Why did America's oldest Episcopal seminary fire most of its faculty?

The country's oldest Episcopal seminary fired most of its professors overnight. What's behind the controversy at the normally staid General Theological Seminary in Manhattan?

Julie Jacobson/AP
Seminarians gather outside the chapel on the grounds of The General Theological Seminary, after morning prayers, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in New York.

Turmoil engulfed the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary this week after its board of trustees dismissed nearly all of its full-time faculty for revolting against the leadership of the 200-year-old institution’s new dean.

For the past two weeks, eight of 10 full-time faculty members at General Theological Seminary in Manhattan had told the trustees that they could no longer work with the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, who was appointed as the seminary’s dean and president last May.

From the start, the faculty alleged in a Sept.17 letter to the board, Reverend Dunkle had brought the seminary community “deep despondency, anxiety, hostility, fear, and retaliation,” including a number of abrasive sexist and racist remarks to faculty and students.

According to the faculty’s letter, Dunkle had publicly compared the methods of theological education to “looking up women’s skirts,” referred to Asians as “slanty-eyed,” and remarked that "black people can do such interesting things with their hair." He also insisted that General should not be a “gay seminary” but emphasize “normal people.” 

The uproar comes as the flagship Episcopal seminary, which is one of 10 affiliated with the 2 million-member denomination and the only to be directly run by the national church, has struggled enormously in recent years.

In 2010, it sold valuable property it owned in downtown Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in order to stave off bankruptcy from its $40 million debt, and it brought in Dunkle, a former attorney in Florida, to lead the school’s evolving new direction.

The board responded to the faculty’s initial complaints by hiring an outside law firm to investigate the allegations. But the faculty insisted that the work environment had become so hostile at the seminary that a working relationship with Dunkle was no longer possible. So last Friday, the eight faculty members walked off the job and told the trustees they would form a union.

The trustees said their letter amounted to resignations, however, and on Tuesday, they announced they had accepted these with “heavy hearts.” But they also said they would meet with any “former faculty member” about reconsidering their resignations.

On Wednesday, however, faculty member Andrew Irving, a professor of church history, wrote to the student body, insisting the professors who walked out last week never suggested they would resign.

“We wish to underline that we have not resigned,” Professor Irving wrote, suggesting the faculty was now seeking legal counsel. “Our letters did not say that we would resign. We requested meetings with the Board.”

One of the board members, the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, felt the faculty had been sitting on their complaints and planning a strategy to, in effect, force the trustee’s hand with a walkout and new union.

“When offered such an ultimatum, what were we to do? No, they never used the word ‘resign,’” Reverend Tillotson said. “But over and over they said they were unable to continue to do their jobs unless we met unmeetable conditions.”

The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, attended morning prayer at General’s chapel on Wednesday, joining Dunkle and about 50 students as the controversy began to hit headlines.

“We are standing in the middle of chaos,” said seminarian Nancy Hennessey during the assembly, according to The Associated Press. “But we need to stand here, vulnerable and open and calm.”

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