Months of internal divisions around the future direction of the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary have erupted into public view, with all but two fulltime faculty members at the General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York no longer employed after a dustup with the seminary dean and board of trustees.
The professors assert in a letter to the GTS board that Dean Kurt Dunkle’s leadership has been characterized by a “failure to collaborate” and “resulted in a climate that many of us find to be fraught with conflict, fear, and anxiety.”
Conversely, trustees blamed “some faculty member’s demands for action not possible under the governing structure of the Seminary” in a September 30 statement. Board members also stated they were conducting an internal investigation into charges made against Dunkle, apparently centered on statements he allegedly made.
“Further comment on the investigation, pending its outcome, would not help that process,” the trustee letter stated. “We encourage everyone to withhold any further judgment or comment.”
Dunkle, a former attorney and parish priest, was installed as the seminary’s Dean and President in October of 2013.
Both faculty and trustees have resorted to social media to share their side of the story, with GTS itself not issuing an official statement until early this afternoon.
The faculty dismissals have been alternately described as a strike or firings, and are being styled as resignations by GTS trustees. Both sides agree that none of the eight faculty members offered to formally resign. Instead, professors stated that they would not hold classes, attend chapel or otherwise participate in administrative tasks at the seminary until they were able to meet with the Board of Trustees. An executive committee of trustees determined that the work stoppage constituted a breach of contract, and dismissed the faculty.
Professors having “resigned” are Joshua Davis, Mitties DeChamplain, Deirdre Good, David Hurd, Andrew Irving, Andrew Kadel, Amy Lamborn and Patrick Malloy.
While theological disputes or pressing financial concerns are not alleged to be at the heart of the dispute, GTS, along with about half of the nine other schools that prepare seminarians for ministry in the Episcopal Church, has experienced significant financial pressures over the past decade. Seabury-Western in Evanston, Illinois sold its buildings to Northwestern University and ultimately merged with tiny Bexley Hall in Gambier, Ohio. Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts sold property worth over $30 million to neighboring Leslie University and more recently has had an ongoing dispute between faculty and Dean Katharine Ragsdale.
General Theological Seminary has sold or redeveloped property in order to pay down $40 million in debt. In 2007, the school on Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood redeveloped three buildings into the Desmond Tutu Center, a hotel and conference center that seminary officials hoped would sustain itself with new revenue. In 2012, the center was sold to a property developer.
The seminary reports $27 million in investments and $10.6 million in expenditures at the end of last school year, partly from the demolition of the former Sherrill Hall and its redevelopment into upscale condominiums. The Association of Theological Schools, which accredits GTS, listed 61 enrolled seminarians at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
Of the schools that educate Episcopal seminarians, GTS is the only one chartered by the church’s General Convention, and among the oldest. Board Chair and Retired Bishop of New York Mark Sisk is reportedly planning to meet Wednesday, October 1 with students at the seminary. While seminaries affiliated with the Episcopal Church are effectively governed independently of the church, the denomination’s General Convention appoints six of 37 trustees to the board.
UPDATE: The New York Times, Huffington Post, RNS and Associated Press have all covered the story. The AP report of the October 1 chapel service includes this account: “Standing apart, Dunkle instructed an Associated Press reporter seeking comment to turn to his spokesman, who escorted the reporter to the iron-barred exit gate, saying this was private property.”
UPDATE #2: RNS is reporting that seven of the eight fired faculty will return to GTS on a “provisional” basis until the end of the current academic year. One trustee has resigned from the seminary board, saying faculty deserved full reinstatement.