The Associated Press, which had a reporter at yesterday’s chapel service, has filed a report on the controversy at the General Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Jesse Zink has written an essay on the situation for Episcopal Cafe’s Daily Episcopalian blog
The New York Times Sharon Otterman wrote “Seeking Dean’s Firing, Professors End Up Jobless”, including photos of the eight professors:
(New Dean and President The Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle) promised to make the struggling institution a “joyful, thankful and useful” place.
A year after his arrival, however, the seminary has fallen into turmoil. Eight of its 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job on Friday to protest what they described in letters to the school’s board of trustees as Mr. Dunkle’s overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.
The work stoppage, faculty members said, was intended to force a dialogue with the board and, ideally, to lead to the firing of Mr. Dunkle. Instead, the tactic backfired. On Monday, the board dismissed the eight faculty members, leaving the seminary’s roughly 140 students, a month into their term, without professors to teach them.
“It’s a really difficult situation; it’s chaotic,” said Alexander Barton, 26, who entered the seminary this fall. “And as a student, it’s hard to see what is true and what is not.”
Tom Ferguson AKA Crusty Old Dean AKA Dean of Bexley Hall wrote an extensive post: Requiem for a Seminary: Or, Piling Up the Garbage Bags. It’s a complex piece filled with helpful disclaimers about what he will and won’t cover because of his relationships with people on both sides. This point, among many, stood out:
Crusty keeps coming back to the students, caught in the middle of all of this. Seminary is one of the hardest, most anxiety-producing things Crusty ever experienced. One is constantly being assessed and judged, on some of the deepest and most personal elements of one’s life, with absolutely no agency in any of it. COD was once doing a bible study on the Prodigal Son, asking each member to share with whom they identified — the older son, the younger son, or the father, and why. One person had not shared, so Crusty invited her to speak. “No,” she said, “what I have to say is stupid.” Crusty assured her that it was not, and her reflections were as valid as anyone else. “I identify with the Fatted Calf,” she said. “Think about it: the Fatted Calf is the only one in the story that didn’t do anything. The younger son ran off, the older son was resentful, the father gets to be the good guy. The fatted calf was happily eating his slop one day, next thing you know, he’s dead. He suffers because of the decisions others have made.” At the time COD thought, “That may be the most profound insight I’ve ever heard on the parable of the Prodigal Son.” It came back to COD in reflecting on the students at General Seminary: the students are the fatted calf, those who have done nothing to contribute to the situation, but nonetheless the ones who are suffering because of it.
The seminary system is clearly broken, and the GTS situation represents just one pressure point that’s burst. How long will it be, for instance, before students rise up to demand theological education that more fully engages the complex ministry needs of the Church and the world today in the light of ethical and theological reflection? Or, we might wonder when the legions of vulnerable, under-compensated adjuncts, who keep all of postsecondary education afloat, will exercise the power of their numbers and, in the context of religious education especially, demand consistency between expressed moral values and institutional practice. The strategies of disrespect and intimidation that seem to have been central to the character of leadership at GTS may have been exaggerated by the current President and Dean, but they are hardly unique to GTS or to seminaries in general. They permeate the whole of academic culture.
The firings of “the GTS Eight” suggests strongly in my opinion that the dean and the board do not care that they are up for accreditation review in 2015 by the Association of Theological Schools—nor do they care about the students currently in attendance at General. While their stance may be that the faculty did not either, 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.
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.
Mark Silk writes in Religious News Service: “Who the heck do those Episcopalian professors think they are?” (our consensus is that the piece is biting satire).
So I say, in these hard times for mainline Protestant divinity schools, good for the trustees of the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary! When eight of the 11 faculty members at that two-century-old pillar of Lower Manhattan declined to teach and discharge their other duties because they said they couldn’t work with their president-cum-dean, the Very Reverend Kurt Dunkle, the board accepted their “resignations.” Hah! They’ll never have to work with him again.
I’m glad the board did not deign to actually meet with the malcontents, as they had requested during months of bellyaching. To what end? It’s not as if they would do anything but complain about the brave new world of distance divinity learning. Have they no faith in things unseen?