Education remains priority amid General Seminary faculty departures

By ENS Staff
Posted Sep 30, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] The board of trustees’ executive committee for General Theological Seminary in New York has “voted with great regret to accept the resignations” of eight full-time professors who say “the working environment that the Dean and President has created has become unsustainable.”

The board said its decision came “after much prayer and deliberation and after consulting our legal council.” The trustees also said that the primary concern of the seminary “continues to be the education and formation of our students.”

A conflict between the dean and some members of faculty at the nearly 200-year-old seminary was made public late last week when e-mails from the departing professors to students were circulated.

Nowhere in those e-mails did the eight say they were resigning and at least one of the professors, Andrew Irving, said in a subsequent e-mail that “we wish to underline that we have not resigned. Our letters did not say that we would resign. We requested meetings with the board.”

The 37-member board, many of whom met via conference call on Sept. 29 to discuss the conflict, said in a statement released the next day that they had reached their decision “with heavy hearts,” but agreed that “following months of internal divisions around the future direction of General Seminary” it was the “best path forward in educating our students and shaping them into leaders of the church.”

The board said that the seminary is willing to meet with any former faculty member about the possibility of reconsidering his or her position.

The eight faculty members said they would not teach, attend meetings, or participate in common worship in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd until “pressing issues” at the seminary were addressed.

The eight faculty members said they would not teach, attend meetings, or participate in common worship in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd until “pressing issues” at the seminary were addressed.

After the trustees made their decision, the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, who became dean and president in July 2013, said in a Sept. 29 e-mail to students: “Prayer is the most powerful response any of us can make at this point. Please pray.”

Dunkle and the remaining faculty, the board said, “are working on the best ways to continue teaching and advising and to assure all that we will continue to provide quality education and formation with the least amount of interruption possible.”

The board’s statement notes that the school’s New York location “affords us access to a wide range of resources, and we shall be drawing upon those resources to address any needs created by these resignations.”

Professors Joshua Davis, Mitties DeChamplain, Deirdre Good, David Hurd, Andrew Irving, Andrew Kadel, Amy Lamborn and Patrick Malloy said in their Sept. 26 e-mail to students that they were not going to teach, attend meetings, or participate in common worship until “pressing issues” at the seminary were addressed. They said that “despite many attempts at dialogue in the past year – including conversations facilitated by a professional external facilitator – the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that we have reached an impasse.”

The professors said that they had communicated what they called “dire circumstances” to the board of trustees and said that their “work stoppage” could be ended immediately if the board would commit to meeting with them.

But the board said in its statement that some of those demands for action were “not possible under the governing structure of the Seminary.”

Dunkle, a former lawyer and a 2004 graduate of GTS, e-mailed the seminary community on the morning of Sept. 29 saying that the principal concern is the welfare of the students and acknowledging that worship is central to GTS.

In a further email on Sept. 30, as the board’s statement was pending, Dunkle confirmed that about half of the classes would continue uninterrupted. “As we go through this together, remember that all our hope on God is founded,” he added. “It’s not just a hymn, but a guiding reminder of our fundamental truth. Prayer, either alone or together, is the most effective way to access God. Please remember to continue to pray for all those here and not here.”

The departing professors expressed their view that Dunkle “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. 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.”

They mentioned that there had been “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 … Our concerns about these behaviors and their consequences have been dismissed by the Dean. We find that the Dean’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the damage that these ways of acting and speaking have caused is deeply problematic.”

The board of trustees said in its Sept. 30 statement that it is conducting an internal investigation into the allegations of statements made by Dunkle.

The General Theological Seminary was founded in 1817 in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City as the first theological seminary of the Episcopal Church.

As with many theological institutions, GTS has faced economic pressures following the global financial crisis leading to the sale of some of its property in order to eliminate debt and balance its budget. There was no indication from the various statements and correspondence that the seminary’s financial issues had in any way contributed to the present conflict.

The 10 Episcopal seminaries in the U.S. have very few official ties to the Episcopal Church, beyond General Convention’s authority to elect six of the GTS trustees.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will visit the school on the morning of Oct. 1. She will visit an 8:30 a.m. class, attend chapel and then “be present on the Close until 11:30 a.m. for your own contact with her,” Dunkle said in his first Sept. 30 e-mail to students.

“The Church is counting on us,” the board concluded in its statement. “This week Dean Dunkle and the remaining faculty are working on the best ways to continue teaching and advising and to assure all that we will continue to provide quality education and formation with the least amount of interruption possible.

“While we may sometimes disagree, the commitment to our current students is a responsibility that the Board takes seriously. It is for their well-being alone that we came to this resolution, and pray that our decision was the right one.”


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Comments (65)

  1. Christine Leigh-Taylor says:

    What I do not understand comes directly from the ENS article, which said that the Board regretfully accepted the resignations of the eight professors. Yet the eight professors say they did not resign. So, we have a little problem here about what constitutes resignation. Did the Board interpret their pledge of work-stoppage until a conversation with the Board was possible as the equivalent of resignation? That was never stated.

    I’m not associated with General, and I don’t know how much of the faculty eight members represents, but it surely has to be significant. Why isn’t the Board and the Dean talking with them?

    1. Douglas Pierce says:

      I would say that the Board views that the faculty said we can not work with the Dean, so therefore either the Dean goes or we won’t work. If the Trustees support the Dean as they are apparently doing and the faculty will not work with him then the faculty have to go. The Faculty letter clearly implies an either/or and I think the faculty (and many others) are surprised the Trustees went with the or.

  2. Lucia Lloyd says:

    Yes, they are eight of the ten full-time faculty at GTS.

  3. Cindy Frost says:

    The action(s) of the Board of Trustees is troubling. There seems to be much smoke here, very little substance about what the President and the Board are hoping for other than shutting down the voices of the faculty members who requested meaningful conversations and apparently have never resigned. Does this mean that the Board of Trustees have fired the faculty with no explanation? We can only hope that the presiding Bishop intervenes and voices are heard.

  4. Philip College says:

    Much information can be found on Facebook (of all places) or by contacting people you know personally. It is regretful that the Dean and the Board of Directors are being so quiet. Of course, they are afraid of a lawsuit… as indeed they should be. Leading up to these traumatic events are actions and inactions that are reprehensible on the Dean’s part – lack of respect for the history and tradition of the institution and alumni, lack of respect for minorities and different mindsets, and certainly the lack of respect for the faculty. Perhaps some cleaning of the house was in order, but this should never have been done strong handedly and without buy-in from the key players along the way. The faculty may have also made mistakes, but their final act of “striking” was due to the lack of being heard by the Dean and by the Board of Trustees. If the eight faculty members are indeed removed, than the Dean should be removed – and probably the Chair of the Board of Trustees. As an administrator, I see nothing but poor leadership and administrative skills on the Dean’s part which has been supported by a Board that seems to have been ignorant or passive. Yes, the faculty may have acted aggressively, but their act was an act of desperation. I do hope that the Alumni will not be passive, and will contact the Dean and the Board of Trustees – and/or the Alumni Association. Philip College, Class of 1994

  5. (The Revd. Canon) Kale Francis King Tssf (Bexley '53) says:

    How very sad that nine persons with a commitment to Christian education, and in the “presence” of our Lord, could not resolve the difficulty among themselves.
    Are we in need of a restoration of a Christian “sensitivity training”?

  6. Not showing up for work is a form of quit. If the unhappy faculty members persist in not showing up for their scheduled classes, or refuse to attend worship services in the chapel, and generally not entering the seminary grounds, then the trustees and dean have no choice but to deem them to have quit their jobs, that is, resigned.

    1. Dorothy Clementson says:

      There is always a choice, but the dean and trustees made the wrong one. Instead of meeting with the faculty, they dismissed them.

  7. Phillip Ayers says:

    I am not a graduate of GTS but have always held it in high esteem. Why, I could well have gone there in 1967, but was accepted by – and chose to go to – Berkeley in New Haven. Little did I know that, a few years later, we would be embroiled in turmoil! The end-result was twofold: 1) we students were seriously short-changed but with some of the faculty providing good pastoral and moral support, I made it through!; and 2) my school affiliated a year later (1971) with Yale and has become one of the Church’s strongest seminaries. Not without its own turmoil (e.g., the unfortunate situation with Dean William Franklin in 2002), the school does more than just survive today. I am proud (in a solid Christianly sense) to be an alumnus!
    Barbara Crafton, one of the Spiritual Directors at GTS, has offered good advice: pray for your ‘enemies’ by name just the name, nothing else; then leave the rest to God. Mother Julian of Norwich, too: “And all shall be well . . .”.
    It still amazes me how eight faculty members, only one of whom I know at all well, are not listened to in all of this. But … I’m definitely “on the outside, looking in” here!

  8. Dorothy Clementson says:

    I am ashamed to be an Episcopalian after the disgraceful behavior Mark Sisk and the Board. That GTS could so cavalierly dismiss the majority of its faculty because they had very legitimate complaints about the new Dean is beyond regrettable; it calls into serious question GTS’ commitment to religious education and Christianity itself.

  9. J. W. McRee says:

    As a commentor on another blog said, it seems that the
    GTS board adopted the Ronald Reagan method of labor
    negotiation.

  10. I am dismayed by everything that is happening at GTS. Admittedly, I am geographically far removed from the events and I don’t have all the information. Nonetheless, 80 % of the full-time faculty cannot be dismissed as a handful of recalcitrant malcontents. EIGHTY PERCENT! Come on, people! What were you (Trustees) thinking? Meet with the faculty! Talk with them!
    Frank Corbishley, GTS 1990

  11. Ann Willis Scott says:

    I often use art or photos to help me pray for people and/or situations. Today I was looking at the chapel photo that accompanies this story and was reminded of when I was a child. I used to endure evening prayer by amusing myself thinking “those statues are scratching their bodies in public .” Now I wonder why they aren’t scratching their heads!

  12. Fr. Jeff Hulet, GTS '06 says:

    At the beginning of the century, as I recall, GTS had about $40 million in its endowment. I was a student at GTS when the seminary made the ill-advised dive into property development and lavish spending: rebuilding, the Tutu Centre, the geothermal system, etc. Voices of caution were hounded out then, only to have been proved correct in time. At that time, the Trustees did nothing to ensure the fiduciary integrity of the institution. At that time, the Dean was dismissive of the needs of the students vis-à-vis his development agenda.

    I had returned to GTS in 2010 on a visit to NYC, and was present when the Trustees announced that the seminary was broke. The President of the Trustees was deceitful and arrogant in the extreme at that meeting, and the then Dean was dismissive of the concerns of the students that they might not be able to complete their studies at GTS. One member of the trustees had the courage to admit that ‘we have failed you’: they did not exercise proper fiscal oversight. The debt load approached $60 million by one report I have read, and the endowment was gone.

    Last year, in an appeal for money, the current Dean enclosed a letter explaining what had happened with the money we had donated for construction of the Tutu Centre. That letter was a masterpiece of doubletalk about how the assets were used and invested, and simply forgot the fact that GTS had been required to sell off about half of its property to get out from under the debt load. In other words, the asset for which we donated money had been liquidated and our investment was gone. Now, I’m afraid we’re seeing the same sort of behavior from the administration and the same sort of neglect from the Trustees.

    For the last four years, I have served as a member of the Board of Regents for one of the Oxford colleges. I am well aware of the demands such a board faces, and the role they have to play in ensuring the long-term health of an institution. From the perspective of an admitted outsider, it seems that the people who are supposed to pay attention, and who are supposed to set an example and to lead, have failed GTS again, utterly. Very, very sad.

    AMDG

  13. DWLindeman says:

    Writing as a distinct outsider (I am RC), I’m especially surprised that the Episcopal News Service would announce unilaterally that somehow the faculty at GTS who are on strike are “departed.” Obviously this is not the position of the GTS8. We may wonder at the actions of the board of GTS, which appears to have not known how to deal effectively with what is essentially a personnel crisis and leadership crisis at the institution. There appears to have been mistakes made among all parties to this dispute, including the board, but it is also far from settled. ENS would have been better advised to take a detached and circumspect approach to its journalism here, and, attempt to describe the crisis on the ground in terms of the classic rights of professors in context of a significant US educational institution.

  14. Susan Zimmerman says:

    …with the Brotherhood one must be still…keep them in the dark…their agenda must be challenged, as the majority must be heard!!!!!!

  15. Kenneth Knapp says:

    It seems that the need of the Dean and the Faculty to fight has taken precedence over the needs of the students and the larger church. I am reminded of all the recent unpleasantness in which the need of the hyper-conservatives and hyper-liberals to fight took precedence over the needs of the larger church. When will we ever learn?

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