Prairie responds: unconventional leadership amid abuse allegations

THREE HILLS, AB—Six holes dot the wall above Mark Maxwell's doorway at Prairie Bible Institute, holes that used to anchor a large sign announcing the president's office. Its absence is a reminder of Mark's unusual leadership style, a leadership that last week caught the media off-guard.

"I think he wanted it removed the first day he and Elaine arrived," says Marion Greene, Executive Assistant to the President. "It irked him to have it hanging there."

Mark, the grandson of Prairie's founder L.E. Maxwell, is quick to add, "Hopefully, people know that this is the president's office by the welcome mat in front of the door rather than by the large sign hanging over it."

Caz Johnson, a Bible college student, comments, "It's just his style. He's not downplaying authority, just doing it differently."

Since taking on the leadership of the almost 90-year old college, Mark, with a background in investment banking and finance, has been known for doing things differently. Two of the first things he did upon arriving were to establish the campus as a Dalit Freedom Zone and refine the school's gender statement.

The college has faced financial challenges in recent years, but Mark says that this is nothing compared to the oppression currently faced by hundreds of millions of Dalits in India, and women around the globe who are forced into a cycle of poverty that includes slavery, prostitution and hopelessness. When asked why even focus attention on this, Mark responds with "I suspect that the majority of the western world is oblivious to the very real challenges they face. If we can use our small influence to make a difference, even a minor one, it is worth it."

Some would say that the true test of leadership is its response to difficult challenges. Maxwell believes that recent media attention surrounding allegations of past abuse at the Institute is the most significant challenge the school has faced in recent years. When the story broke, it was immediately reported in newspapers and on TV around the world. The earliest reports included sensationalized headlines and 24-hour news channel filler, the precursor to more in-depth investigative reporting.

Coming hot on the heels of the Penn State scandal, it was not surprising that the story was picked up with a healthy dose of zeal. But few acknowledged that Maxwell had broken the story to police himself. "When the allegations surfaced on Facebook they began to take on a life of their own," he says. "So, I went to the RCMP and informed them of these allegations."

The Monday following the initial hype, Mark cleared his schedule and made room for the media, including TV reporters—even the Wall Street Journal. "I think many of them were expecting a professional PR person and well-polished answers—instead they got me."

Peter Mal, one of Prairie's Managing Directors, sensed that media personnel were very surprised. "I was with Mark for all of the interviews and I could tell that they were not expecting complete and honest answers to some very probing questions. As time went on, you could definitely see their guard come down."

The school's position has been one of openness and transparency. Phil Callaway, staff kid-turned-author and editor of the school's Servant magazine, says, "We can't be on the warpath against abuses around the world and turn a blind eye to what may have happened here, even if it was decades ago."

Mark has been adamant that Prairie must not take a position of covering up our flaws and pledges the school's full cooperation should any RCMP investigations be opened. "For those who have been injured, we want them to feel loved and welcome, but most importantly to find reconciliation and healing. A few individuals have approached us to share heart-breaking stories of abuses that happened in their homes and in our community, but we've also heard stories of incredible redemption."

When asked about the reputation of the school and if the current media attention will tarnish what has been perceived as "squeaky-clean" image, Mark is quick to respond. "It's not about the school or its reputation. God can take care of that. This is about people finding the help they need and being able to move on with their lives and hopefully their relationship with God." Maxwell says he is researching neutral parties who could be available to facilitate reconciliation.

As for what comes next, President Maxwell is mindful of his immediate responsibility to students busy with papers and end-of-semester cramming. "For us right now," he says, "It's important to stay on-mission."

Mark Maxwell can be reached at presidentsoffice@prairie.edu.

See the full ChristianWeek report on the accusations here.

See Linda Fossen's response in our Letters to the Editor section .

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