basic honesty, the sanctity of marriage and the home, the orderly process of government, the worth and dignity of every human being and the key role of the church in the life of our nation.
“We need some institutions of great strength serving that function in America. Such values have held us together as a people. The society will disintegrate just as slowly or as quickly as those values become no longer held by our people. We are not bound together in America, as are the people of many nations, by the overshadowing guns of an army. We are not held together by racial singleness. Our cohesiveness is not to be found in our government as such. America is bound together by commonly held values, and our little hilltop colleges have been staunch defenders of those values.”
In 1997, Elrod announced that he would retire as president of Ouachita, taking the title of chancellor of the university. He had accomplished what he set out to do.