By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Turmoil has engulfed General Theological Seminary as trustees say a majority of the faculty has quit. But the professors say they were merely on strike as they protested what they called, in an open letter to students, bullying behavior by the seminary’s dean and president.

In a statement released September 30, General’s Board of Trustees said it had accepted resignations from eight of the school’s 11 faculty members. The seminary will seek replacements for the dismissed professors.

“The board came to this decision with heavy hearts,” the statement said. “It has become clear that this is the best path forward in educating our students and shaping them into leaders of the church.”

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But the situation is far from resolved. The board left the door open for possible reinstatement of faculty interested in “reconsidering the resignation.”

Tensions ramped up last week when the eight professors announced they would no longer teach, attend meetings, or join community worship until the board addressed long-standing and pressing issues.

In a letter to students, they accused the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, dean and president, of making “colleagues and students feel bullied rather than empowered to contribute.” He has created an “unsustainable” work environment, they said.

“Please know that we are not referring to off-hand remarks, or that we are overly concerned with ‘political correctness,’” the eight wrote. “Rather we refer to a number of very serious incidents and patterns of behavior which have over time caused faculty, students, and staff to feel intimidated, profoundly disrespected, excluded, devalued, and helpless.”

Dean Dunkle did not respond to requests for comment. The board said it is conducting an internal investigation of allegations against him, adding, “We encourage everyone to withhold any further judgment or comment.”

All eight were present at an emotional afternoon meeting September 29 at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, said the Rev. Jennifer Reddall, who attended the meeting. She said faculty told a supportive gathering of GTS students that they have formed a union and are not stepping down.

“They were shocked and grieving,” said Reddall, a GTS alumna and rector of Church of the Epiphany in New York. “There were tears among the students. There were tears among the faculty.”

Students greeted their professors with a standing ovation, Reddall said. They listened as faculty read aloud two of their collectively signed letters to the board and one response from the board.

The letters from faculty reportedly listed grievances adding up to a hostile work environment, including claims that Dunkle made racist, sexist, or anti-gay and lesbian comments. They said he failed to honor academic confidences by discussing student evaluations in the refectory.

“They gave several specific examples,” Reddall said, though she declined to repeat them. “The allegations they made were met by the student body with gasps and shock.”

Turmoil at General comes one year into Dunkle’s presidency, which has been marked by ambitions to make the seminary more efficient and to close what he has called an unsustainable budget deficit. Dunkle has been exploring how Episcopal seminaries can cut costs by sharing services. He’s overseen a cutback in liturgical life at the seminary, with fewer gatherings for Eucharist. He’s also leading an effort to make Master of Divinity candidates into 20-hour-a-week parish employees in their third year.

Dunkle came to General from a Florida parish, where he served as rector and used business-world methods to “increase the sales of Jesus Christ” and expand the church’s membership. He’s now pushing for a more businesslike environment at the seminary, and some of his most provocative ideas have big implications for faculty.

“Does tenure mean lifetime employment? I don’t believe it would in the future,” Dunkle told TLC in a June interview, touching on a sensitive issue for faculty everywhere. “I would be very surprised if that version of lifetime employment without consequence continues. We’re just beginning to look at that, but everything is on the table — everything.”

When faculty have tenure, they can lose their jobs only by resigning or by being dismissed for cause, which must be affirmed by a panel of peers at their institution, said Greg Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance at the American Association of University Professors. He said disputes about whether a faculty member has resigned have in the past triggered AAUP committee investigations.

“These investigation committee reports, since they tend to lay bare all, can be very embarrassing for an institution,” Scholtz said. “Some institutions, we’ve found, are willing to work on resolutions with us for these problems in order to avoid an investigation and ultimate censure.”

This week, about half of General’s classes are not meeting because of the faculty standoff, but the administration aims to have all classes meeting again by next week. General has about 100 students.

“Our location in the heart of New York City affords us access to a wide range of resources, and we shall be drawing upon those resources to address any needs created by these resignations,” the board statement said.

Meanwhile, others hope a resolution can be found to restore the protesting faculty members to classrooms at General.

“General is able to really uniquely form leaders for the world, to form priests, and to form lay leaders,” Reddall said. “It’s going to lose that opportunity if everybody doesn’t take a step back, take a breath, and say, ‘Okay, let’s find a different way.’”

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

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