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Bob Jones University President Resigns After Months of Contention with Board Chair

By Julie Roys
BJU bob jones
Steve Pettit has announced his resignation as president of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. (Courtesy Photos)

Bob Jones University President Steve Pettit has announced he’s resigning, following months of contention between him and BJU Board Chairman John Lewis over the direction of the fundamentalist school.

In a statement released to the press on Thursday, Pettit said, “It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve as the president of Bob Jones University. 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 Pettit added he believes resigning is “the Lord’s direction and the best step to take at this time. I encourage the Board, the administration, and the entire BJU community to continue our commitment to offering a world-class education with a biblical worldview.”

Pettit said his resignation will take effect May 5, at the end of the school’s spring semester.

Tensions between Pettit and Chairman Lewis and certain other trustees erupted last October—a month before the board was scheduled to vote on renewing Pettit’s contract. Pettit, who is historically the only president of BJU not related to the school’s founder, has been serving in his current role since 2014.

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bob jones university BJU
Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. (Courtesy Photo)

According to some alumni, the opposition to Pettit had nothing to do with doctrine, but with “preferences of Christian practice.” It concerned things like the style of worship music played at student chapel services, “immodest clothing” worn by female athletes, musical selections from the fine arts program, and even Pettit’s participation in a bluegrass music band.

Despite this, the board voted last November to renew Pettit’s contract after more than 1,000 alumni turned out to show support for the embattled president.

Since then, however, the relationship between Pettit and Lewis has deteriorated badly.

Pettit issues ultimatum

In a March 21 letter to the board obtained by The Roys Report (TRR), Pettit issued an ultimatum: either the board removes Lewis as chairman or Pettit would resign.

“The current direction is not sustainable,” Pettit wrote. “I am walking down a dark road with no light ahead. The future of BJU requires the Chairman and the President to work together. It is not happening now, and I can’t see it happening in the future. . . . Right now, things are dysfunctional, and our working relationship is irreparably broken.”

Pettit highlighted four reasons for the breakdown with Lewis:

  1. Lewis has operated in “secrecy and hostility” toward Pettit’s administration, Pettit claimed. Lewis reportedly moved executive meetings to the home of former BJU President Bob Jones III and held an executive committee meeting without notifying all board members. The chairman also reportedly had sensitive board documentation moved off BJU’s secure server and onto a new computer. And Lewis hired an outside lawyer to advise only him and select executive committee members, Pettit said.
  2. Lewis has displayed “an uncaring or cavalier disregard” for the school’s concerning financial issues, according to Pettit. When informed of shortfalls in current or projected financials and deficits in donations and enrollment, Lewis has “either misunderstood or deliberately minimized the importance and relevance of the information, causing great concern . . .” Pettit wrote.
  3. Lewis has made poor governance decisions, Pettit alleged. These reportedly include refusing an offer by the president of an accreditation organization to speak to trustees and chaffing against an admonition to adhere to bylaws of the BJU Education Group.
  4. Lewis thwarted a Title IX investigation concerning a trustee’s public comments about whether female students’ clothing and female student athletes’ uniforms accentuate their ‘boobs and butts,’ Pettit claimed. For example, when asked by BJU’s Title IX coordinator to produce relevant excerpts of board meetings, Lewis reportedly responded by providing one set of minutes that “were almost entirely redacted.” Lewis also sent a letter to the Title IX coordinator, asking the coordinator “to suspend and postpone the inquiry” and falsely accusing Pettit of trying to stage a coup d’etat, Pettit alleged.

TRR reached out to Lewis through BJU for comment concerning Pettit’s allegations but did not immediately hear back.

At the end of his letter, Pettit requests that Lewis step down from his position on the board by the board’s March 29 meeting. Yet, not only did Lewis not resign at the board meeting this week, he also reportedly further consolidated his power.

Lewis ignores pleas by ‘positive BJU grads and friends,’ consolidates power

Over the past several months, a private Facebook group called “positive BJU grads and friends” has grown to 6.8K members. On March 29, an attorney representing “positive BJU” wrote a letter to BJU’s board on his client’s behalf, asking trustees to “pause” and not add any new members to the board.

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John Lewis, chairman of BJU Board of Trustees (Photo via social media)

The letter noted that two BJU trustees had recently resigned—Tim Stanley, CEO of MidCountry Financial Corp., and Shawn Kook, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Davison, Michigan. But it also noted that BJU’s bylaws require only 13 trustees, which was the number of trustees on the current board.

Also, noting that the board’s executive committee had a majority of members critical of Pettit’s administration, the letter asked the board to consider placing someone supportive of Pettit on the committee.

According to a post by BJU alumnus and business executive Rick Altizer, the BJU board did the opposite of what “positive BJU grads and friends” requested. Led by Lewis and trustees Hantz Bernard and Joe Helm, the board reportedly amended its bylaws “to consolidate and amplify the powers of the EC.”

The board then voted to renew the terms of two “Lewis-aligned” board members and not to renew “two board members who had consistently supported Steve Pettit over the past year”—Jean Saito and Paul Kalmbach.

“Removing Dr. Jean Saito and Paul Kalmbach was not only unprecedented in modern board history, but completely unconscionable,” wrote Altizer, who was a member of the BJU associate board from 2012 to 2020. “Few people have loved and served the BJU family more or better than Dr. Saito. No one has given more financially to improve BJU than Paul Kalmbach.”

TRR reached out to BJU for confirmation of the changes to the board but did not immediately hear back.

Members of the BJU community respond              

The response from members of the BJU community has been overwhelmingly supportive of Pettit and critical of Lewis. Within hours of Pettit’s announced resignation, several supporters launched a petition calling for the resignation of John Lewis. At time of publishing, the petition had garnered more than 2,200 signatures.

“As a recent master’s grad, I cannot overstate how devastating this is for the students and faculty,” wrote Jordan Ford on Facebook. “. . . He led us with grace, compassion, and a focus on doing what’s right. He will be SORELY missed.”

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BJU Board Chairman John Lewis (left) and former BJU president Steve Pettit at commencement ceremonies in 2017. (Photo via social media)

Similarly, a mother of a BJU freshman wrote that both her daughter and her daughter’s roommate were “very discouraged with the  overall ‘feel’ on campus. . . . It makes me sad that students are finishing up their last few weeks and are worried about the future of their school. This should not be their concern right now.”

However, another parent, Tiffany Aaron, posted video of BJU students gathered to worship on campus. “My son just sent me this video of what some of the student body are doing right now,” she wrote. “I thought you all would appreciate seeing/hearing the heart of these kids after what can only be described as a heartbreaking day.”

This article has been updated to state the related affiliation of BJU alumnus Altizer. 

Julie Roys is a veteran investigative reporter and founder of The Roys Report. She also previously hosted a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network, called Up for Debate, and has worked as a TV reporter for a CBS affiliate. Her articles have appeared in numerous periodicals. 



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13 Responses

  1. We live in such a political and divisive age. It’s obvious to me that the chair of the trustees is merely trying to consolidate his own power and preserve some fundamentalist preferences that have nothing to do with the Bible or Christian education. How best to respond? I would say that if the board chair and his allies refuse to resign, then students can take matters into their own hands and transfer to other schools this coming fall. Bob Jones is most likely tuition driven and the transfer of 50-100 students would create a financial reality that would force the trustees hands. Meanwhile, kudos to Steven Petitt who did his best to humanize the place and move it towards an authentic Christian expression.

  2. It would seem Lewis and his ilk want BJU to return to its old fundamentalist ways when it felt more like a prison than a university and morality was measured in length of hair and the wearing of a tie. The school won’t survive this. My only question is what they will do with the dead bodies buried on front campus when the place folds. It always felt weird and somewhat cult like to have the Joneses buried there.

  3. I posted this reply to a fellow BJ alum today:
    The behavior of John Lewis as documented by Steve Petit in his resignation letter parallels the behavior and attitudes documented by the GRACE report which detailed a persistent history of the University’s ignoring or justifying or failing to report sexual misconduct, a culture many of us witnessed first hand. There is nothing new in the character of Lewis’s behavior as described by Petit – it’s all too familiar… an evil that bred in separatistic isolation behind the fortress walls. This is a very sad day in the life of an institution and community that has been steadily maturing in its commitment to be more fully engaged in the world with a Christ-centered mission. In the Lord’s mercy, may that progress continue.

  4. this comes from an old dude well into his 81st year who is just looking uninvited over the wall into BJU territory…….in this dispute what we see is a guy who has perhaps telegraphed what he’s looking at rather than the game on the court/field. Perhaps his plea is “please stop me before I look again…please make them dress in a way that makes it unnecessary for me to be accountable for what I look at and for how I interpret and define what I see.” There’s not a guy out there who has not “been there, done that” regarding this issue, as have I. If one follows the Royes Report, it can be seen that many in ecclesiastical and educational leadership positions are not exempt and ultimately are not accountable (until they are smoked out, that is.) It seems lost on purveyors of these gems that its possible to see a glaring inconsistency between this type of view and the unswerving support of politicians unashamedly bragging about personal activities and objectives that go way beyond imaginations about boobs and butts. But, alas, yet another example of our eternal quest to have it both ways while hoping no one will call us out regarding our duplicity.

  5. So sad, BJU had begun to shed it ultra fundamentalist image and was morphing into something less legalistic and with a better reputation under the current but I feel this power grab is driven in part to get back to the old ways.
    I agree with the commenter above, the school will not survive the return to its legalistic fundamentalists roots.

  6. The school has shifted intentionally away from its historic foundation. Whether there is a change at the helm of the president or the executive board, the school is no longer distinctively different than a Liberty or North Greenville. Their soul has been sold to profit and public opinion long ago. RIP

  7. So let me get this straight …. BJU probably has list a mile long that dictates what constitutes “modest” clothes for female students and athletes… but at the same time some Machiavellian power struggle is going on between the President and the Chairman….

  8. BJU has always had a reputation of being legalistic. I fear with DR Petit leaving as president, it will soon become the old BJU of the 50s,60s,70s,80s,and 90s. If that happens kiss the school good by. Young people of this generation will never attend a university like that any longer .

  9. Last November, the day after a crisis exploded in my life, I flew to Greenville to research a book at the Mack Library on the BJU campus. While there, I interacted with the staff, including Dr. Bob III. Their prayers, support and hospitality set me solidly back on my feet, and I am eternally grateful. Despite the predictable dogpiling done by evangelicals, as seen in a few posts above, BJU has done a splendid job holding the line doctrinally, far better than other prominent Christian colleges and universities who’ve buckled to worldly trends. BJU, I bow at the waist in respect. I pray you survive and flourish.

    1. I know I’m coming late to the party, but I only just discovered this site a couple days ago. I agree with you that BJU’s official doctrinal positions are correct. But stating correct doctrines should be the bare minimum for a Christian institution. As a 2018 grad, one of my major issues with the school is that good Bible interpretation has never been a priority. From Bob Jones Sr. to Steve Pettit, it’s been sloppy and hit-or-miss at best. It’s a glaring flaw/inconsistency in a school that claims to be all about following the Bible.

  10. So what new music in chapel has the old guard riled up? Is it Hillsong? The Gettys? Genuinely curious. If it’s the latter, then I have to laugh at some people considering it “liberal” (my term here). And are the dress issues the pants on girls and the shorts on the volleyball players? I graduated in 2000 and I truly hope some things have changed under Pettit. (Though to my knowledge Berg stayed despite the GRACE report.) It’s certainly interesting to think of BJ III becoming more and more disgruntled while watching Pettit take his school in a more progressive direction. I don’t want the school to fall apart; it’s my alma mater!

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