One of things most people learn early in life is the danger of finishing a demand with the words “or else.” There’s always some chance the other party calls you bet. My limited exposure to faculty life in our universities tells me most academics don’t understand this simple reality. They especially don’t understand the risks of saying it to your boss.
The General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, the nation’s oldest Episcopal seminary, seemed to be regaining its footing after almost having to seek bankruptcy protection in 2010. It sold off some valuable real estate — its leafy campus in Chelsea is just steps from the High Line — and hired a new dean and president, the Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, who promised to make the struggling institution a “joyful, thankful and useful” place.
A year after his arrival, however, the seminary has fallen into turmoil. Eight of its 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job on Friday to protest what they described in letters to the school’s board of trustees as Mr. Dunkle’s overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.
The work stoppage, faculty members said, was intended to force a dialogue with the board and, ideally, to lead to the firing of Mr. Dunkle. Instead, the tactic backfired. On Monday, the board dismissed the eight faculty members, leaving the seminary’s roughly 140 students, a month into their term, without professors to teach them.
“It’s a really difficult situation; it’s chaotic,” said Alexander Barton, 26, who entered the seminary this fall. “And as a student, it’s hard to see what is true and what is not.”
A note on Tuesday from Mr. Dunkle to the students, reprinted on Episcopal Café, a blog, explained that about half of the classes were in session as the school scrambled to find qualified personnel for the other classes. Students have taken to social media to express their dismay, often siding with the faculty. Dozens of faculty and clergy members from other seminaries have signed a petition asking that the professors be reinstated.
How an internal management dispute behind seminary walls turned into a mass dismissal seems to be a tale of hardball negotiating tactics gone awry, and mistrust between the faculty, the dean and the board of trustees. The situation is being followed widely in the Episcopal world, which has recently seen at least one other seminary, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., mired in a similar controversy.
In Manhattan, the seminary faculty members are taking legal action to keep their jobs, arguing that it is illegal to fire striking workers who have made legitimate complaints. They also face potential eviction, because most of them live on the seminary’s grounds. Mr. Dunkle declined to comment.
Speaking at a meeting at their lawyer’s office on Tuesday night, the eight professors said that problems began soon after the appointment of Mr. Dunkle. One early rift came over his decision to end the daily celebration of Mass, an age-old fixture of seminary life. This was done over the unanimous objection of the faculty.
Last winter, students began sending letters to board members to complain, both about the end of the daily Mass and other changes they found disruptive, such as the decision to move morning prayers to 10 a.m. from 8. “We no longer begin our day in prayer. It’s now a midmorning thing to do … like getting coffee,” wrote one student, William L. Ogburn, who posted his letter online.
The faculty members also started to keep a list of offensive statements they said Mr. Dunkle was making to them.
He once described Asian people as “slanty eyed,” the professors reported to the board in a detailed letter on Sept. 17. At a meeting last spring, Mr. Dunkle compared the technical side of theological education to “looking up women’s skirts,” the letter said. He said that he did not want the seminary to be known as the “gay seminary.” He once commented to a female faculty member that he “loved vaginas,” according to the letter.
He began micromanaging, keeping statistics, for example, on how often faculty members attended lunch, the professors said. Instead of feeling like a communal place of Christian living, “suddenly it has felt progressively like I’m in junior high school, or maybe on a plantation,” said David J. Hurd, a black professor of church music who has been on the faculty since 1976.
Though the professors said they had alerted board members to the brewing problems numerous times, the chairman of the board, Bishop Mark S. Sisk, said that the board felt blindsided by the severity of the Sept. 17 complaints.
Bishop Sisk said the board did not immediately schedule a meeting with the faculty members, because in their letter, they had seemed to make a series of untenable demands that trustees interpreted as preconditions for a meeting. The professors asked that they be given immediate oversight over the schedule and program at the school. They also wanted to choose which board members they met with.
“If Dean Dunkle continues in his current position, then we will be unable to continue in ours,” the eight faculty members wrote.
The board responded several days later that it would immediately begin an investigation of the dean’s behavior. But the faculty members, acting on the advice of their lawyer, Andrew Hoffmann, wrote back on Sept. 25 that they felt the investigation was beside the point, that they had formed a union and that they were stopping work the next day unless steps toward meeting their other requests were taken.
That incensed the board. “I think the trustees felt, who are these people?” Bishop Sisk said. “They are using the students as pawns, really, in a larger agenda that they have of raising their concerns.”
It was then that the board decided that the letters amounted to a resignation, though the word resignation was never used. “They kept saying, ‘If you don’t do these things, we can’t keep our position,’ ” Bishop Sisk said. “Well, we thought, ‘We can’t do those things, so you don’t have your position.’ ” On Sept. 30, the board wrote a public letter saying the resignations had been accepted.
Ooops! Next they are going to learn that the demand for “professors of church music” is not very high.