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Tenure vs. Donors

October 15, 2012

The president of a Tennessee seminary told a tenured professor that his views were offending prospective students and possible donors and that he should look for work elsewhere.

The trouble began when Christopher Rollston, a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, a graduate seminary affiliated with the Restoration Movement, wrote an opinion article for The Huffington Post’s religion section about the marginal status of women in the Bible. “To embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women,” Rollston wrote. “And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong.”

The article led to a very public disagreement with another member of Emmanuel’s faculty and a letter of rebuke from the seminary’s president, Michael Sweeney, who issued a less-than-veiled threat to Rollston: stop taking liberal positions that alienate donors and prospective students, or find another place to work.

Rollston has tenure, but Emmanuel professors can be dismissed for cause if they exhibit “behavior demonstrating that [they are] no longer in sympathy with the purposes and goals of the school,” according to the seminary’s faculty handbook. In an undated letter to Rollston, forwarded to Inside Higher Ed by a person who does not work at Emmanuel, Sweeney writes that the professor’s teaching style and the effect he has on his students “have demonstrably exacerbated our current financial problems. That, along with your recent blog, puts you at odds with the purpose and goals of the school... If you feel that you are unwilling or unable to change any of this, and, frankly, I am not even sure it is possible for you to do so at this stage, I strongly suggest you increase your efforts at finding a position in a university where people are not studying for the ministry."

Sweeney said that Rollston needed to address “several matters” of concern to administrators and the board of trustees. Among those matters was a bullet point labeled “donor issues”: Rollston’s reputation, Sweeney wrote, was scaring off prospective donors.

“At a time when Emmanuel is under severe financial stress, we have some potentially significant donors (one of whom is capable of regular gifts in the six-figure range) who refuse to support Emmanuel because they regard your influence as detrimental to students,” Sweeney wrote.

In the letter, Sweeney accused Rollston of causing crises of faith among his students, saying that he usually discounted such claims because many students come from a conservative background and are not used to having their beliefs challenged. But the number of reports troubled him, he wrote, and those issues had not arisen with Rollston’s predecessors.

The professor’s reputation was also making recruitment more difficult at local Bible colleges, Sweeney went on to say, adding that his work at The Huffington Post elsewhere was damaging Emmanuel’s “brand identity.”

“Of course, low enrollment is a major problem we are all dealing with as an institution and we would hope to be able to regard all of our faculty members as assets in turning this around instead of liabilities,” Sweeney wrote.

Sweeney declined to comment because “at this stage no decisions have been made and we are handling things through our protocols,” he wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. Both Sweeney and Rollston’s lawyer, Stephen Rush, to whom Rollston referred all questions, said that the professor is still employed and tenured at Emmanuel, although disciplinary proceedings are ongoing.

The dispute is getting attention at several blogs that deal with religion and academe. Several professors of religion at other institutions, as well as Emmanuel alumni, have questioned Emmanuel’s commitment to academic freedom for seemingly threatening to fire a tenured professor for financial reasons.

“Is the institution really contemplating disciplining Dr. Rollston for publishing a popular essay that simply presents some uncontroversial points about how women are viewed in the Bible and how this clashes with the values of our society?” one typical example reads at PaleoJudaica, the blog of Jim Davila, a professor of divinity at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. “There have obviously been some mistakes made, and there is the danger of these reflecting badly on Emmanuel Christian Seminary.”

 

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