August 13, 2012

Questions Answered on the Changes at NIU: An Insider’s Report, Part One

Earlier this year I was contacted by a former faculty member of Northland International University (NIU).  I refer to Dr. Dana Everson (identity added 8/17/12). Dr. Everson shared his appreciation for a series of articles I produced on what has become of NIU. He, furthermore, offered to share with me his first hand view and opinion of the changes that Matt Olson brought to the ministry of NIU. Today, we begin with the first of a four part interview. Questions surrounding various aspects of the change in trajectory of NIU, the former Northland Baptist Bible College, will be answered by our guest.

OPEN: Is there anything you would like to share before we delve into the questions?
Brother Lou, my responses are given as best as I can frame them. If I am unclear or sound out of line on something, please ask me about it. I will try to clarify. Also, I am still constantly evaluating my own choices and philosophies to try to refine and improve where I have been wrong. I am willing to admit where I have been wrong, and stand to be corrected if I have been mistaken in my facts. I know there are good people and good students at Northland. In some cases I find it difficult to separate my personal preferences from true Biblical principles, but I believe you will be able to do some filtering when needed. I don’t know how much this will help, but that is my sincere hope. I think if we don’t have truth we don’t have anything.

Q1. Could you detail how NIU is different today than when you first arrived?
What I sensed when I arrived as an employee: A sense of teamwork/unity; much of this I am sure, was built around Les Ollila’s teaching and example…everyone from custodians to ADMIN seemed to be focused on living a “clean” life and doing whatever they could to train young people to serve God.

Q2. Did Les Ollila approve of these changes to the best of your knowledge? (Everyone wants to know this answer!)
I am almost as much in the dark about this as people outside the college. According to his public letter, nothing has changed. [Is Northland Changing? A Chancellors Perspective from Dr. Les Ollila] He is probably not as involved in the day-to-day workings of the details of the institution as he was 8-9 years ago, but last school year’s (2010-2011) events are so large it seems odd to me that he wouldn’t be aware of the issues. Matt Olson has repeatedly stated both in staff meetings and in chapel that he and Doc O’s hearts beat as one in the ministry. I attempted to bring up this question to Les Ollila via written communication last spring (2011). He responded to some other concerns I raised, but never answered this one. I can only assume that he is either very much out of touch with some changes at Northland or that he does indeed support Matt’s policies.
Site Publisher Commentary: What tires objective observers is letters like those from Les Ollila and Matt Olson where they used subjective imprecise language to quell any concerns. Complete details of what has transpired within the administration and on campus were obscured for the sake of the new philosophy, trajectory and agenda intended for NIU students.

Q3. Is NIU starting a music publishing companyWhat style of music will they be publishing in your opinion, if true?
I know nothing of plans to start a music publishing company. If they are planning to do so, I was never part of the discussion.

Q4. There is some confusion about what level of toleration the administration has toward CCM music and ministries that have a progressive music style. Is there a connection between the change in their music position and the friendship with some churches or different organizations that they have developed recently?
About three years ago, some emails and some informal conversations between music faculty and revealed that at least two members of the administration could not rule out the possibility of “Christian rap” music becoming an acceptable medium of the future. That’s not to say that this style was being pushed or planned, but it was a surprise to the music faculty that such a possibility would even be considered no matter how distant in the future.

I believe strongly that the local church should be a creative center of worship and ministry. I also believe that this creativity can be accomplished within good standards of music.
There are surely thousands of new songs which could still be composed and thousands of fresh and creative arrangements written WITHOUT resorting to the Rock clichés.
I was saved when I was in my 4th year of college as music major at Michigan State University. I had also attended a junior college and the University of Michigan before becoming a believer around Christmas of 1972. Prior to that (and with help and encouragement of my parents) I paid most of my way through college by playing and singing in nightclubs, barrooms, restaurants, dance halls, and high school gyms.

Soon after I became a believer, I began to question the environment. A few months after I was saved, I went to work for the summer months of 1973 as a performer with a marching/jazz band for Disney in Anaheim. It was during that summer work that I began to question not only the environment but also the music itself. I was baptized at a church in Anaheim, and came back to Michigan State in the fall as a changed person.

I tell you all this because many of my Christian musician friends have never been on the “other side of the tracks.” Most have not been in the environment of the barroom/dance hall and do not know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings of that environment first hand which is supported by and associated with certain styles of music (although with all that is displayed on TV/Internet/cable few people are so isolated so as to avoid exposure).

I could have probably continued to this day to be a weekend pop/jazz musician for supplementary income just as many of my music educator friends from college years still do, but the Lord gradually weaned me away from that lifestyle in general.

Q5. Who is the number one advisor to Matt Olson on music and association?
(Since the music department seems to not be highly valued as once before) I really don’t know who he might consult on any regular basis. Possibly one of the current younger music faculty members who previously had taught some music courses part time. Some changes made which we (members of the fall 2010 music faculty) resisted included:
(1) Reduction and eventual removal of the organ from chapel services. Ostensibly it was removed because there was no one to play it. This was not true as of Fall 2010. There were at least two qualified music faculty members who could and did play organ for chapel services.

(2) According to the president, the use of the organ is not consistent with the missions’ emphasis of the college (what mission fields use organ, so why emphasize its use to our mission-minded students?).

(3) Changes in the Music Primer (short handbook on music policies for students) which removed examples of acceptable/unacceptable music.

(4) Removal of the music department chairman’s supervision of chapel music. This was done, according to the president, to take pressure off of the music department if people should criticize NIU for some of its music choices. The president would assume more direct responsibility of music style choices.

Q6. What exactly is the dorm music policy and who enforces what? Is this reasonable?
I emailed you a very general statement from the NIU website FAQ section, which attempts to put the music policy in positive terms. Of course I agree with the major points, but I do not know if there is a deeper or more specific written standard like the music primer of several years ago. When I first came to Northland Baptist Bible College, there was a music check during the first or second week of the semester in which music faculty sat in the dorm lobbies and screened the recordings of all the students. We spent hours sorting out acceptable, not-acceptable, and not-sure selections. Since the rise of the iPod and all the other computerized and electronic media, which can save hundreds of selections on a single device, it became impossible to screen the music. So, the Student Life office asked the music department for help in composing a Music Primer which was an attempt to give guidelines/limits for student use of music.

Q7. Would you still be at NIU if you were not asked to leave?
I thought I might stay another school year or so, but I could see that my days were numbered. There were at least five reasons I didn’t resign:
(1) I thought I still had a measure of credibility with the ADMIN and could still possibly influence some of their decisions.

(2) I knew of several faculty and staff members (both in music and other departments) who were also questioning the choices/philosophy changes and thought that they, too, might speak up and have some influence.

(3) I was feeling tremendous financial pressure (as many folks are) and was hesitant to move on without some sense of where I would go next.

(4) I looked at our students and saw a great need to continue to urge them to “take the high road” in their personal music theology choices. I believed that when the conservative music faculty members were gone they would be eventually replaced by less conservative ones.

(5) Several music philosophy meetings for staff and students were INITIATED BY ADMIN in the Fall of 2010 for the purpose of defining and constructing a music statement for NIU seemed to give hope that the minds of leadership were not yet made up. I was fully expecting that we would continue to have further discussions/debates/information meetings when we returned after Christmas break, but as one administrator told me, there were just too many differences to be able to come to a unified conclusion.

Also, to my surprise, when I returned in January, I was told that the music department was going to be reduced to a small fraction of its size because of economic pressures on the college. I was told I would not be needed in the Fall of 2011. I was also told that ADMIN was aware of my concerns over the direction of the college and that they believed that I “would not be happy at Northland.” I winced at that, but accepted their situation and my new “opportunity to expand.”

A few weeks later, ADMIN called a meeting of fine art students once again and announced to the students that some exciting new plans were being worked out for the music dept and that there would indeed be three (of the previous four) degrees offered in the future. (Music education was dropped.)
This seemed deceitful and political to me, and I voiced serious concerns about it. After I was reprimanded, I said almost nothing again publicly.
Q8. Has NIU moved to an amoral music positionLyrics aside, is music neutral?
This is a question that Dr. Horn brought up at a music philosophy discussion meeting. He apparently was very concerned that Northland had always taken a pretty clear position that music is moral. He seemed to be questioning whether the new thinking about music was heading in the direction of amorality, so he indicated that the college should make up its mind. If they were going to modify the earlier position they at least should come out and say it.

Q9. Did Steve Pettit’s style of music in relationship to his Sovereign Grace affect the NIU position positively or negatively?
I can only guess. There are so many conservative and fundamental churches and ministries that accept (somewhat innocently or ignorantly) some of the “milder” Sovereign Grace music and see no problem with associations that it is hard to tell how much influence any single person or ministry might have on Matt Olson or other leaders. It seems like Tim Jordan has taken some similar direction and he MAY have influenced Matt.
Site Publisher Commentary: It has been seen that Steve Pettit’s Sovereign Grace music (SGM) appears to have had an alarming effect on some of the young men who once apprenticed in ministry with Steve. These have gone far beyond milder SGM in their ministries. One wonders if Steve might have some regret for having introduced them to the “milder” form of SGM. 

End of Part One, please continue to Part Two of this series.

For further reading see,
“Our Children Learn Not Only By What We Teach Them, But By What We Tolerate.”
According to NIU alumni Dr. Les Ollila said that over and over to the student body. With the change in philosophy and methods at NIU a different kind of teaching and wide ranging tolerance is being learned by impressionable students.
NIU Music Department to be Dissolved
There are colleges where students once were taught a conservative philosophy of music that focused on uplifting the Lord and not the performer or the personal listening tastes of the hearers. Today they have become an environment where music has no moral quality, style is supposedly unaddressed in the New Testament, and institutional standards are a hindrance. Is it possible NIU is on that track?
Dr. Bob Jones, III: The Faith of the Gospel, Part 4
There is the saving gospel, which introduces us to the faith of the gospel. And if we embrace the philosophy that it’s just about the gospel we can put our arms around about every wrong, unbecoming Christian behavior in all the world.”


  1. Thanks Lou for taking time to bring this series out and into the open. Thanks also go the former faculty member for their willingness to bring their story out to the public. I look forward to the follow up articles.

  2. Brian:

    This series is going to answer a great many things about what actually transpired at NIU. We have a first hand on site account to share with the Christian community. All of this is fact based. There are four parts to this series. In the fourth we share the identity of the former NIU faculty member who gave me this interview.

    BTW, a new article is being prepared, which will address an egregious doctrinal aberration that has gained a foothold at NIU.


  3. Lou, I appreciate this interview as it gives some answers to a few of my questions. I would like to raise two points. First, You mention Steve Pettit's use of SGM greatly affecting some who have apprenticed under him. I would like to point out that there are men like Will Galkin and Matt Taylor who travelled with him and are very faithfully serving God and clearly teaching people the Word of God. I was with Will recently at an event and I sense in him the very essence of NBBC from the years in which Les Ollila was the president. The life touching life mentality that so many of us went to Northland for still emanates from Will's life. Matt Taylor is a friend of mine, and I believe in talking to him that he still seeks musically and doctrinally sound music for use in his ministry. I am less familiar with others who have served under SPEA in the past, but I don't believe a blanket statement is in order. I know that you said that it has affected "some" but I did want to point out that some are still serving under "the old philosophy."
    Secondly, I have had recent interaction with Dr. Olson, Dr. Ollila, and Dr. Everson. These are three men who I respect in ministry for the things that they taught me. I can't say that I agree with any of them in every area, but I do appreciate their influence on my life. I believe that music is a major issue that should be addressed and Dr. Everson's book "Sound Roots" is always the first book I recommend to anyone who is struggling with this issue or who wants to have a biblical view of music. These three men have a long record of serving our Savior and while I will not comment on Northland's current position publicly, I have had discussions with all three men at different times on the issue. I believe that the best course of action is to be faithful in teaching our young people what honors God, not just in music, but in life. One thing I noticed in my time at Northland was that the students who went in listening to conservative music, came out listening to conservative music, and those who went in listening to "edgier" music, came out with the same. I am currently observing the same trend from current students that I am acquainted with. I believe that it is the teaching of God's Word and the working of God's Spirit that will influence students' decisions in music, not a piece of paper with a list of dos and don'ts. Thus it falls to those teaching and influencing those young people to teach them what things would honor God and what would not.
    I continue to pray for Dr. Olson, Dr. Ollila, and Dr. Everson in their current roles, that they would do as they taught me: to seek God, and to seek wise, godly counsel. I pray that God will allow me to serve as faithfully as these men have and that I will seek Him as they have taught me to do.

    1. Mike:

      Thanks for offering your insight and personal commentary, all of which is sincerely appreciated.