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Board Chair +Sisk writes GTS Alums about GTS8

Board Chair +Sisk writes GTS Alums about GTS8

Bishop Sisk, Chair of the Board of Trustees of General Theological Seminary has posted a letter to the alumi/ae of GTS.  The Association of Theological Schools accreditation Commission visits General Seminary this week as well:

To: The Rev. Dr. R. Scott White
Members of the Alumni Executive Committee
Alumni/ae of The General Theological Seminary

From: The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk

November 20, 2014

Thank you for the thorough report of your meeting with Bishop Shin on November 5, 2014, received on November 19th. I deeply appreciate the obvious love you have for General, especially during this difficult time of both crisis and possibility.

Please know that the Executive Committee (EC) and Board of Trustees hear you. We are painfully aware that this has not always been evident by our prior response, or lack thereof, to you as a group. For that we apologize. As a way of explanation, though not excuse, we were overwhelmed and blindsided by the faculty letters to us dated September 17th and September 25th and by the public campaign which immediately followed.

Prior to receipt of the letters, the EC knew there were some serious ‘communication issues’ between the faculty and Dean through a phone call made by two faculty members to a board member who is not on the EC. The essence of that conversation was conveyed to me. In turn, I raised the issue with both the Dean and Prof. Good. I asked them to address this issue between the two of them directly. I received no indication from either party that this conversation was not going to happen. In addition, one faculty member expressed unhappiness with the Dean to an EC member in a private conversation, but it was not shared with the EC or Board until after September 20th, as it was believed to be a private communication. Nothing approaching the gravity of the situation was shared prior to the letter of September 17th.

The Board had no mechanism in place to respond to an internal crisis of the proportion that rapidly unfolded on social media and with our alums, students, faculty, staff, and many interested parties. When I received your emails, it was along with 300 other emails or more, for which I was ill-equipped to deal. As I said to you earlier in the month, I am deeply sorry for this failure to communicate and promise to do all in my power to see that this breach of communication, and therefore trust, does not occur again.

The Board’s mandate to the Dean was a simple one – close the $3 million per year operating budget shortfall while at the same time putting in place a shared vision and mission that is both sustainable and viable. Simple, yet very complex to execute. For General to remain viable and vibrant, major changes must be made that involve hard decisions and programmatic change. That was and is the Board’s mandate to Dean Dunkle.

In order to execute rapid decisions that must be made in a climate of financial uncertainty, the Board out of necessity, empowered the EC to act between board meetings. Without the ability to be nimble, the severe financial difficulties of the past would have repeated themselves to the detriment of all – faculty, students, alumni and the Episcopal Church as a whole.

That being said, the Executive Committee did not and would not have acted in isolation from the full Board on the recent decision regarding acceptance of faculty resignations. Before the EC acted, a full Board conference call was held in which an overwhelming number of board members expressed their agreement with the EC’s proposed action. Without that overwhelming support, the EC was not prepared to act, even though, according to the bylaws, they had the authority to do so.

The GTS bylaws were written following nine months of Board study with former InTrust President Dr. Douglas Lewis, and were unanimously approved at the May 2014 Board meeting. They were discussed with faculty present and were immediately posted on the GTS website, following approval in October of the minutes of the May Board meeting.

Your report raises many helpful and salient points which we hope to address as we work together toward reconciliation, but without further delay we would like to address your concerns regarding legalities. As the body with fiduciary responsibility for General Seminary, when we receive a letter containing numerous legal phrases and therefore legal ramifications, we have no choice but to respond very carefully to protect the institution.

In immediately addressing the clear legal concerns raised by the eight signatory faculty in their September 17th letter, we believed and still believe, we properly addressed the important legal issues that they had raised. The EC, on behalf of the Board, promptly authorized a thorough investigation of the allegations against Dean Dunkle. The highly regarded independent law firm of Covington & Burling conducted the investigation; graciously they donated their time pro bono. Many hours of investigatory interviews were conducted with essentially the entire faculty (with the exception of Dr. Mullin), many seminary staff, a number of students and the Dean. Reams of documents were reviewed. Their investigation found that the most egregious allegations regarding alleged statements made by the Dean were uncorroborated and legally deficient.

The second letter from the eight faculty dated September 25th, with its additional and overt legal language, placed the Board in an even more difficult position. This letter essentially forced a legal response. It did so by insisting that all future communication be conducted through their (unnamed) legal representative. Further, concurrent with the arrival of that letter, I received another, previously unmentioned and unpublished letter, from the attorney representing the eight faculty. That letter was exceedingly hostile; there was simply no ignoring its clear legal threat.

With all of this being said, the returning faculty, the remaining faculty, the Dean, the Board of Trustees, alums and staff have all been called to a reconciliation process: the returning faculty, the Board and the Dean have formally committed themselves to the process.

Our ultimate hope is in God, with whom all things are possible. We submit ourselves to this process and to the growth and learning that can occur through it for the sake of the institution we all love.

We look forward to working with you.

In Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk
Chair, Board of Trustees
The General Theological Seminary

More on accreditation here.

Photo Credit: Randy OHC/Flickr CC (http://bit.ly/1ryPA8o)

posted by Ann Fontaine

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The Rev Dr Ellen M Barrett Class of '75

I wish I could believe that the Board and the Dean were acting in good faith with the good of GTS and its students at heart. I have seen nothing to make me believe that this is so, nor do I see that many of the decisions made in recent years, such as (to name but one example)the destruction of the community environment by the massive building spree on the close, have done anything to further theological education, fiscal health, or the students’ well-being. Rather GTS has been turned, physically and spiritually, into a claustrophobic enclave that discourages free exchange of views and exercise of legitimate disagreement and promotes rancor and distrust. I loved my time at General, despite the fact that it was a time of both austerity and controversy, but I cannot but recognize that the seminary I respected is on its death-bed, after a lingering and unnecessary illness brought on by a lack of imagination and faith. I mourn for its excellent faculty and students, and for the Church.
Requiescat in pace GTS.
The Rev. Dr. Ellen Marie Barrett, MDiv cum laude 1975
Sister Helena, OSB

Philip B. Spivey

First impressions: This letter was written by an attorney, not a spiritual leader.
This letter suggests that the Board and the EC are the “rightful” victims of this controversy.
There can be no reconciliation until the Board and the EC acknowledge their spate of regrettable decisions.

And so I ask: What is the end game here?

Jeremy

More Board navel-gazing.

Lots of academic institutions have had to make major cuts over the past few years. Few of them have had the breakdown that General just experienced.

Why any board would keep an administrator who provoked this kind of crisis is inexplicable–other than as a way of saying to the faculty, “We run this place. You don’t.”

GTS is not a parish and is not amenable to parish-style governance.

Let’s hope that the Association will now start asking tough questions about faculty independence and authority–and thus demonstrate to the Board that the faculty are the heart of an academic institution.

[Jeremy Bates – added by editor]

Anthony Christiansen

As one of my esteemed colleagues has paraphrased the entire letter by +Sisk in such a pithy manner, I will share it with you here:

“It is all their fault- they made us do it.” +Sisk

There is so much dishonesty and torturing of the truth in this letter that one hardly knows where to begin to address it. But a mention of the timetable involved in the very slick alteration of the bylaws without due consideration of the entire community is just one example. And what the bishop more or less admits is that he and the Executive Council took advantage of a crisis in the community to try to bulldoze forward with their radical restructuring of the seminary –which is unconscionable to say the very least. If they want or need in the future to change the way the school operates, that is a project altogether separate from the crisis that initiated this debacle.

And then there is the matter that the bishop and his EC never took the necessary and required steps laid out in canon law (Title IV) and in the school’s own manual of procedures in response to the Dean’s egregious behavior –and of course never showed publicly a single document from the law firm associated with Board members that did its own, very private poking around, no doubt bending to the demands being put forward by the former litigator without an academic doctoral degree that they made both Dean and President.

Finally, it is quite sad to see in the bishop’s own words that the reconciliation initiative is a charade since his letter (carefully vetted by lawyers) indicates that he enters reconciliation with many, many nonnegotiable reservations. As sacramental people we know that these kinds of reservations in a supposed reconciliation process render that process null and void.

The recalcitrance and intransigence of this Board of Trustees in the face of a Church well and widely versed in the facts of this case is simply astounding. And it is a scandal that will continue to wound this Church for many years to come.

Brett Remkus

I do not like the tone of this — it makes it sound as if it is disapproving of those exercising their legal options. Institutions of the Church should be encouraging this. As it reads, it sounds like “we would have been able to help you so much more if you didn’t get those pesky lawyers involved.” NO! We should say, “though it caused us to take more time, we are very glad that the faculty sought legal counsel as it helped clarify our obligations and theirs and helped resolve this situation. We encourage all employees to seek legal assistance when they have any question regarding their legal rights.”

Jeremy

It’s so dangerous when people consult attorneys, isn’t it? People might learn that they have rights and that there are ways to secure those rights.

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