Resignations or Terminations?

Most of the faculty at General Theological Seminary is out. But whether they resigned or were fired depends on who you ask.

October 2, 2014
The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle

The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary is in upheaval following the announcement this week that most of its full-time faculty members will not be returning to teach. The Board of Trustees of the General Theological Seminary in New York says that the professors offered their de facto resignation when they went on strike over concerns about their new dean and president, the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle. But the faculty members say they never wanted to resign, and rather were fired for defending the seminary’s values, including those of diversity and communication.

They allege that Dunkle has an authoritarian management style and has made numerous inappropriate sexual, racist and anti-gay remarks over many months. He also brushed off their earlier efforts to address those concerns with him personally, the professors say. Alumni and others with ties to Christian higher education, meanwhile, have taken to social media, criticizing Dunkle and the board for their actions and demanding answers. Commentators, too, say that the seminary schism reflects a bigger divide within the Episcopal Church about how to modernize.

General Seminary’s crisis erupted last week, when 8 of the institution’s 11 full-time faculty members wrote in an email to students that they were seeking to resolve a “serious conflict” with the board. Until then, they said, they would not be teaching or attending meetings or common worship. “Trust that we have acted in what we believe to be the best interests of your formation, our common life and the future of General Seminary,” they said.

The faculty members soon sent a follow-up email to students, offering more information and pointing to Dunkle, the dean and president of one year, as the problem.

“It is our view that that the president has repeatedly shown that he is unable to articulate sensitively and theologically the issues that are essential to the thriving of the Body of Christ in its great diversity,” the second email says. “Moreover his failure to collaborate, or to respond to our concerns when articulated, has resulted in a climate that many of us find to be fraught with conflict, fear, and anxiety. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable members of our community who most keenly suffer the distress caused by this environment.”

The professors continued: “Please know that we are not referring to off-hand remarks, or that we are overly concerned with ‘political correctness.’ Rather we refer to a number of very serious incidents and patterns of behavior which have over time caused faculty, students, and staff to feel intimidated, profoundly disrespected, excluded, devalued, and helpless. In short, we find ourselves in an emotionally charged climate that regularly interferes with our current work of teaching and learning together for the sake of God’s Church not to mention our ability to envision and plan for our future.”

The faculty members said they had reached an “impasse” with Dunkle, even after many attempts at dialogue, including with the assistance of an outside facilitator, and again requested a meeting with the board.

But that particular meeting never happened. By early this week, rumors were swirling that the eight faculty members – some 70 percent of the faculty – had been fired. The board soon confirmed in a statement that the faculty members would not be returning. But instead of saying that the faculty members had been fired, the trustees wrote that they had voted, “with great regret to accept the resignations of eight members of the seminary faculty.”

“The board came to this decision with heavy hearts, but following months of internal divisions around the future direction of General Seminary, some faculty member's [sic] demands for action not possible under the governing structure of the seminary, and the eight faculty members’ refusal to teach, attend meetings, or even worship, it has become clear that this is the best path forward in educating our students and shaping them into leaders of the church,” the statement reads.

The trustees noted that they’d be willing to talk to any affected faculty member about reversing the resignation. But by Wednesday, the institution was taking steps to make the action permanent, including by deactivating the professors’ email accounts. Dunkle also sent an email to students letting them know how their courses would proceed. He said half of classes would be uninterrupted, while he had either developed or was developing a plan for the other half. “Remember, being in the heart of New York City affords us access to educational and formational resources second to none throughout the country,” Dunkle added.

Despite quickly moving forward, it appears the board has not completely ignored the departed faculty members’ concerns. In their statement, the trustees said they would conduct an “internal investigation into certain allegations of statements made by the dean and president.” The board declined to name specific allegations, saying it would not be helpful to do so.

The Faculty's Allegations

But on Wednesday, the former faculty members – who previously had been publicly silent about their case – put up a website offering detailed complaints and copies of earlier correspondence with the trustees. Many of their concerns are summed up in a letter they sent in mid-September.

“Dean Dunkle’s public manner of expression seriously discomforts us and diminishes the reputation of the institution,” the letter says. “Specifically, his references to women, non-white cultures, and the LGBT community are absolutely inimical to the commitments of our church. He once described Asian transit passengers in the San Francisco Bay area as ‘slanty-eyed.’ In a large community meeting last spring, he compared the technical side of theological education to ‘looking up women’s skirts.’ Before several faculty members and students, he spoke, as an obvious act of intimidation, of how ‘black people can do such interesting things with their hair,’ a comment about which students complained.”

The letter alleges Dunkle has said the General Seminary should not be “the gay seminary,” and that it should emphasize “normal people.” It also alleges that he told a female faculty member that he “loved vaginas,” and said her consequent objection to the statement was “her problem.” The letter describes a pattern of denying having made inappropriate comments and threatening the job security of faculty members who complained.

“We have consistently communicated to him that such language undercuts our practices of hospitality and inclusion of those who are gay and lesbian, people of color, those who are differently-abled, or socially non-conformist,” the faculty letter says. Indeed, the General Seminary has long prided itself on diversity and inclusivity, saying on its website that a "significant" number of its faculty are gay or lesbian.

The professors also allege that Dunkle is “controlling” in day-to-day seminary life “to the point of making our jobs impossible,” and has violated student privacy laws by sharing a student’s educational details via email with the entire seminary.

“Simply put, we must respectfully inform you that if Dean Dunkle continues in his current position, then we will be unable to continue in ours,” they said, making a series of demands. The requests included meeting with the board and securing primary control over the curriculum, in line with the standards set by their accrediting body, the Association of Theological Schools.

In a later letter, the faculty members also informed the board that they are forming a union, and that a lawyer will field further communication.

A university spokesman said he could not comment on the allegations against Dunkle, due to the pending investigation. He referred questions about the departed faculty members to the board's earlier statement.

A Trustee's Point of View

Addressing the controversy on her own Facebook page, the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, a General Seminary board member, said that the professors’ language in communications with the board differed greatly from how they described their position in emails to students. That left the board little choice other than to act as it did, she said.

“Which were we to believe?” Tillotson wrote. “The spoken and unofficial communiques with the students or their strict and repeated statements to us that the conversation could only happen according to their stated limits? On which were we to act? When offered such an ultimatum, what were we to do? No, they never used the word ‘resign.’ But over and over they said they were unable to continue to do their jobs unless we met unmeetable conditions.”

Tillotson’s defense has done little to quell backlash against the General Seminary on blogs, Christian news websites and social media. Alumni demanded more information about why and under what circumstances the faculty members had been let go on Facebook, for example, even while offering prayers. David J. Dunn, an Orthodox theologian who is friends with one of the departed professors, published an op-ed in The Huffington Post, saying the seminary displayed an astonishing lack of leadership in dismissing the professors rather than meeting with them.

Via email, Dunn said he could only see his friend “doing something like this when he feels he has no other choice. He cares about justice, but he also cares about his family. He knows that he would have a very hard time finding another job as a professor. This could not have been an easy decision for any academic to make (also, massive student loan debts).”

Dunn said tenure, which some of the professors reportedly had, should have protected them from immediate dismissal. A spokesman declined to say how many of the eight professors were tenured or tenure-track, saying his human resources department had advised him not to release information about terms of employment. (Note: This sentence has been updated from a previous version to reflect that the seminary has a tenure track.)

Anthea Butler, a prominent associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, also weighed in on the University of Southern California-affiliated Religion Dispatches blog, saying “it is clear that the group has tried to have a sustained conversation with the dean and the board, but been ignored. Now the dirty laundry of the seminary is out for the whole denomination and other interested parties to sift through.”

Butler continued: “If I remember my Reformation history correctly, it was The Act of Supremacy in 1534 that made Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Firing eight faculty members unjustly is not an Act of Supremacy, but an Act of Shame. Perhaps the board of trustees and Dean Dunkle should ponder the twists and turns of church history before they land definitively on the wrong side of it.”

Commentary on the Episcopal Café also questioned Dunkle’s leadership style. The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns, a regular blogger and a General Seminary graduate, said that among other concerns, the faculty objected to unilateral changes that Dunkle had made to the prayer and Eucharist schedule, in an attempt to modernize worship at the seminary.

Dunkle, who also graduated from the seminary, returned to lead it last year after serving as rector of the Grace Episcopal Church in Orange Park, Fla. That parish experienced growth under his leadership, according to information the seminary released upon his being named dean; some 965 of 1,000 members reportedly left the church prior to his arrival, due to a larger schism in the Episcopal Church over gay marriage. At the time of Dunkle's appointment to the seminary, the parish had grown to 450 members.

Dunkle also faced a challenging environment when he arrived at the seminary as dean. It suffered from financial woes, and had just sold off significant chunks of its property in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Other Episcopal seminaries have felt a similar pinch in recent years. But if General Seminary's board was looking for someone to take charge and lead the seminary into the future, it appears the faculty felt it overshot.

“Now, this is not to say that worship is at the heart of the tensions with the faculty,” Gerns said. “The pinch comes when decisions about worship that have a significant impact on the fabric of the community are made by mere fiat. That's a recipe for turmoil.”

Eliza Smith Brown, a spokeswoman for Association of Theological Schools, said the body hadn't been able to independently verify reports about what was happening at General Seminary, but that it was "very concerned."

"ATS is an accrediting agency with standards related to governance and institutional integrity, including procedural fairness; faculty, including their role in curriculum and degree program requirements; and students, including the educational quality of the programs in which they have enrolled," she said via email.

"ATS has its own standards of procedural fairness for dealing with issues like those presented at General Seminary, and it will carefully follow those procedures to determine what has happened and to pursue appropriate accrediting implications."


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