(RNS) — The president of Bob Jones University, a prominent South Carolina evangelical school, has resigned, citing dysfunction and disunity on the school’s board of trustees.
His resignation, which takes effect at the end of the academic year, came less than four months after he signed a three-year contract.
In a press release announcing his planned departure, Pettit gave thanks for students and staff at the schools.
“It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve as the president of Bob Jones University,” Pettit said in the release, according to the Greenville News. “My memories of the wonderful people, the incredible student body, and the perpetual blessings of God will linger with me throughout the rest of my life.”
But his resignation letter, dated March 23, tells a different story.
In the letter, published on a blog run by a former Jones faculty member, Pettit details his clashes with the chair of the school’s board of trustees and Pettit’s concerns about the school’s finances. The letter also alleges the board chair tried to interfere with a Title IX investigation at the school.
According to the letter, a member of the board of trustees allegedly complained that the clothing worn by female students, including athletes, accentuated their “boobs and butts.” That trustee also allegedly took photos of female students without permission.
“I don’t know if these allegations are true or not, but our obligation was (and is) to treat them the same way we would any other allegations, and in February, the Trustees agreed to refer the matter to the Title IX coordinator.”
The letter alleges the chair of the board tried to stall the Title IX investigation and manipulate its outcome.
Pettit said in his letter that he hoped his reelection for a three-year term as president meant he and the board could work in a unified manner. But that proved not to be the case.
“After much prayer and consideration, however, I have decided that I cannot continue to serve as President of Bob Jones University if Dr. John Lewis remains Chairman of the Board,” Pettit wrote, adding that if nothing changed by the end of March, he would resign.
A university spokesman confirmed Pettit’s resignation will be effective as of May 5. The spokesman declined to comment on the particulars of Pettit’s allegations about the board or the Title IX complaint.
“Bob Jones University takes seriously its obligations under Title IX as it relates to all students, faculty, staff, and volunteers,” Randy Page, chief of staff for the office of the president, said in an email. “Our Title IX Coordinator follows university policies and Title IX regulations to analyze any complaint, and, if necessary, conduct an investigation.”
The first president in the school’s history not to be related to the late evangelist Bob Jones Sr., who founded the school in 1927, Pettit has been popular with students during his tenure.
He took steps to soften some of the school’s rules — including changing the dress code in 2018 to allow female students to wear pants.
More than 7,500 supporters have signed a petition calling for Lewis, the chair of the university’s board, to resign.
Camille Lewis (no relation), a former BJU faculty member who now runs a website dedicated to news about the school and its history, said Pettit’s popularity with students, faculty and staff likely played a role in his clash with board members. That was likely seen as a slight to Bob Jones Sr., his son Bob Jones Jr. and his grandson Bob Jones III, all of whom served as presidents of the school.
“Any affable, charismatic person who is more liked than Bob Jones (Sr, Jr, III) is going to be a target,” she said in an email to Religion News Service.
Camille Lewis also said the school’s leaders have been known for keeping secrets and for their desire to control the lives of students. The school long banned interracial dating, which cost the school its tax-exempt status for decades. The school also had apologized in the past for mistreating students who had reported sexual assaults, which makes the alleged recent comments about female students and the possibility that they had been photographed without consent even more troubling, said Lewis.
“This is creepy,” she said.
She also said there have been serious behind-the-scenes conflicts on the board.
Rick Altizer, a former Bob Jones board member, said he has been concerned about the conflict between Pettit and the current board for some time. Altizer, who graduated from the school in the 1980s, is one of the organizers of “Positive BJU Grads & Friends,” a Facebook group of alumni that claims about 8,000 members.
The group supports the changes Pettit made and wants to see the school flourish in the future, said Altizer. For that to happen, he said, the board needs to change.
In particular, he said, group members want more transparency on the board and better governance.
Altizer, a Greenville native, said Pettit is committed to the school’s creed, which is recited at every chapel service, and its conservative theological beliefs. But Pettit has been willing to adapt to modern culture on issues such as the dress code or other matters that are cultural, rather than biblical. For example, he said, the school once banned earbuds or other headphones but eventually changed that policy.
Under Pettit, the school also regained its nonprofit status in 2017.
Altizer also said that like the school’s founder, Pettit supported the liberal and creative arts. The school is known for its museum’s collection of Renaissance and baroque religious art, its devotion to Shakespeare and opera, and its theater productions.
“We saw a show recently that was as fine as any show I’ve seen on Broadway,” Altizer said.
Altizer, a tech entrepreneur who served on the board from 2012 to 2020, said he and other supporters of Pettit have been aware of tensions on the school’s board for months. Though in public the board seemed supportive of Pettit, some board members were working behind the scenes to undermine the president.
“There can be diverse opinions on the board,” he said. “But they need to act in an ethical manner.”
Altizer said the students who filed the Title IX complaint were courageous and he believes the school will handle the matter appropriately.
After news of Pettit’s resignation became public, nearly all the senior leadership at the university — including vice presidents, deans and the leaders of the faculty advisory committee — sent a letter to the board of trustees, asking for chairman Lewis to be removed, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Religion News Service. The letter also asked that Hantz Bernard, another trustee, be removed as well.
“We respectfully request that the Board immediately and publicly acknowledge that the Board’s actions and lack of actions last week caused the majority of our constituency (on and off campus) to lose confidence in the board and in BJU.”
On Thursday (March 6), the board sent a letter to the school administration, staff, faculty and students thanking them for “their service to the Lord through the University” and defending the board’s authority.
“Boards function under tight confidentiality,” the letter said, according to a copy obtained by RNS. “Recently these trusts have been violated and nearly obliterated. Therefore, we must take the unprecedented step of communicating with you.”
The board letter said “unlawful and biased releases of confidential board information” on social media had undermined the university and caused “chaos and distrust.”
The letter also expressed confidence in Lewis and said he acted with the board’s support and not alone. Trustees urged the university community to “defeat the discord” caused by “selective postings on social media” and claimed those who posted on social media were “persons who are violating their duties to BJU and God.”
“They operate through rumor and innuendo,” the letter claims.
However, not long after that letter went out, the university sent out a press release saying Lewis had resigned, effective immediately. Lewis had served on the board for 32 years, 7 as chair, according to the release.
Pettit said that Lewis worked to “honor the mission and vision of BJU.”
“I wish Dr. Lewis God’s best,” Pettit said.
Bryan Fitzgerald, a 38-year-old Bob Jones alum and Presbyterian pastor from upstate New York, said he’s been watching developments on campus from afar with concern. Fitzgerald grew up not far from the Bob Jones campus in Greenville, South Carolina, where he went to school from kindergarten to college graduation and still has family in the area.
He said recent changes at the school have made some older alums nervous but he’s welcomed them. Despite the school’s past, which he acknowledged was problematic, Fitzgerald said there were many people on campus who cared for him as a student. And he believes the school still matters.
“I’d rather see them find transformation and redemption than to see their doors close,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information from the letters from university leaders and from the board and the news that Lewis stepped down.