Erskine College's new president denied tenure to a faculty member who has been at odds with the governing body of the church that oversees the college, raising questions about the direction of and potential external influence on the college, according to a report by the faculty committee asked to look into the matter.
In March, President David A. Norman told James Hering, a professor of the New Testament in Erskine’s seminary, that he would not receive tenure, though his application had been approved by the seminary's tenure committee months earlier. A grievance committee last week found that Norman had erred in denying Hering's application and that the president had been unfair to Hering by publicly disparaging the tenure process. The committee's report was leaked to Inside Higher Ed.
Norman said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Hering's actual application or "rumors" that the report says he cited, but rather institutional factors at the college. "The institutional factors are unrelated to the specifics of Dr. Hering's tenure application," he said in an e-mail statement. "It would be inappropriate to go into further specific detail."
The tenure debate comes about a year after the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which oversees the college, attempted to dismiss Erskine’s entire board of trustees, claiming that the college was straying too far from its mission and its faith. Alumni and some of the trustees sued the college to keep the board in place. When the college brought on a new president, an agreement to drop the lawsuit and order for dismissal was reached.
But since the college hired Norman in May 2010, several faculty members who have had disagreements with the administration over theological or administrative issues have left the institution. Some left voluntarily, while others had their positions eliminated for financial reasons.
The situation is similar to what has happened at some other religious institutions, where new, more theologically and socially conservative board members have altered administrations, leading to theological or professional disagreements and faculty members leaving campus.
What makes Erskine distinct is the size of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination, which is more conservative theologically than other branches of Presbyterianism. There are only about 250 churches in the denomination, spread mainly throughout the southeast, and the college-age population has never been large enough to fill Erskine's liberal arts college. As a result, the college and seminary have included faculty members and students who, while professing faith, don’t necessarily adhere to the college’s strict theological interpretations.
Expressed in the grievance committee’s report is the concern that further intervention in faculty affairs by the church leadership could do significant damage to the college’s reputation and jeopardize its standing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accrediting body that has already put Erskine on "warning" status.
“The multiple violations of tenure process in Dr. Hering’s case, if not addressed, will have a demoralizing effect on current faculty and will impede the institution’s ability to attract new faculty,” the Grievance Committee stated in its report. “Moreover, the evidence we can see can only confirm SACS’s concerns about undue external influence in Erskine’s governance."
Hering has been a target of some members of the ARP’s General Synod -- the church’s governing body, on which he sits -- because he joined a lawsuit against them to prevent the dismissal of Erskine’s board in March 2010. Since that time, he has been the target of critical online postings, particularly on ARPTalk, a blog run by Charles Wilson, a member of the Synod.
Norman denies that Hering's involvement in the legal action is at all tied to the tenure decision. According to the grievance committee report, Norman says he denied tenure to Hering because the tenure process was flawed, and the president would not go into more detail.
The seminary adjusted its tenure process in 2009. Before the change, seminary faculty would be evaluated through the college’s normal tenure review process, which consisted of a board of eight faculty members from various divisions of the college. Erskine has an undergraduate college with liberal arts and some professional programs, as well as the seminary.
The faculty altered the procedure because the old committees would tend to rely on the one person from the seminary when evaluating applicants. Under the new procedure, seminary faculty members are reviewed by three other seminary faculty members – one from each division of the seminary – and one faculty member from another department in the college.
After reviewing Hering’s application, both the committee and the vice president of the seminary recommended tenure.
At a meeting with the seminary faculty in March, Norman told faculty members that “he was hearing ‘rumors’ about ‘stacking’ the committee and ‘bullying’ ” in favor of Hering, according to the grievance committee’s report. The report also notes that Norman polled the seminary faculty at that meeting about whether they felt the tenure committee represented them. When the faculty refused the poll, the report states, Norman called them "dysfunctional" and said "I'm not sure that even if we received a hundred percent faculty hand vote that I would still have a hundred percent confidence in the procedure." The report says, and some faculty members agreed, that it was inappropriate for the president to undermine the tenure process that was, as far as they were concerned, by the book.
On March 14, Hering met with Norman, the dean of the seminary, and the vice president of the seminary. At that meeting, Norman told Hering that he would be denied tenure, according to a letter Hering submitted to the grievance committee. “In support of his decision he noted that there has been a good deal of ‘buzz’ regarding the seminary’s tenure process, and that he had ‘no confidence in the recommendations’ contained in the tenure application,” Hering wrote in the letter.
It was at that point that the grievance committee began its investigation into the matter. It published its report last week, finding that there were no flaws in the process until Norman intervened. "It is amazing to me that someone with no college teaching experience, with less than a year of administrative experience and without any contact with tenure until that point would stop the opinion of the tenure committee," said William Crenshaw, a professor in the English department and member of the grievance committee.
Even if the reason for denying tenure has to do with the process, the report states, the timing of the president's intervention unfairly undermined Hering's application.
The board of trustees, which meets Thursday and Friday, will have final say on the tenure decision, though Hering could appeal their decision to the courts.
"I genuinely hope that the board of trustees, when they take a look at the materials, that they can maybe turn this around," Hering said. "I hope the board will look and see a misstep here. No one wants anybody to be embarrassed, or put down. I hope they make it real simple and that there is a quick resolution."
Some members of the faculty see what happened to Hering as reflective of a larger problem at the college. They say some church leaders, through Norman, are trying to exert influence on decisions and remove faculty with whom they disagree.
For decades, faculty and staff members joining Erskine have had to profess that they agree that the Bible is "without error in all that it teaches." That wording left some wiggle room. In 2009, the college changed the phrasing to "inerrant in the original manuscripts," a much more literal standard.
Crenshaw, who said he does not adhere to the strict theology of the church, said the administration is using this reinterpretation of its theological stance to drive away faculty members with whom it disagrees.
"We do know that at least one department had its first choice turned away by the administration based on the inerrancy clause,” he said. “Our department has also had good candidates be scared off."
Michael Bush, a former member of the seminary faculty, served in an administrative post at the seminary until the position was eliminated earlier this year. Like Hering, Bush was a member of the suit against the college. The administration would not comment on why he and faculty members left the college.
H. Neely Gaston, who was the executive vice president of the seminary at Erskine, left in January to join the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He declined to talk about why he left Erskine, citing a nondisclosure agreement.
Erskine's administration rejects the notion that any group is exerting outside influence on the college.
"The board of trustees, as appointed by the Synod of the ARP Church in accordance with our charter and bylaws, is the sole governing body of Erskine," Norman said in an e-mail statement. "We are all actively working to ensure Erskine remains free from undue external influence."