Turmoil at Episcopal Divinity School

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An intense struggle has developed between the administration and faculty at of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., over the seminary’s future. Rather than attempt to summarize the conflict, we offer a link to this letter the Very Rev. James Kowalski, chair of the board of trustees and dean of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, to members and friends of the EDS community.

Please feel free to discuss the situation in the comments.

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Jim Pratt
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Jim Pratt

I am an EDS alum, and the first I heard of this was the email from the Trustees. I am very pleased with the formation I had there, and am saddened by the current state of affairs.

During my time at EDS, I heard occasionally from the faculty about the overthrough of the "dinosaurs" of the previous generation. By all accounts, that transition was not without its pain, but what came of it was a seminary that was vibrant, innovative and played a very important role in the wider church.

Reading the faculty facebook page, which is frank about the problem (declining enrollment and dioceses' steering postulants elswhere) but short on any analysis, and big on process and innuendo but lacking suggested solutions, I can't help but wonder if the faculty have become dinosaurs themselves.

Maybe I am too sympathetic to the Trustees. I have myself recently been elected to the Board of Governors of another seminary, and as such very cognizant of the need for some radical change. Maybe the EDS administration is being too heavy-handed.

As Tom Erlich writes, this is not setting a good example for students, or for the Church, in conflict management.

My prayers for all on both sides.

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brsholl
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brsholl

viewing your Comment

From what the various sources relate, this seems to be a conflict over a hire. The administration seems to have initially granted the search for the position as a tenure-track hire, a long-term hire with security (as long as goals are met by the hire), and then reneged on this agreement for a hire that was contractual.

Cynthia Katseralis points out that tenure serves a "check and balance" function by allowing tenured faculty a determinate say in the future of the institution. This is a fair and important point against administrations that come and go, and might perhaps too quickly decide for arbitrary and panicky changes.

Dennis raises very good points concerning contract labor over the past 25 years in higher ed. He is mostly correct. Colleges and universities have been ending tenure-track lines (hires) for contract labor that is simply disposable. This is a profound disruption to what teaching means and how institutions can be life-giving cultures. I agree with Dennis that adjunct labor is being exploited by colleges and universities for money! This is the truth! However, I don’t think that ending tenure is the solution – this action only empowers the admin to kill with impunity, to expunge, to eradicate others in a whim.

Tenure is not about publication records, or “productivity”, or servility to what the latest yea-sayer has said to power. It’s about minds and relationships, and how we cooperate in love.

We have to be serious about what tenure means. We cannot exploit others.

We have to stop scapegoating one another.

Brian Sholl

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Seems to me that for Episcopal Seminaries whatever they used to do is not working - so why not innovate or at least take a look at what might need changing? I don't think Monti's critique applies in this case.

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The Rev. Michael Cadaret
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The Rev. Michael Cadaret

First, thanks to Marshall for reminding us of the all-too-frequently used fall back position taken when one's position is not persuasive, "you didn't listen." Such is a victim's patronizing - "because if you had REALLY listened, you would have been persuaded." I fold this into Tom Ehrich's remarks of the parallels to leadership conflict in the parish, because so often triagulation/side-taking/scapegoating begin with just this position.

Now, I'm not saying that this is what is happening. I'm not in the EDS community. But all of those alarms go off when I read of the parties working their way into intractable positions.

Second, thank you to Joe Monti for the LePore article. Seems to me that so much "change talk" in the church is reactionary and anxiety laden (and anxiety-causing). Now, I'm not afraid of anxiety - sometimes anxiety is the most appropriate response to what is occurring. However, so much of our "change talk" is driven by anxiety and we end up grasping at straws - straws like the Theory of Disruptive Innovation - that aren't really helpful or applicable to Christian community. To that end, here is my favorite quote from the article:

"Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either...Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors."

Again, I don't know if the Board is grasping at straws or not. But, again my alarms went off reading this article.

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Mark Jenkins
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Mark Jenkins

Here's a link to the article Joe Monti mentions:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/06/23/140623fa_fact_lepore?currentPage=all

Worth a look.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Tom Ehrich comments on what faculty is teaching about conflict resolution - and what seminarians might be learning for their future church positions.

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Jmonti2000
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After reading Board Chairman's James Kowalski letter in re the "Turmoil at Episcopal Divinity School," and noting the influence and accolades of Professor Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School in the Board's approach, readers of the Cafe will be interested in Jill Lepore's critical review in the June 23 "New Yorker" magazine entitled, "The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong."

Joe Monti

Atlanta, GA

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Dan Webster
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Dan Webster

Nearly 20 years ago I recall a discussion in Austin, TX about how there are too many seminaries serving the Episcopal Church. Of course no one has come up with a strategy for seminary education across our church. It will be left to the survival of the fittest. Or richest.

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Marshall Scott
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First, I have no connection with EDS. I have only heard what I have read linked from this page.

Second, I am acutely aware of the changes in the educational context in the Episcopal Church. My diocese is one participating in a regional program that seeks to bring together the best of four diocesan programs, and that is actively preparing folks for ordination. I have observed both good and bad in the non-seminary programs, and have been concerned about both.

So, I find myself with this reflection, applicable on all sides: just because my argument has not been found compelling, it does not mean my argument has not been heard. I often find that hard to remember myself, since I am quite secure that my values are shared (or should be)and that my statements are rational, relevant, and cogent. That doesn't change, though, the central reflection: my argument may have been heard and still not have been found convincing.

I also work in an institutional environment, and have to wrestle with that reality daily. Recognizing that distinction is central in my collaboration on any team, and my function in my organization.

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Miranda Hassett
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Miranda Hassett

Thanks, Ann, for posting some links that give other perspectives.

I am an EDS alum (2008). Others have been following these events much more closely than I, so I won't say much here, but I did want to offer a couple of comments on the Chair of the Board's letter. Firstly, to the (minor) extent that I have been involved - sending messages of support to the faculty and of dismay to the P&D and Board - I got involved because other alums alerted me to the situation, and I reached my own conclusions without anybody prompting, priming, orchestrating or brainwashing me.

I'm also a little troubled by what strikes me as abuse of the concept of triangulation. Is not the Board the body that has authority over the President and Dean? If, say, a member of the choir of my parish had concerns about the leadership of my choir director, then coming to me with those concerns would not be triangulation; it would be appropriate use of institutional structures of authority. All I know about this part of the story is what's contained in the Chair's own letter; but from his own words, it sounds rather like the Board refused to hear the Faculty's concerns.

Collaborative leadership and power-sharing are deep, deep in the DNA of EDS. I wonder whether part of the issue here is a fundamental cultural difference. The Board may think they're being open and collaborative, by the standards of a seminary board, while not coming anywhere near the standards of openness and collaboration honored as ideals at EDS.

I am deeply proud of the seminary from which I graduated in 2008. I don't know what to think of the seminary that sits at the same address today - except that I still love, honor, and trust the professors who taught me. (Dennis: I won't address your overall argument, but be assured, EDS is most certainly not the sort of institution where a tenured professor can rest on her laurels, recycle lectures and let graduate students do all the heavy lifting.)

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Cynthia Katsarelis
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Cynthia Katsarelis

I don't know much about EDS, I just wish them well.

My partner is an academic and tenure is a vital part of a quality education. Academic freedom is absolutely crucial, and upper administrations will always try to find a way to put the kibosh on it. Threat of lawsuits, suspensions, firings, etc., happen even with tenure. All it takes is for one donor to complain… The next thing you know, teaching about rape in a graduate level sociology course entitled "Deviant Sexual Behavior" becomes a problem. I didn't completely make that up.

Tenure may be a luxury offered in few professions, but that is one that is vital. Otherwise we drift towards "Animal Farm."

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Connie
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Connie

From my point of view as a parish priest, the level of dysfunction here seems to mirror the conflicts that are killing so many of our congregations. It's curious to think that "re-visioning" is urgently required because of shrinking numbers of Episcopalians (and thus a dramatically reduced need for traditional clergy education)-- yet one reason for that decline is this very kind of behavior and the inability or unwillingness of leaders to break the logjam in situations like this. People outside the church observe our behavior and when they see stuff like this they run, not walk, in the opposite direction.

Connie Clark

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

And a closed group you can join if you are a student or faculty here.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Here are the faculty letters and thoughts.

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TheWebRev
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I received a copy of this letter, apparently sent to all alumni. To me, it raises a question. This letter is clearly one side of a story. Before any rush to judgment, could we not see all sides? I am praying that the whole of the EDS community can come together and speak with one another openly about their concerns.

The Rev. Rebeca Black. (added by editor)

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

The actions of the faculty are described here.

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Paul Woodrum
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Paul Woodrum

Sounds like it has little to do with transparency and everything to do with security -- that unique faculty privilege of tenure that, excepting the clergy, is unknown in most other professions.

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