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But school administrators want no part of Harding students’ ‘conversation’

Last summer, a small number of serious students at Harding University, the Church of Christ college in Searcy, committed themselves to a budget of $10,000 ? on top of their student loans ? to stage a conference to explore contemporary interpretations of Christ's instruction to “love.”

Believing they had the university's approval and permission to use campus facilities, the students named their conference “Peace by Piece” and arranged to pay travel costs and honoraria for 10 speakers.

By the week of Thanksgiving, they had established a website, prepared a registration table to be set up in the student center, and were ready to announce plans for the event ? to be held in February ? at the school's daily chapel service, which Harding students must attend.

That's when Harding administrators told them that their conference was not welcome on campus. They could not announce it at chapel. They could not advertise it on campus.

The students say they were told that administrators pulled their support when they learned that women were among the scheduled speakers. Publicly, Harding officials have said only that some of the speakers “represented perspectives counter to our religious positions.”

 No one from Harding's administration responded to phone calls from the Timesseeking comment. Karen Kelly, an assistant professor of nursing at Harding, who is among the conference's scheduled speakers, did not answer a request for an interview, either.

One Harding professor, who is scheduled to speak at the conference, did agree to talk. However, Mark Elrod, who teaches political science and international relations at the school, stipulated that he could only be interviewed if he was not identified as an employee of Harding University and if a copy of his statements were provided to him ? and copied to Harding officials ? before publication. The Timesdeclined.

Concern about any association of Harding with the conference is apparently significant enough that brief biographies of the speakers that were posted on the conference website, which at first identified Kelly and Elrod as Harding faculty members, were changed to say only that the two teach “in Searcy, Arkansas.”

Harding's decision to disavow the conference was a blow to the student organizers, and not just because it meant they would have to find a new venue and new ways to publicize the event. The students, who see themselves as a minority on campus, were disappointed that school officials were so opposed to participating in the “conversation” they'd hoped that the conference would begin with other students, the faculty and the administration.

They see their minority status as arising from an understanding of their Christianity that includes a commitment to justice. “It grew out of some questions we've stumbled upon, or that we decided to ask,” Josh Nason said. “We saw the conference as a way of starting a conversation with the people living around us.”

Kevin Lillis put it this way: “A lot of our sense of justice has stemmed from our experiences. We wanted to start dialoging with friends and the administration ? to have somethingto start building around ? so those who haven't had the experiences we've had can see that maybe we're not so different.”

The group turned a difficult situation to its benefit. They turned to the town of Searcy, where a church and several businesses readily opened their doors. Thus, the Peace by Piece Conference will be held Friday through Sunday, Feb. 5-7, in spaces at that city's Underground Coffeehouse-Eatery, Sowell's Furniture store, Rialto Theater and Trinity Episcopal Church.

“ ‘Community' is an important word for us,” one organizer explained. “So on one level, we're excited now that the conference won't be at Harding, because supporting local communities is a lot of what it's about.”

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