April 24, 2015

Don’t Take General Convention Reports at Face Value

I am not the only Episcopalian gobsmacked by the report to the General Convention by the Board of Trustees of the General Theological Seminary.

GTS Shield
The two-page report paints an encouraging picture of a seminary emerging from financial difficulties and implementing an innovative program that will better prepare men and women for ordained roles in The Episcopal Church, while at the same time easing the financial burden of a first-class seminary education. General Convention deputies should be pleased and move along to more pressing matters of business, right?

The reality, of course, is that the General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church has been in chaos since the beginning of the academic year and, in the opinion of many, its continued existence after nearly two centuries is in doubt. (For readers for whom this is news, this story will give you some idea of what has been going on at the church’s oldest seminary. See Google for other stories and perspectives.)

The main body of the GTS Board of Trustees’ report is under one thousand words long, about a page and a half. About 13% of the report recounts the history of the seminary. A bit more than 19% concerns “A Plan to Choose Life,” which is mostly about the improved financial health of the seminary. Somewhat short of half the report (about 44%) concerns a new program, The Way of Wisdom and The Wisdom Year. This is described as a growing success. One paragraph concerns the hiring of  the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle as Dean and President, which contributes about 10% of the report. A final paragraph addresses the upcoming 200th anniversary of the seminary and its readiness for the next 200 years (another 6%). The final 6% of the report, arguably, alludes to the troubles besetting GTS in the current academic year:
Under Dean Dunkle’s leadership, General Seminary is addressing, head-on, the changing world and the changing Church. This rapid reshaping has not been without some disruption—change is always painful, but it is essential to ensure the viability of General. We know that others in the seminary system are struggling with many of the same issues.
Additionally, in the final paragraph, there is also a reference to “working through disruptions that result from rapid change.”.

In fact, most of the faculty went on strike, intending to form a union, because the new Dean and President was viewed as an insensitive autocrat who acts more like a shift manager at McDonald’s than an academic administrator. No mention is made of faculty members being fired for their efforts and rehired, less tenure, for the remainder of the academic year. Nothing is said about the faculty members who are leaving or might leave. The report is silent about the fact that, despite pleas from students, alumni, and interested Episcopalians, the Board of Trustees continues to assert its complete confidence in Dean Dunkle.

The Board of Trustees, which has, I think, acted with even less integrity and common sense than has Dean Dunkle in the faculty fracas, produced a report that does not simply put a happy face on a bad situation. Instead, the report intentionally misrepresents reality and misleads General Convention deputies. It is as if there was a nuclear war and a report on the past year failed to mention it. This is hardly the sort of behavior one expects from a church board.

The General Convention elects certain members of the General Theological Seminary board. It should take a vote of no confidence in the current members of the board and request their resignation. It should elect members to the board with academic experience, preferably, but not exclusively, in seminaries.

It is clear from the GTS report that deputies should not take reports it receives at face value. I, for one, will lose a good deal of faith in the governance of this church if deputies do not challenge the GTS Board of Trustees and take some action directed at assuring that the General Seminary of The Episcopal Church does, in fact, last to its 200th year and beyond.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you, Lionel, for your commentary on the GTS report to General Convention. The conflicting narratives - Dean and BoT vs. Faculty and Alumni/ae - have, from the beginning, left me scratching my head. However, to raise questions among many alumni/ae and not take 110% of the faculty's side is to invite from some of those alumni/ae public ridicule, shaming and bullying, including ridiculous charges that the questions indicate a desire to see GTS "destroyed".

    And yet, questions need to be raised in the details of both narratives, including the one in the GTS report to General Convention. Indeed, this report raises the question: Is there is a parallel universe at Chelsea Square in Lower Manhattan? I'm sure the writers of this report are, in fact, optimistic about the future of this seminary. It would have been good to have included some facts to support their claim - not simply airbrush a portrait of a very painful time in the life of a seminary and the church.

    So, it is with great trepidation that I ask you to clarify something. You write: "In fact, most of the faculty went on strike, intending to form a union . . .". I've always read that the faculty had, in fact, "formed a union". Did they or didn't they? The letter from some alumni/ae to the Attorney General of the State of NY, asking him to investigate the seminary's administration, states, "Last fall, faced with a protest by eight distinguished members of the faculty who formed a union . . . .".

    Was it a "protest" or a "strike"? Were they a "union" or "intending to form a union"?

    From my own past experiences as well as being a member of a labor union organizing family, taking action while "intending" to form a union vs. taking action as a union is an important distinction. It certainly explains some of the actions of the board. If the faculty did, in fact, form a union, then this is clearly a concern, especially in the State of NY.

    Thanks for allowing me the sense of safety to ask this question and know that I will get an honest, thoughtful answer. I join so many others in praying for everyone involved in GTS - BoT, Dean, Faculty, Staff, Seminarians and Alumni/ae. I also pray for the future of the school, even as I give thanks for its great legacy of contributing leaders to TEC.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your thoughtful comment and question.

      The GTS-8 certainly talked about forming a union. Whether they actually did or not I cannot say, as I am not a labor lawyer. They seem to have taken some steps to form a union, but I do not know if the legal process of labor union formation was completed.

      The faculty wrote:
      [W]e wish to advise the members of the Board of Trustees that we have exercised our lawful right to organize collectively by establishing The General Theological Seminary Faculty Union. We have ratified bylaws, elected officers and have initiated the process of registering our Union with all necessary governmental authorities. We have also retained legal counsel. Any further negotiations of these matters will be through our Union and in consultation with our attorney.

      Whether what the faculty members did was an “action” or a “strike” hinges on facts I do not know and laws I do not understand. I suspect that an official union was not formed—registration seems not to have been completed—and the work stoppage was not a strike. I am willing to be corrected, however. I’m sorry I cannot offer a more definitive opinion.

      Was the action of the board unlawful or merely stupid? As far as the church is concerned, I’m not sure that it matters.

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    2. Thanks, Lionel. I only bring up the distinction b/c it helps, in my mind anyway, to understand some of the actions of some of the players in this horrible tragedy. Unfortunately, certain actions have certain consequences, on both sides of the narrative. And we, as the church, are concerned about it all because it does matter.

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