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Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 60-83

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The Raney Controversy
Clyde Edgerton's Fight for Creative Freedom

George Hovis



During the spring of 1985, a battle raged in Buies Creek, North Carolina, on the campus of Campbell University, an affiliate of the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina. The battle involved the administration of Campbell University and an untenured faculty member in the school of education. Clyde Edgerton

had just published his first novel, Raney, which satirized the beliefs and folkways of a Southern Baptist family. Upon the appearance of such a novel by one of its faculty, Campbell's administration became alarmed at the possible repercussions from its constituents and withheld Edgerton's teaching contract for the following year. Edgerton met with the administration throughout that spring semester. Initially, he simply sought to repair damages to his own financial security; however, he soon found himself engaged in an effort to establish university safeguards against the kind of abridgment of academic freedom that he had encountered. Throughout this period, he kept careful and thorough notes of all meetings and correspondence between himself and the university. 1 Beyond providing an example of the sort of frustrations a creative writer might experience teaching at a sectarian Christian school, this controversy illuminates a number of broader issues, including the degree to which a religious university may limit academic freedom in the pursuit of its special mission, the seemingly immitigable rift between religious and secular attitudes about education, and the question of who has authority over the meaning of a literary text.

A quick look at the Campbell University website or the university bulletin presents an image of a school unapologetically and outspokenly Christian, as well as one proud of its secular accomplishments, an institution that offers the best of this world and the one hereafter. "Thirty minutes south of the rapidly-growing and nationally-recognized Research Triangle Park," Campbell University's sprawling campus "combines the advantages of accessible urban convenience with the friendly academic atmosphere of a rural university village." During the 1999-2000 academic year, Campbell enrolled approximately three thousand on-campus students and eight thousand students in its numerous off-campus extended-education [End Page 60] facilities, making it the "second largest private university in North Carolina and the third largest Baptist University in the world." The university's assets exceed $105 million and include Keith Hills, an eighteen-hole "championship" golf course. 2 Situated in the flat land of North Carolina's Sandhills, the main quad of the campus itself resembles a golf course fairway; brick walks crisscross the manicured lawn of Academic Circle, flanked by the inspiring facades of colonial-style buildings, including Wiggins Hall, the law school building named in honor of the current president, Norman Adrian Wiggins.

In the conservative tradition of church colleges that retain strong ties to the sponsoring church, Campbell has emphasized powerful, centralized leadership; the school has had only three presidents since its founding in 1887, and the university president, not the faculty president, presides over faculty meetings. Under Wiggins's tenure (1967-present), Campbell has added a thriving law school (1976); graduate programs in education (1977), business administration (1978), and political science (1982); a school of pharmacy (1985), and a divinity school (1995). In 1979 Campbell declared university status. 3 Many at Campbell consider Wiggins responsible for bringing the college forward into the twentieth century, while others, mostly faculty, mutter among themselves that his administration, in an effort to placate the State Baptist Convention and its constituents, has been too ready to sacrifice the academic freedom and diversity that secular and more liberal church-affiliated schools take for granted.

Campbell has pursued the difficult task of balancing two sets of values: the [End Page 61] struggle to become an accredited, respected university and the commitment to remain a Bible-centered school, a place where Baptist parents may safely send their children without threat of secularization. To this end, the university has sought to maintain a faculty that possesses both the necessary credentials and sympathy with the university's mission. Four...


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