The negotiations at GTS over faculty’s return appear stalled

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In a blogpost just published tonight, the eight forcibly-resigned General Theological Seminary faculty gave the first status update on the negotiations with the Board of Trustees on their reinstatement since these negotiations began approximately a week ago.

According to the statement, negotiations have halted around the idea of an ombudsman.


The faculty requested an independent person from outside the seminary be appointed to hear complaints, should any arise. The board countered with offering a four person panel, made up of trustees, to be chaired by the Rev. Ellen Tillotson.

The entire statement can be found below, received via email:

The GTS Board of Trustees saw fit last Friday to release a statement that prematurely implied our return to the Seminary was imminent. We therefore believe it is necessary to clarify just where we are in the negotiating process.

From the outset, the central issue we have sought to address is the existence of an abusive environment at GTS. This is why we called our Facebook page “Safe Space.” Many of the details have been well-publicized and do not need repeating here.

The Board of Trustees’ unqualified vote of confidence in President and Dean Dunkle understandably raises a concern about whether anything would be different upon our return other than our reduced academic roles and our new status as “provisional.” Our proposed solution to this concern has been for the Board to name an unaligned, objective ombudsperson who would be available to any member of the GTS community who believes he or she has a legitimate complaint. That doesn’t seem like a radical step to us, but on Monday evening the Board’s attorney informed us that this idea was unacceptable.

Rather than name a single impartial person to act as ombudsperson, the Board proposes to appoint a four-person committee of trustees, chaired by the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, to field any complaints. But a month ago, the Rev. Tillotson sharply criticized us in a 1,200-word essay she posted on social media. One of the first trustees to speak out on the dispute, the Rev. Tillotson said she felt “profoundly betrayed” by us, and she falsely accused us of timing our work stoppage to cause as much distress as possible to the GTS students. Her view of the situation has been made crystal clear, and it is not an objective one.

The other point the Board seems to miss is that, despite deciding that there were not sufficient grounds to terminate Dean Dunkle, the complaints we made about him remain, and continue to create a toxic work environment. A four-person committee chaired by an outspoken critic is not going to rectify that problem.

In its Friday public statement, the Board lifted language from an earlier letter we wrote for an entirely different purpose to suggest that in a “joint response” we had thanked the trustees for giving attention “to a long-term process of reconciliation for the entire Seminary community.” There can be no reconciliation as long as students and faculty lack the confidence that their work, their contributions – even their presence – are valued by the President and Dean.

So here is where we really stand in our efforts to return to GTS: We have made a proposal that we consider reasonable and essential, the naming of an ombudsperson, and the Board has rejected it.

We cannot know whether all the trustees are listening to what we say. For the sake of the institution we all love, we pray that they are.

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Harry Merryman
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Harry Merryman

William Hammond: I believe the point has been made in a number of other comments, viz, that in accredited institutions of higher education, when an academic Dean does not lead with the assent of the faculty, it is common for the faculty to ask that she/he step down. Having spent nearly 20 years in both faculty and administrative positions in colleges and universities, including serving on reaccreditation committees, I believe that an institution would have a lot to explain to their accreditors if the faculty and an academic Dean were in serious misalignment.

However in the case of GTS, if I understand the structure, there is both an Academic Dean (Dr. Deidre Good) and a President and Dean (The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle). Though President and Dean Dunkle holds a faculty appointment (like most College and University presidents), he does not teach or directly supervise faculty. The “Dean” in this case is not an academic title, but seems to refer to his position within the clerical hierarchy, equivalent to the dean of a cathedral. It is best, I think, to understand Dunkle as a president, responsible to the BoT for overall direction and administration. Boards of Trustees in higher education do not usually relate directly to the faculty, and normally only indirectly to the academic deans.

Any responsible board would be reluctant to intervene in a dispute between faculty and the president they had chosen and empowered to lead the institution. A board would understand this to be undermining the leadership and authority of the president. They would be even more reluctant if they perceived the complaints as resistance to the direction in which the president, with their support, was steering the institution.

Most of the time in higher education, faculty express their displeasure with leadership and administration by holding votes of no confidence. At GTS, this was effectively accomplished in their 9/17 letter to the Board. However, the faculty then took the extraordinary step of stopping work, even though the Board had begun an investigation of the serious allegations made by the faculty against President Dunkle.

I believe that the Board may understandably have felt that they were being held hostage by the faculty’s actions. To a Board member, it could well have seemed that acceding to the faculty’s demands would have been tantamount to an abdication of the Board’s legitimate role and responsibility. What also may have been paramount in the minds of the Trustees is that students were paying tens of thousands of dollars and not receiving instruction. For reasons having to do with both legitimate roles and responsibilities and finances (i.e., to have the money to pay other faculty to carry on the seminary’s mission), the Board may have reasonably concluded that their only course of action was to let the faculty go.

I agree with you that the Board might better have said that they were firing the faculty for insubordination, as opposed to “accepting” their “resignations.” On the other hand, it would be harder to “walk back” firing people, as opposed to reconsidering resignations. Mind you, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with what was done by either the faculty or the BoT, only trying to broaden peoples’ thinking about context and perspective. I believe the context and the perspective of the Board may have been much more complicated than you have described.

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William Hammond
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William Hammond

Harry Merryman writes: "Perspective-taking (which, I would argue is the precursor to understanding) is hard work and not necessarily our first impulse, especially in the heat of passion or when we feel under attack."

Part of a proper perspective is understanding the context.

In this case the context includes understanding the culture of accredited institutions of higher education and the role of the Faculty in those institutions. Judging from the listed job titles held by the members of the Board, very few of the members are likely to have a robust understanding of the context.

On many questions a dean needs the assent of a majority of the Faculty. It is entirely appropriate for a majority of the Faculty to ask a dean to step down when the Dean insists that his actions in such areas are based on "consultation rather than collaboration".

Against that background the Trustees continuing claim that the GTS8 resigned represents profound ignorance of context for the seminary that is their charge.

It is simply wrong for the Trustees to maintain that the eight resigned and not a matter of the Trustees having a legitimate different perspective.

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Jim Naughton
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Jim Naughton

Harry Merryman, I am sorry I did not respond sooner to your generous comment. I was on planes and in meetings most of yesterday. I agree with you that social media often promotes passion and not the careful use of language. I think that over time one get a feel for this, gets a sense of what to let in and what to filter out, whom one can generally trust and whom one can't. I also suspect that many of the most vociferous commentators on social media undermine their own cause by saying intemperate things. It isn't a perfectly self-regulating medium, but there are some controls in place.

You and I disagree about whether the board should reasonably have expected to find itself in need of a communications strategy after initiating an investigation of the faculty's charges against the dean and then, later, treating the faculty's letter of 9/25 as a resignation. I think this is a thing about which reasonable people can disagree.

I am sure that you can I can manage to be reasonable and kind to one another, and I am thankful for your comments.

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Gary Gilbert
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Gary Gilbert

From the time of Plato, who criticized writing while writing, technology has been denounced as a threat to understanding. The board of trustees at General are wrong to dismiss the core of the seminary, the faculty. This sort of behavior should be denounced everywhere it occurs--regardless of the motives.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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Paul Woodrum
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Paul Woodrum

Jim, it was a general question to all of the above. In much of the discussion it seems we're getting ahead of ourselves by analyzing motivations and power dynamics rather than suggesting solutions. Helpful, perhaps, but perhaps best saved until things settle down and a thorough analysis can be done to help prevent a repeat in the future. If there is a future.

Looking back over several years, In my opinion, since Wylie, the Board has not done a very good job in choosing deans, understanding the times, nor exercising oversight. Sooner or later the growing dysfunction was bound to explode. And here we are.

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