I wrote earlier about the conflict at my seminary. At first I thought it better not to say a lot more, but I’m beginning to realize that these types of conflicts are in a way “a part of the job.” I’ve been mentally comparing the recent conflict at General Seminary in New York (see, for instance, here, here, and here), where there are some obvious similarities (competing visions for the seminary; multiple constituencies with different goals; lack of communication between board and faculty; students placed in a difficult position; social media as an accelerant) even as there are a lot more differences (different culture, denomination, structure, etc.)
In brief, at my seminary one of our foreign teachers was let go by our faculty committee at the end of the spring semester. Here the faculty committee consists of only associate and full professors, or the more senior third of our teachers (seven people). The meeting to dismiss was held in secret with members initially bound to silence and forbidden from saying how they voted, but news got out quickly. The decision reopened some old wounds, alienated many students, alumni, and faculty, and led to symbolic protests on campus (students and alumni put black streamers throughout campus and decorated a flag on campus).
The conflict surprised me because it came about over something that is rather common (a professor being let go, which has happened at this seminary probably a half-dozen times in the last six or seven years), but took on a life of its own. In this case, another senior faculty member protested and was joined by a number of students and some other faculty members. Although it is now six months later, there have been two sermons on the conflict in the last weeks, one by a teacher and another by one of our seniors. As a faculty, we’ve only discussed the conflict all together once, and it was not a particularly fun meeting (clearly things are still boiling). That meeting was in September and it was the first time I’d heard specific reasons given for the dismissal. The reasons were a bit of a hodgepodge of theological criticism, teaching critique, and participation in campus life. Up to now, no public rationale has been given to students or the general public. Our board of trustees declined to get involved and while I think the hope was that things would die down, instead, it has highlighted all of our divisions and antagonisms.
The conflict over this type of decision-making isn’t entirely new to me. When I arrived at my first full-time teaching gig at a small college in New Jersey, the faculty had recently unionized in opposition to the president, and my alma mater, Princeton Seminary, also unionized during the tenure of the last president. In most cases, there has been a power triumvirate that is tough to resolve (president/admin, faculty, board of trustees). Traditionally faculty have had great leeway in governance, but in recent years administration have gained more power throughout higher ed with the rapid growth of an administrative class. Each body has different goals, biases, and hopes for the institution. In some cases, seminaries have an even more difficult time because they also answer to an ecclesiastical hierarchy and they rely on churches and alumni for much of their support and work. (My seminary, like General, has little endowment.) At my seminary, things are even a bit stranger. Our Board of trustees is nominated by a Synod and consists solely of pastors and elders. This means that it doesn’t include minority members (who belong to ethnic presbyteries here), and it also rarely has academics. Because of sibling rivalry between seminaries, it’s almost impossible for us to have board members from other seminaries. This means the board is a “closed loop.” In the past faculty and board have met together over dinner, but I don’t think that’s happened recently.
Probably General Seminary faced similar issues, in that it had a very large board with almost no academics; this meant that when the crisis erupted there was no one to interpret between the different governing cultures (church or business vs. academic institution). It can also be easy to forget that some teachers gain a personal following over the years, so when they are mistreated it can stir deep anger among hundreds of students or alumni.
Histories of Conflict
Taiwan Seminary has a history of conflict, so I went into this call with my eyes open knowing that there might be a conflict like this during my time here. When I first came to Taiwan in 2005-2006, the seminary was recovering from its last conflict, which had resulted in a major purge of teachers and a large administration change (a new board of trustees and president, and with most faculty relatively new). One of my colleagues told me when I came back that the Seminary “will never be healthy.” There was a similar conflict in the mid- to late-1990s. In talking to people who have been at the seminary longer, there were similar crises in the past, typically every eight to ten years. Presidents here have a reputation for having a fair amount of power. I don’t think they necessarily want this for themselves. Instead, the culture vests them with a lot of the decision making power, which means that whether or not they are the best person to decide they often are given this responsibility. (It’s often the case that when I ask about something like a worship schedule, I’m told the president has to be consulted.)
When we talked about the conflict as a faculty, there were two questions I asked that I thought provoked interesting answers. (1) I asked if anyone remembers a past conflict at our seminary with a positive resolution. The answer: silence. (2) I also asked whether the seminary had had any “golden era.” Was there a time we could look back to for working through these things better? Ironically, here the only answer that came was from one of our associate profs, who saw the period after the last conflict as a golden era. I can’t tell if this is simply because the enemies had been cast out, or because real change occurred. Either way, it’s a difficult model for our current situation. Essentially, there are no positive models for reform, repentance, or change. This makes for a warped institutional history. There are odd pieces I’m trying to make sense of. I’ve never met any of our former presidents, even though several are alive. Because they “lost” past conflicts or were replaced by an antagonistic group, they are no longer welcome on campus. It kind of amazes me that current faculty/administrators don’t see this exile in their future. Somehow they believe things will be different for them.
My Personal Takeaway
One of the things that’s helped me has been to depersonalize the situation, to realize that our system was set up for this type of crisis. When decision-making rests with a few people and there’s no ability to discuss or resolve conflict, it means that things will simmer. The system also means that power has been used capriciously. Moreover, it’s hard to resolve the crisis internally, and there’s little possibility for appeal to a higher body. In fact, because the whole system is interrelated, whenever there’s a conflict it dredges up past conflicts (the chair of our current board of trustees is also the brother of one of the faculty who was pushed out before I came, and also has a brother who works at the large hospital downtown, which is one of our major sources of support).
I go back and forth on what to make of this type of conflict. My father pastored for part of his ministry in conflicted churches (he did post-conflict interim ministry), and his takeaway was that after the fact it is almost impossible to identify a sole cause for conflict. The tendency towards escalation, recrimination and scape-goating means that you realistically you can’t get to the bottom of things. I think that’s part of the problem here. The faculty who feel wronged here have often been on the other side of firing enemies or denying promotions to juniors. Now they would like to change the system but there’s no reason to believe they would run things better and it’s unlikely they’d be chosen to lead change. Those in power have no incentive to make changes, but are alienating the newer faculty who will eventually replace them.
My own goal is to get a bit more distance from the institution, to do everything I can to support students, and to use whatever leverage I have now to work for change in the system. Part of the history of reprisal relates to things like housing, so I’m really glad I’m off campus now, and also that I’m in one of the smallest offices on campus. I’m going to try to escape the promotion system, which would mean I wouldn’t be taking anyone else’s spot. I also have a PhD student now, who I hope could conceivably be a successor down the road. I’m fond of systems theory, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonanxious presence, avoiding scapegoating, and expecting escalation. Because I’m not hired directly by the school, I have more freedom. I’ve also often said that I like all of coworkers individually; it really is the system that confounds me.
One of the ironies is that as we continue to struggle with where we are, we’re also in our fundraising month. For the last two Sundays, I’ve been doing fundraising sermons on behalf of my school. What I said is basically: our students are great and they deserve any support you can give them; they work very hard and love the church; I’d love to have any one of them as my pastor. Despite it all, I really do like this place. I don’t think that is just Stockholm syndrome. I think that most institutions are like this, even if they hum along a bit more efficiently. It’s a challenge because often when we tether ourselves to an institution, we can gain support, friendship, shared vision, and community, and yet institutions are always flawed and broken. It’s challenging to invest so much of yourself in a place and yet realize that it is ephemeral.