Under Fire, a Dean Departs

Academic at center of dispute at Seattle University -- subject of lengthy sit-in demanding her ouster and protest defending her -- will retire.

July 25, 2016
Protests demanding that Jodi Kelly be ousted (left) and backed (right)

Starting in May, minority students staged a three-week sit-in seeking the ouster of Jodi Kelly, dean of the university's Matteo Ricci College, which offers degrees in the humanities. The university agreed to discuss student demands to diversify the curriculum, but (initially at least) defended Kelly. In June, however, amid reports that some faculty members wanted Kelly gone, she was placed on leave. And last week, the university announced that Kelly had retired, meaning that the central student demand -- and one on which the university had refused to negotiate -- has been achieved.

But as the weeks have gone by since the initial protest, the list of issues involved has grown, and the early signs indicate that Kelly's departure may not end the disagreements at Seattle. Indeed, the MRC Coalition, which organized the protests, issued a statement Friday that called Kelly's departure “a success of years of organizing,” but faulted the university for praising Kelly and not criticizing her.

Kelly did not respond to a request for comment, but the university announcement of her retirement included this quote from her: “I discovered the truth in the adage ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I leave with gratitude for the opportunity to have served the students and alumni of Matteo Ricci College for 40 years and I deeply appreciate the colleagues who supported me in that work.”

The dispute at Seattle involved a reported use of a slur by Kelly (although in a way that many consider anything but offensive), the role of a traditional humanities curriculum and the best way for students or others to seek curricular changes.

Uproar Over the N-Word and More

The sit-in demanding Kelly's ouster (among other things) initially drew attention because of an explosive charge: that she had used the slur "nigger" in talking to a black student. Via email at the time, Kelly said that she does not ever use that word in regular discussion or to label anyone. She did, however, remember that in a discussion with a student who wanted to better understand the experiences of members of minority groups, Kelly suggested Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist. Among those who defended Kelly on her recommending the book by name was Gregory himself, who wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about the debate at Seattle.

Even as attention on the N-word receded, the debate about Kelly and the college she led only grew. Kelly's critics and supporters agree that she is a proponent of a rigorous humanities curriculum -- such as that offered by the college -- built around the Western classics. To the protesting students, that was a big part of the problem.

Their petition of demands included an overhaul of the curriculum. They sought one that "decentralizes whiteness and has a critical focus on the evolution of systems of oppression such as racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc., highlighting the art, histories, theologies, political philosophies and sociocultural transformation of Western and non-Western societies." Further, they demanded that the new curriculum be "taught by prepared staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors."

Finally, they called for a curriculum that "radically reinterprets what it means to educate teachers and leaders for a just and humane world by centering dialogue about racism, gentrification, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, global white supremacy and other ethical questions about systems of power, setting a standard for students before doing service, learning, or studying in other communities or countries."

Kelly and others at the university agreed early on to review the curriculum, and pledged that faculty members and students would play a key role.

When those pledges didn't end the sit-in by early June, the university announced that Kelly would be placed on leave. Seattle's interim provost, Bob Dullea, said of Kelly's leave at the time: "I have taken this action because I believe, based on information that has come forward over the past several weeks, that successful operations of the college at this time require that she step away from day-to-day management and oversight." He said this information would be investigated.

While Dullea did not provide any details on that information, university officials told Seattle reporters that a number of faculty members in the college agreed with students that the institution needed a change in both leadership and curriculum. The university's Academic Assembly in June issued a report in which it cited a lack of good procedures to review the curriculum in the college. Further, the report noted that students and faculty members appeared to have very different senses about teaching and learning at the college, without anyone trying to bridge the gaps.

Defending the Dean

Even as opposition to Kelly seemed to be growing on campus, many students and alumni started speaking out last month to defend her. Some organized a rally on campus.

Kelly's defenders generally said that while the curriculum at Matteo Ricci College may be traditional, it is a curriculum that they value, a curriculum consistent with the university's Jesuit mission -- and a curriculum that even if not to everyone's liking, is known to students when they apply. Many also objected to the idea that a dean whom they loved and considered a great mentor and teacher with four decades of work at the university would be forced out of a job on the basis of a student protest.

Dana Winston Keller, who graduated in 1987 and was among those who organized the protest, posted her comments at the rally to Facebook.

"I stand for Jodi because it is unjust to destroy the reputation and career of someone who has dedicated her life to advocating for students, teaching about social justice and championing the MRC program and Jesuit education," she said. "I stand for Jodi because while I support students’ right to challenge, question and protest, I cannot abide by tactics that are violent and harmful -- or that the coalition participants would actually celebrate their 'victory' in doing that harm."

Keller said that she understood that many of the students calling for Kelly's ouster had experienced racism, and she said that she did not doubt their pain. But she responded to those statements by quoting Socrates: "One who is injured ought not to return the injury, for on no account can it be right to do an injustice; and it is not right to return an injury, or to do evil to any man, however much we have suffered from him."

The President's Announcement

In announcing Kelly's retirement, the Reverend Stephen V. Sundborg, president of the university, made no mention of the controversy over Kelly or the college's curriculum. He noted that she had founded several programs, including the Poverty Education Center, and helped the college to add degree programs. He said that she would have emeritus status.

"Dean Kelly is well respected within our community and region. Her passion for teaching and commitment to Jesuit education is unsurpassed. I am grateful for the devotion and dedication she brought to Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University and our mission," he said.

A spokesman said that the university had no plans to discuss the investigation announced when Kelly was placed on leave.

The coalition of protesting students' statement specifically criticized Father Sundborg for saying only positive things about the departing dean.

“Seattle University marketing says ‘Here We Dare,’” the student statement says. “One of the most daring actions a leader can take is to admit error and take responsibility for their actions. Instead of daring to challenge the status quo with accountable leadership, Father Sundborg chose to praise Jodi Kelly as well as award her with emeriti honor while ignoring the harm and trauma students, alumni, faculty and staff have experienced. This is not justice. As a community, we all deserve better.”


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