General Theological Seminary board refuses to rescind faculty sackings

By staff writers
October 18, 2014

The future of General Theological Seminary (GTS), the flagship Episcopal Church seminary in New York, is still in doubt tonight after its Board of Trustees ignored pleas from across the world to reinstate sacked faculty members.

Supporters of the eight professors – who were told they had resigned after a work stoppage and letter to press long-term complaints about alleged abusive behaviour by the seminary's new Dean and President – have expressed distress, dismay and anger at the actions of the GTS Board, its managing body.

They complain that the Board and its chair, Bishop Mark Sisk, have not followed due process or key elements of the seminary's own guidelines. They say they have effectively ignored requests for a just settlement from 1,200 scholars who have indicated that they are boycotting GTS, and from 1,600 people who have signed a reinstatement petition in the course of the last few days, as well as many others.

The GTS Board commissioned what it regards as "an independent report" and the advice of the Board’s Chancellor into the allegations against the Very Rev Kurt Dunkle, the President and Dean. However, this report has not yet been made publicly available, the complainants were summarily dismissed, and their request for a suspension of the Dean and thorough investigation involving those directly impacted was rejected.

After meetings over the past two days, the GTS Board of Trustees, who include senior representatives of the Episcopal Church, declared: "We reaffirm our call to him as President and Dean and offer him our continuing support", adding a call for "reconciliation".

The professors, eight of eleven faculty members, remain terminated from their posts by the Board. They have lost tenure and have had accommodation and health insurance imperilled. One is left with a significant visa issue. Supporters have launched a solidarity fund to assist them, which currently stands just short of $40,000.

In the GTS Board's official statement of 17 October 2014, its executive committee has been declared "ready to meet next week to hear requests of any of the eight former faculty members for reinstatement and to negotiate the terms of their provisional employment for the remainder of the academic year.”

However, the formulation of this offer requires each professor to seek terms individually. Their collective case is thereby denied. There are also serious residual questions about the legal status of their dismissal, the withdrawal of permanent employment, the treatment of workers who formed a labour union, the meaning of 'provisional' in relation to rehiring, and the kind of conditions and restrictions which may apply.

Questions have also been raised about the qualifications and suitability of replacement staff hastily hired by the institution, and the implications of this for the contract with seminary students in terms of academic and pastoral formation. The Board has claimed that the replacements are adequate "to the best of our knowledge".

The fired professors were present at the GTS meeting on Friday, where the announcement about the Board's position was made. They decided to hold silence to reflect on a response "in the spirit of the Church" after Bishop Sisk deemed that a reply from sacked workers at the meeting was "unnecessary".

The Board statement also called strongly for "greater accountability, repentance, reconciliation and healing" from everyone at GTS. But supporters of the faculty are asking what this can mean when professors remain dismissed while the Dean is absolved.

General Theological Seminary, a historic and front-rank institution in the life of the Church, has suffered considerable financial problems in recent years.

Some have suggested that the Board's recent actions may be a stepping-stone in plans to close it, noting that they made no specific reference to plans beyond the existing academic year in their statement.

A respondent to the GTS announcement on the Episcopal News Service, Luke Brown, wrote: "It is hard to imagine that the Board fully grasps the extent to which this ongoing saga is jeopardising the seminary. There is nothing in this statement that suggests anything is going to change."

Writing publicly on the website Episcopal Cafe, a 1987 General Theological Seminary alumnus, the Rev Barry M. Signorelli, said: "This decision is an absolute travesty. The process for responding to good-faith allegations of harassment or hostile work environment complaints is clearly laid out in the GTS Handbook; that process was completely ignored. How then, can the Board say that the allegations of the GTS8 were given a full and fair hearing?

"And where are their letters of resignation – not a willful misreading of the faculty's letter describing how seriously dysfunctional that environment had become... - [W]hy would one form a faculty union if one's intention was to resign?

"Without satisfactory answers to these questions (and I have so far heard none), the Board's action is nothing more than termination of the complainants: in other words, retaliation against whistleblowers, which is prohibited by every standard, ecclesiastical or civil, that I can think of."

Following the events of 17 October, a petition has been launched seeking intervention from the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, and the full reinstatement of the faculty, who have become known as the GTS8 (http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/bishop-jefferts-schori)

All parties are now considering their next moves, but it seems unlikely that the GTS Board's latest decision will be deemed by onlookers and by those who have lost their posts to have resolved the crisis it faces.

The following statement has now been released by the professors dismissed by the Seminary: "The eight fired faculty members of the General Theological Seminary sincerely thank the thousands of academics, hundreds of clergy and colleagues, GTS alumni, and other Christian faithful from around the world who have expressed their support for us in the aftermath of the Board of Trustees’ disappointing decision today. Your prayers, your passionate commitment to our cause, and outpouring of love continue to lift us up and sustain us.

"For now, we need to spend some time individually and collectively in prayerful reflection on the Board’s decision so that we can determine the best way forward."

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* Official GTS statement and responses: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/seminaries/gts_board_dean_to_stay_facu...

* Safe Seminary website: http://www.safeseminary.org/

* New petition to the Presiding Bishop of TEC: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/bishop-jefferts-schori

* Fund to support the GTS8: http://www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/support-the-gts8/243315

* More about the situation at GTS on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/GTS

* Academics back dismissed faculty at troubled Episcopal seminary: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20931

* 'Reinstate the faculty unjustly dismissed from General Theological Seminary', by Simon Barrow, Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20932

* Facebook page to promote a general petition for reinstatement of the eight GTS faculty: https://www.facebook.com/events/331354327039048/

* Twitter: @safeseminary and @Reinst8GTS8

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