Faculty fears of returning to a “toxic work environment” at General Theological Seminary have stalled negotiations aimed at reinstating eight professors mired in a month-long labor dispute.
Professors are insisting that before they return to classrooms, a neutral person must be in place to buffer their communications with GTS Dean and President Kurt Dunkle, whom they accuse of crude language about “women, non-white cultures, and the LGBT community.” After an investigation, the seminary’s board of trustees reaffirmed its support of Dean Dunkle and rebuffed faculty calls for him to be fired.
“If they’re going to retain him, the least they could do is provide us a neutral party to deal with him,” said the Rev. Amy Bentley Lamborn, who speaks for the group, in an interview with TLC. “We’re holding out for the neutral intermediary. And we’ve got other issues with other parts of the proposed agreement.”
The other affected GTS faculty members are Joshua Davis, the Rev. Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, Deirdre Good, David Hurd, Andrew Irving, the Rev. Andrew Kadel, and the Rev. Patrick Malloy.
On October 27 the board reportedly shot down the professors’ demand for an intermediary, According to a faculty press release, the board came back instead with an alternative that the faculty finds unacceptable: a four-person panel of trustees, led by the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, whom the faculty regard as highly critical of their cause.
“The complaints we made about [Dunkle] remain, and continue to create a toxic work environment,” the October 27 statement said. “A four-person committee chaired by an outspoken critic is not going to rectify that problem.”
Tensions reached a boiling point in September when faculty launched a work stoppage to draw attention to their concerns about Dunkle. The board interpreted their actions as indications that they had resigned and voted to accept their resignations. The eight professors, who represent 80 percent of the faculty, quickly said they had not resigned and intended to stay in their roles.
Negotiations for reinstatement began October 24. The board offered terms that would put all eight faculty members to work provisionally through the end of the current academic year. On the table is the expectation that they would join in common meals and common worship while working to resolve all outstanding issues with the board.
The current impasse comes as faculty share new details about the roots of the current imbroglio.
Lamborn, who teaches pastoral theology, told TLC that Dunkle routinely uses sexual metaphors such as “get in bed together” or “pulling the sheets down” for institutional relationships. She said he urges people to “rub up against each other” to develop better working relationships.
In a recent contract negotiation, Lamborn said, she asked for an example of what it would mean to be “fired for cause.”
“He said, ‘What if you and [your husband] decided you wanted to have a lover, take your lover into your marriage, and have your lover live in your apartment with you? That’s a reason I would fire you for cause,’” she said. “What’s inappropriate is to give an example that is so personal and so sexual, when what you constantly hear from this man is very sexualized comments.”
Lamborn said that when she objected to Dunkle’s comments he replied that she was being too sensitive and suggested she was apparently no longer happy working at GTS.
Dunkle did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Lamborn’s allegations. He has previously referred press inquiries to Chad Rancourt, the seminary’s communications director, who also did not respond. Dunkle wrote a general response to allegations on October 3.
“There are three categories of things the eight faculty allege: (1) things that I said and I stand behind them; (2) things which are so contorted, misquoted, or detached from context that they are repeated in a ‘false light’; and (3) things which are just not true,” Dunkle wrote.
In its October 24 announcement, the board indicated that it was offering to reinstate faculty “in a spirit of reconciliation and healing for the entire Seminary community” and that an outside meditator would help with reconciliation.
Faculty members have said they welcome the board’s proposal to use a Mennonite group to help with reconciliation, but they also want a neutral intermediary in place so they will not have to deal with Dunkle directly.
Lamborn said professors are being asked to comply with seminary bylaws that violate Association of Theological Schools standards. She said professors are also keeping open the option of suing to keep their jobs with no changes to contractual terms.
Even if an agreement can be reached, she said, it would be “challenging” for her to teach in a setting led by Dunkle.
“I have found it difficult to teach pastoral theology since Kurt has arrived, to some extent, because he likes happiness,” Lamborn said. “He doesn’t like or show a lot of regard for struggle or for a kind of Good Friday experience of naming what’s wrong. He wants to skip right over Good Friday to Easter. And in pastoral care and counseling, you deal with a lot of people who aren’t there.”
As of October 27, lawyers were handling all communication between the two sides.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Image of the Close at General Theological Seminary by Beyond My Ken (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons