'Hostile Takeover' of Hope College

Students and faculty members fear the president they admire, who has focused on liberal arts and moved away from hostility toward gay people, may be ousted.

April 15, 2016
 

Many students and faculty members at Hope College plan to gather on campus at noon today to stand in silence to express support for John C. Knapp, the president since 2013, whose job they fear is being threatened.

On Monday, the college announced that Provost Richard Ray, at Knapp's request, was stepping down. Now rumors are everywhere on the campus that the move may endanger Knapp. Hope was founded by and remains affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, but Hope welcomes students of other faiths (about 25 percent of students are Roman Catholics) and defines itself as "ecumenical Christian."

During his presidency, Knapp has moved in significant ways -- especially on issues of sexuality -- in ways that students and faculty members see as crucial to a spirit of tolerance. Ray is widely seen on campus as closer to the former tradition at Hope -- and as closer to religious traditionalists on the college's board, which has been meeting this week. Board members close to the former provost want the president out, many at the college say.

One faculty member -- who like others asked not to be identified -- said professors feared "a hostile takeover" was about to take place. And on a range of issues, not just religion, professors praise the president as someone who listens to their concerns and promotes liberal arts values. Most said they don't feel that way about the outgoing provost.

Supporters of the president stress that they view his vision as explicitly Christian -- and that the ideas of tolerance toward gay people, while a shift for the college, do not represent any deviation from the faiths and values embraced by students and professors. Social media is full of praise for the president.

The former provost, Ray, declined to comment. The president did not respond to a voice mail, and his lawyer, Raymond D. Cotton, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the college acknowledged that many on campus are worried, but said, "John Knapp is the president," and there was much "speculation" on the campus. The spokeswoman acknowledged that the board has been meeting, but said no announcement was imminent.

A Shift on Gay People

While supporters of Knapp stressed that they admired him on a variety of grounds, they noted that some religious conservatives had not appreciated the way he had made the college a more tolerant place.

Hope was in the news in the years before Knapp's presidency for being intolerant of gay people. In 2005, a tenured professor gave up his job after feeling pressured by the then president to stop writing columns for a local newspaper that upset evangelicals. One column Hope leaders complained about made fun of those evangelicals who criticized the alleged role of SpongeBob SquarePants in a video encouraging tolerance toward gay people.

Then, shortly after Dustin Lance Black won an Academy Award for writing the 2008 film Milk, about the gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, Black was invited to appear on campus and administrators blocked him from doing so.

That led the college to announce in 2011 that while faculty members could study ideas about sexuality that deviated from church teachings, the college would not recognize or support any student groups that did not agree that "biblical witness calls us to a life of chastity among the unmarried" and that marriage may only take place between a man and a woman.

On campus these days, faculty members report that students don't fear talking about issues of sexuality -- including ideas about sexuality not embraced by particular churches -- and that there is a general mood of inclusiveness.

The college made that philosophy public, faculty members say, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected state bans on same-sex marriage. While some religious colleges vowed to continue to require faculty members to abide by rules against same-sex marriage, Hope announced that it would grant spousal benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. While many colleges and universities had already done so, this was a significant move for a college affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.

Hope officials at the time told MLive.com that this reflected a "longstanding commitment to our employees' health and well-being, and a reminder that Hope is best served by recruiting and retaining people based on their ability to contribute to the life of the college and its Christian mission."

The college has also expanded efforts to diversify the student body and, under Knapp, has seen gains in diversity.

Faculty members spoke Thursday of fearing that these sorts of steps might be reversed if Knapp is ousted.

The student leaders who organized today's silent protest distributed an email saying they were worried about the institution they love.

"Many of us are aware of the ongoing unrest around campus," the email said. "There are so many questions and so few answers, which is the reason for this message of unity …. As devoted members of an institution that matters to us, the local community, and to the greater Hope family, we need to come together to show our affirmation of those who seek to make this place better for the future."

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