From the Sidelines: General Theological Seminary

This week, Episcopal Café should have been dominated by the efforts of “reimagining” the Episcopal Church, and the meeting held on 2 October at the Washington National Cathedral to set forth some of the findings and recommendations.  Instead, it has become the go-to online vehicle for airing the dirty laundry of the General Theological Seminary.

Given that I am not directly connected with the institution, am personally acquainted with only one of the players, and only casual friends with a very few of their alumni/ae, it is safe to say I don’t have a dog in this fight. However, it’s out there on social media, and has even made the New York Times. Despite a plea from the alumni/ae association that all parties to the conflict refrain from further discussion in such venues, it’s out there.  The “striking” faculty have launched a website to make their grievances known, as well as a Facebook page and Twitter account (links from the website). At the time of my writing this post, the most recent “tweet” was 16 minutes earlier.

Apparently, the “striking” faculty do not intend to honor the request of their former students–who are also the most likely people to donate money and to act as fundraising conduits for the institution.  As a former nonprofit administrator, that seems a little self-destructive to me, but that is beside the point.

As I said on my own Facebook page yesterday, there are only two classes of blameless parties in the conflict:  the students whose educational process is being disrupted, and the minority of faculty members who are continuing (for whatever reasons) to perform their duties. By playing their dramas out on the Internet, all of the other parties (“striking” faculty, trustees, the Dean and President) have chosen to escalate the conflict rather than to step back and look for ways to move toward a better working relationship.

Now, as we all know, I’m a bit of a social media klutz, as the comments on a Facebook profile picture indicate (click on the very first link in the essay, and you’ll see that in this regard I am not “teach-able”–must be true, it came from an expert).  I think, especially for institutions in the public eye, you need to be careful about what you put online, especially about internal conflicts.  Frederick Schmidt has made some insightful comments about just how many people might now know about the turmoil at GTS. You can’t get much more public than the New York Times.  Well, you can, but only if something is really photogenic.  Seminary professors not doing their jobs is not something that makes good visuals, so it probably isn’t going to hit cable television in a big way.

I have some further concerns than just the numbers of people who may have seen these stories (and formed opinions), however, that need discussing. In no particular order, then.

My sympathies right now lie with the non-striking faculty.  They are in the horrible position of trying to do their jobs, and risking losing the trust of their striking colleagues (should those colleagues be reinstated).

I have trouble with the issuing of an ultimatum, which is precisely what the faculty did.  A number of friends in the legal profession have a habit of issuing advice:  if you’re not really willing to be divorced, don’t threaten divorce.  The same applies to the words published here:

. . . we must respectfully inform you that if Dean Dunkle continues in his current position, then we will be unable to continue in ours

Now, I agree that the attitudes and behaviors which form much of the basis of the striking faculty’s complaints, if indeed true, are entirely unacceptable in an institution whose purpose is to train and form prospective ordained ministers.  If the letter outlining the complaint accurately describes the Dean’s words and attitudes, it is clear that this person is not fit to lead a 21st century seminary:

 his references to women, non-white cultures, and the LGBT community are absolutely inimical to the commitments of our church.  He once described Asian transit passengers in the San Francisco Bay area as “slanty-eyed.”  In a large community meeting last spring, he compared the technical side of theological education to “looking up women’s skirts.”  Before several faculty members and students, he spoke, as an obvious act of intimidation, of how “black people can do such interesting things with their hair,” a comment about which students complained. On several occasions he has stated that General Seminary should not be “the gay seminary.”

he once commented that he “loved vaginas” to a female faculty member during a meeting. When told that the comment was inappropriate and unwelcome, he claimed that the discomfort was her problem. When people have complained about such improper comments and have asked him to desist, Dean Dunkle has more than once responded with intimidating and threatening remarks pertaining to individuals’ job security. Indeed, threats to job security are a consistent and frequent part of Dean Dunkle’s communication with us.

It is hard to argue that sexist, racist language, intimidation, and ridicule are inappropriate.  (I’m still wondering about the comment about “looking up women’s skirts”, and what that might mean.)  But for a proper complaint to be issued, this has to be documented and substantiated in some way.  There is mention that students had complained–that needs to be verified.  Written complaints, detailing the student or staff member(s) to whom these remarks were addressed, and witnessed by others, would go a long way toward credibility.  Students preparing for ordination are not children–the youngest would be graduates of a four-year university, and thus are competent to state their complaints directly to the Board of Trustees.  If they are not, we have a bigger problem concerning the quality of people selected as future leaders in the church, as well as the juvenilizing effects of the ministry training process (of which I have been complaining since I started seminary in 1993). Both of those issues need addressing.

Nonetheless, you can’t just issue an ultimatum such as “if he stays, we go”, and be surprised that, prior to completing the full investigative and perhaps corrective process (during which it might not be possible for the Board to dismiss the Dean), you are told, “okay, nice knowing you.” And you really can’t turn around and say you didn’t intend to resign, or that a resignation wasn’t tendered.  If you don’t do your job, you really can be dismissed.  You stated clearly under what conditions you would leave; those are the conditions that are in place.

But there is a deeper question about the appointment of a seminary dean.  Although it has nothing to do with Kurt Dunkle personally,  the complaints and his own profile on the seminary’s webpage raise the question and illustrate the concern.

What are the necessary qualifications and qualities that a person must have to exercise this particular ministry?

The current Dean of GTS is a former lawyer, who had barely more than a decade of experience as an ordained cleric in the Episcopal Church before assuming the principal staff position in what has been hailed as the flagship seminary of his denomination. His theological qualifications do not exceed the minimum requirement for ordination; he has no experience of higher education, either in teaching or administration.

It is hard to say by what measure the Trustees (and General Convention) assessed the fitness of a person without experience relevant to the task of running an institute of higher education saw fit to make this appointment.  Perhaps there is a need for clear, church-wide criteria for what the dean of any Episcopal seminary must have in place prior to appointment.  Although such a position is not included, the TEAC ministry grids might be an intelligent model to adopt in developing such a set of lucid, rational, and publicly accessible requirements.

But finally, the public airing of the conflict is the most problematic issue. Now that so many incompatible viewpoints have appeared in the media, with so many agendas–both hidden and explicit–it may not be entirely possible to conduct fair and unbiased assessments.  Worst of all, with the “winner take all” attitudes displayed, the lack of ability or desire to compromise or to behave with dignity in the face of admittedly extremely difficult circumstances, and the disregard by several parties for the welfare of the students (and by extension of the wider church whom they will serve), the dispute is now open for those outside the church to see and decide that if this is what it means to be “Christian”, it’s something better left alone.  The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not true in this case.

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