In an unprecedented move, the Dean and President of New York’s General Theological Seminary (GTS), the Rev. Kurt Dunkle, has either accepted the resignations of eight members of the Episcopal seminary’s faculty or flat-out fired them.
Which is it? Depends on which narrative of events you read. What is very clear however, is that several tenured and untenured faculty members at the Episcopal Church’s flagship seminary have been let go, in part because they wanted to meet with the trustees and board about difficulties with working with Dean and President Dunkle.
Dunkle, a lawyer and litigator who went back to seminary at General himself to become a priest, has had a very rocky tenure since becoming Dean and President. The problems that the faculty have had with the dean include the following excerpt of a letter to the board of trustees (posted at safeseminary.org):
He (Dean Dunkle) 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.” And he frequently stresses that the institution should emphasize “normal people.”
There is more, but two that seem especially egregious, if true, are that the dean reportedly told a staff member that he loved “women’s vaginas” and that if she was uncomfortable with that statement, it was her problem. He also reportedly violated FERPA by discussing a student’s educational details in the entire General Seminary email list.
As a result of a limited response to these concerns voiced in a letter to GTS’ Board of Trustees and the Dean, the faculty members in question decided to stop working until they could meet with the board. In a letter dated September 25, 2014, the eight professors said that they would “discontinue teaching and performing all other academic and administrative obligations Starting Friday September 26, 2014. We will not resume these activities until the board acts in good faith to demonstrate that you intend to take action to address our requests.”
Dean Dunkle and the board of trustees decided to take this as a “resignation,” said that they had accepted the resignation of the eight faculty members, and thanked them for their service.
Clearly things have gone off the rails at General Seminary in a spectacular way. Any time faculty members are fired en masse there is certainly a crisis in leadership. Dunkle was a lawyer before he became a priest, but his behavior, and that of the board, seems to indicate that jettisoning the faculty is preferable to negotiating.
Many wonder what the real reasons are for taking such a drastic move. GTS has sold a number of properties in recent years: the grand entry to the seminary that faces Ninth Avenue is now a hotel. Dunkle was hired in the hopes of rebuilding the financial base and stabilizing the seminary, but that has not happened. Now, he is jettisoning the faculty with the approval of the board. The crisis has even brought out Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (who recently announced she was stepping down at the end of her term) who will visit GTS on October 1 to meet with Dunkle and the board. Some however, do not see the visit as a good sign, saying that this represents “the creepy discipline” that the current bishop and her lawyers have imposed on the denomination.
The firings of “the GTS Eight” suggests strongly in my opinion that the dean and the board do not care that they are up for accreditation review in 2015 by the Association of Theological Schools—nor do they care about the students currently in attendance at General. While their stance may be that the faculty did not either, it is clear that the group has tried to have a sustained conversation with the Dean and the board, but been ignored Now the dirty laundry of the seminary is out for the whole denomination and other interested parties to sift through.
If I remember my Reformation history correctly, it was The Act of Supremacy in 1534 that made Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Firing eight faculty members unjustly is not an Act of Supremacy, but an Act of Shame. Perhaps the Board of trustees and Dean Dunkle should ponder the twists and turns of church history before they land definitively on the wrong side of it.