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Spring Arbor University, an evangelical Christian institution that recently made headlines for firing a transgender associate dean, withdrew Wednesday from a plan to offer courses at Lansing Community College’s new University Center because Spring Arbor could not sign on to the college’s non-discrimination policy.
Lansing’s policy -- which extends to those entities it contracts with, including, in this case, other universities -- prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. At Spring Arbor, a faculty member who engages in same-sex relationships could face disciplinary action up to and including termination. The decision followed a very public local debate over whether the two institutions should be collaborating -- and illustrates the challenges that community colleges can face when they try to work with all available educational partners.
“We would not have had control of the faculty, students and staff,” said Betty Overton-Adkins, vice president for academic affairs at Spring Arbor, a Free Methodist institution in Michigan that would have offered a post-baccalaureate endorsement in special education and a bachelor's in social work at the University Center. “They would have to abide by the LCC regulations rather than the Spring Arbor regulations. As a Christian institution ... we would be giving up our rights to set expectations for the staff.”
“I’m obviously disappointed that we lost a partner,” said Stephanie Shanblatt, chief operating officer for the University Center and the strategic learning partnerships division at Lansing Community College. But ultimately, she said, “I hope that everyone understands our obligation to abide by our policies as well as their obligation to abide by theirs.”
Spring Arbor was one of eight universities to offer degrees at Lansing Community College’s University Center, which will offer bachelor’s and master’s programs to community college transfer students as well as Lansing residents when it opens in January 2008. Accounts differ as to why Spring Arbor, which applied to offer programs at the center in response to an October 2005 request for proposals, is just dropping out now -- and what role the controversial firing of Julie (formerly John) Nemecek might have played in the ordeal.
Nemecek, an ordained Baptist minister and former associate dean at Spring Arbor, filed a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint this winter charging discrimination on the basis of sex and perceived disability after being demoted, isolated and ultimately terminated upon telling a supervisor of her gender identity disorder diagnosis. The two parties settled in March.
Shanblatt said that the original RFP did include an abbreviated version of LCC’s nondiscrimination policy, but that Spring Arbor assumed it applied only to students (who, incidentally, also are expected to “abstain from cohabitation, any involvement in premarital, extramarital and same gender sexual relationships,” per Spring Arbor's student handbook). Although Shanblatt said that LCC’s various policies -- covering everything from concealed weapons to smoking to discrimination -- were communicated to the partner institutions, they had never been at the forefront of conversations surrounding the collaboration.
So on April 20, she sent a letter to all partner institutions specifically asking them if they could sign on to the policies -- which Spring Arbor gave word Wednesday that it could not do. Shanblatt described the timing of the letter, coming shortly after the Nemecek controversy, as “fortuitous.”
“We were finalizing the agreement that we were asking all partners to sign at about the same time all that happened,” Shanblatt said. While the college received "minimal" input from individuals calling for them to disassociate from Spring Arbor, Shanblatt said, the Lansing State Journal published an editorial in March urging Lansing Community College to push the controversy aside and base the future of the partnership on one question: "Does having Spring Arbor at the University Center aid students?"
Overton-Adkins said, however, that before the controversy, the partnership was progressing and there was no sign of conflict on the horizon. The firing is “the only thing that we know that would have brought this to a head.”
“I think LCC was pressured by people,” Overton-Adkins said. “It’s tragic for me, because of course [the non-discrimination policy is] being applied to all of these institutions that would be in the University Center. While ours is a faith consideration, the other institutions will also need to sign off on the policy. Whatever their policies and practices are, what will prevail at LCC is their non-discrimination policy.”
“Their focus is on the diversity of students,” Overton-Adkins continued. “We think that this policy that they have is actually in some ways a backwards step, because in some ways they are depriving students of a religious diversity, or the kind of diversity that our institution would provide in terms of perspective.”
"In the end, their policies are more important to them than providing the diversity to students," Shanblatt said in response. "I think on the other side of the coin, we can say the same thing, that our stance on non-discrimination is really of paramount value to us."
“When you’re on our campus,” you have to follow our regulations, Shanblatt said. “Obviously, what a partner does on their campus, we have no control over and we’re not attempting to control that. If students want to smoke on their campus, fine. But you’re not allowed to smoke on our campus -- just as an example.”
Shanblatt said that she will probably be looking for another partner to replace Spring Arbor (which, on its part, plans to teach the courses it would have taught at the LCC building at its own Lansing location). The University Center partner schools currently include four public universities (Central Michigan, Ferris State, Western Michigan and the University of Michigan at Flint), two private nonsectarian universities (Lawrence Technological and Northwood) and one Roman Catholic university (Siena Heights).
"I'm not surprised," Nemecek said of the situation Thursday. "They [Spring Arbor] really were in a no-win situation. They either had to change the values that they think are important -- which I don’t agree with -- or they had to go ahead and back out of the deal."
"Lansing Community College did the right thing by making very clear its own diversity policy and saying, ‘You have to play by our rules,' " Nemecek said. “It would have been a very good partnership and a healthy one, but [Spring Arbor] didn't see it as worth it to change."