October 1, 2014

The GTS 8 and the Michaelmas Massacre

By now, many readers are aware of recent events at The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary. For those who do not, I will recount a brief summary of what has been happening at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and follow that with a few personal observations.

GTS logo
GTS Logo
On Friday, September 26, 2014, eight faculty members of GTS told students via e-mail that “we will not be teaching, attending meetings, or attending common worship”  until the Board of Trustees responds to a “serious conflict” to which the professors were seeking resolution. Another message later in the day clarified the earlier, rather cryptic one. The distressed teachers—I will call them the GTS 8, a designation being used elsewhere, though not universally—wrote, in part,
Simply put, the working environment that the Dean and President has created has become unsustainable. Moreover, the good faith with which we have communicated these dire circumstances to the Board of Trustees has not, thus far, met with an equally serious response. For example our work stoppage could be ended immediately if the Board of Trustees would commit to meeting with us for a frank discussion of these serious matters, as previously requested.
The “Dean and President” is the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, a GTS graduate who has been on the job about a year.

What has become clear is that conflict between dean and faculty has been long simmering and finally reached the boiling point last week. The GTS 8 view the new dean as an autocrat who makes decisions without consulting with his faculty or taking their concerns seriously and who does not articulate the thinking behind those decisions.

The work stoppage of the GTS 8 did not have the desired effect. Neither the dean nor the Board of Trustees gave any indication that the request for a meeting with the trustees was given genuine consideration. Instead, on Monday, September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the GTS 8 were summarily fired, or as Dunkle described it, their resignations were accepted. No resignations were tendered, however, although the GTS 8 did call the working environment created by Dunkle “unsustainable.” Meanwhile, the Michaelmas Massacre—thanks to Paige Baker who help me come up with this name—shows no sign of being undone.

A more complete chronology, with appropriate links, can be found in the summary I wrote for Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh’s news blog, Pittsburgh Update. You can find that here. The GTS 8 now have a Web site, Facebook page, and Twitter account, all of which are linked to in the Pittsburgh Update piece. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with all that is being written about the situation at GTS and about the Michaelmas Massacre.

Observations

I was appalled when I learned of the firings at GTS. Not only did they seem like an overreaction, particularly in light of the failure of the Board of Trustees to even listen to the concerns of the GTS 8, but also they left the seminary with only three regular faculty members plus the dean and president. (The school does have a number of adjunct faculty.) Kunkle has suggested that provisions will be made for teaching all courses by this weekend, presumably be increasing the teaching load on the faculty who are left and bringing in additional adjuncts. As a friend of mine observed, however, would you want to begin teaching in the current GTS environment?

Admittedly, the work stoppage was a radical step, but it appears to be one taken out of frustration and desperation that had been building for a year. The action was taken with the advice of counsel, presumably someone well versed in labor law. The Board of Trustees seems to have been offended at the audacity shown by the GTS 8 in seeking an improved working environment by bypassing the dean and president.

Little of substance has been heard from either Kunkle or the Board of Trustees. No doubt, they realize that the less they say, the better, for, unless they change their tune, they will almost certainly be sued. Their silence is in contrast to the overwhelming support for the fired faculty on social media. Those who seemingly support the action of the Board of Trustees have advised that the rest of us do not know all the facts. That is surely true. On the other hand, when the majority of the faculty at a school is willing to go on strike without the benefit of a union, that very fact is prima facie evidence of serious problems at the school. That the faculty is so upset is a problem, irrespective of the reasons for their discontent, even if those reasons are unjustified.

Episcopalians might have expected that conflict at our most venerable seminary would be met with attempts at reconciliation. (Don’t we talk a lot about reconciliation?) Instead, the concerns of the GTS 8 were ignored and the professors were met with the naked power of the Board of Trustees. What a wonderful Christian witness!

Little has been heard from GTS students. No doubt many are thinking they came to the wrong seminary and are concerned about whether they will receive the education they signed up for. I suspect that they are also concerned that, if they protest the faculty firings or Kunkle’s management style, they, too, will be fired. Graduates of GTS are not so constrained, and the following letter from recent graduates that was posted on Facebook today:
Dear Bishop Sisk and the Board of Trustees:

We greet you from across the nation; we greet you in the midst of the good, good work God has called us to, but we greet you with heavy hearts as we read news from General. We know some of you well, but we know the faculty deeply, and our hearts break at this schism in the seminary. Having been students at other recent moments of crisis for General, we know well the potential this community has for finding common ground in the face of division. In our own time, the faculty supported us with great courage and love, and we hope to live into the example of our Lord, who is reconciling all things to God.

In the past four days we’ve seen accusations formal and informal thrown from one side to the other, and we are deeply worried that this division will have dramatic consequences for the future of General. We are looking for visible signs of Christian mediation in good faith, and have not found them. Each side seems to have taken an irreconcilable stance against the other, though they both profess their willingness to meet and be flexible. As the Trustees, you have the highest stature in the system at this point, and so, as loving alumni and alumnae of General, we urge you to find a way to mediate this conflict quickly. Meeting with all the faculty together – separate from the Dean – will show your intention to take steps in good faith, even if some of their demands seem untenable at first request. Meeting with the faculty together will also show your willingness to take responsibility for a situation that the two sides seem unwilling or unable to fix. We worry that letting this conflict entrench is leading to a loss of trust in the institution, and will further compromise the trust of current and future students.

We speak out of deep love, and we speak out of deep respect. We also speak out of Christian authority; as leaders of the Church, we need you to fulfill your obligation to the future of the seminary.

Matthew 18:15-17 seems to be brought out in every church conflict. We remember Jesus’ final words in the passage: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” We understand that some of you feel your trust and good faith has been compromised. Yet even the Gentiles and tax-collectors found favor and reconciliation at the table with the Lord. We urge you towards a similarly-inspired charity. We urge you not to write off one side of this conflict for the other. We urge you to creatively and willingly engage this conflict in order to secure the future of the seminary.

With loving, broken hearts,

The Class of 2012

Including:
The Rev. Chris Ballard
The Rev. Rebecca Barnes
The Rev. Greg Brown
The Rev. Cathy Carpenter
The Rev. Colin Chapman
The Rev. Amy Cornell
The Rev. Jeff Evans
The Rev. Howard Gillette
The Rev. Jadon Hartsuff
The Rev. Jean Hite
The Rev. James Joiner
The Rev. Brad Jones
The Rev. Cathy Kerr
The Rev. Suzanne LeVesconte
The Rev. Renny Martin
The Rev. Sandra McLeod
Mr. Adam McCluskey
The Rev. Joe Mitchell
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery
The Rev. Jean Mornard
Mr. Michael Mornard
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
The Rev. Linda Racen
The Rev. Andrew Reinholz
The Rev. Sam Tallman
The Rev. Keith Voets
The Rev. Ben Wallis
There is no need for me to say more than that.

7 comments:

  1. This was posted a little while ago on Facebook by Patrick Malloy:

    Dear friends,

    We, variously referred to as the GTS8 and the Michaelmas8, are gathered in the conference room of a law office on the 43rd floor of a Midtown skyscraper. The Trustees have asked us to be interviewed by their counsel, and we are waiting to be called in one-by-one for, it seems, 2-hour interviews.

    Last night, we found ourselves in another law office being interviewed by a reporter for the New York Times.

    We would not have imagined any of this even days ago.

    At the end of our evening with the Times writer, we asked the reporter -- who seems to have the ear of the Board -- to convey to them that we are not only willing but also eager to have a conversation. We see this as a good-faith effort, and we are hoping that the conversation can be scheduled even today and held soon. We long for a resolution.

    In the meantime, your care for us and for the future of the Seminary are comfort and sustenance. Thank you.

    Josh
    Mitties
    Deirdre
    David
    Andrew
    Drew
    Amy
    Pat

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  2. One more thought: Change invariably elicits resistance. In most instances, a leader who wants to implement significant change—Dunkle seems to be such a leader—needs to work at getting buy-in from stakeholders who will be affected by the change. Perhaps this wasn’t needed by Joseph Stalin, but it is usually required by leaders of professionals, seminary deans, for example. A leader who ignores this requirement is, quite simply, a poor leader.

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  3. This seminary, like most, has enough problems. I think both the Dean and the GTS8 get an "F" for their handling of this dispute. I hope they reconcile. If they don't the bottom line is, save for evidence of illegal discrimination or reconsideration of the administration, the GTS8 are looking for new jobs. New York, like Pennsylvania is an "employment at will" state.

    Geoff Hurd

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  4. I had been wondering why The New York Times was not covering the GTS story. Well, it has now, and its story is very helpful. You can read it here.

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  5. Another must-read commentary is from Tom Ferguson, AKA Crusty Old Dean: “Requiem for a Seminary: Or, Piling Up the Garbage Bags.”

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  6. The "GTS 8" have not been honest with the students. They demanded much more than a meeting. Ask to see the letter they sent to the board, including their list of demands.

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    Replies
    1. Terrry, the students know at least as much as you and I do at this point. Details of the conflict came out quickly, though I’m sure there is more relevant information that has not become public.

      I assume the letter you are referring to is that of September 14. Admittedly, it is strongly worded and, if taken literally, could be taken to mean that unless the five demands are granted, the GTS 8 would resign.

      In reality, the faculty members were frustrated and disheartened, and they were trying to communicate to the Board of Trustees just how desperate they believed the situation at GTS to be. I very much doubt that they believed that the board would immediately grant everything they asked for. Significantly, they didn’t set a deadline. They wanted to be heard and treated like the professionals they are. Their letter was an opening gambit.

      How might reasonable and responsible board members have been expected to react to such a letter? I suggest that the first thought that might have come to mind would be something like, “Holy shit, we have a crisis on our hands, and we had better deal with it immediately.” Instead, the response was more like, “Who do these sons of bitches think they are? Dunkle is our man, and we’re going to back him to the hilt.”

      A seminary faculty is not a group of darkies on a plantation. Tell me who appear to be the more exemplary Christians in this tragic drama, the GTS 8 or the Board of Trustees?

      Delete

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