Starr King seminary withholds diplomas amid investigation
School trying to trace leaked documents from presidential search process.
The enormity of the harm to the Starr King community and others caused by the leak “cannot be overstated,” wrote Helio Fred Garcia, chair of Starr King’s Board of Trustees, in a letter to the students and school community May 19 in explaining the school’s decision to award degrees conditionally. An anonymous email sent in April to numerous people and organizations made “unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and wrongdoing” in the presidential search process, Garcia wrote, and included some of the leaked materials. The leak of confidential documents and the resulting controversy have had a serious negative impact on potential students, donors, and others the school depends on for support, he said.
Garcia said there is no evidence that the two students have done anything wrong. But the board, which has been unsuccessful over the past two months in uncovering the source of the leak, wants them to help it find out how the confidential materials—including evaluations of three presidential finalists by students, faculty, and staff—came into the hands of students not on the search committee. Garcia said the students were among the early recipients of the materials. The board wants them to turn over their personal emails and other information, a request not made to everyone.
Rachel Lederman, lawyer for the two graduates, Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock, said they did not leak the materials and have been “very forthcoming” with the administration. However, she added, “what they’ve declined to participate in is an investigation by a law firm hired by the school that’s without limitation and requires them to turn over all of their personal emails and other communications.”
Lederman said her clients did not learn until May 19, the day before graduation, that they would not be receiving their degrees. Lederman said the two have met all degree requirements and their diplomas are being “withheld in a coercive manner” to force them to waive their own and others’ rights to privacy and confidentiality. As a result of the controversy, Brock has lost her ministerial internship, according to Lederman.
The school’s action toward the students has prompted a widespread outcry on social media and in UU circles, with many professing respect and love for both the administration and the students, and expressing sadness and dismay at the events. It has also prompted expressions of support for the board and for the school’s incoming president, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.
One Starr King trustee, the Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar, resigned from the board May 24, saying that the situation was “painfully symptomatic of deeper issues of trust and power that have been ongoing at the school for many years.” While commending the board as “well-intentioned” in managing the current crisis, she said it is nonetheless focused on identifying and punishing those responsible for the leak rather than on addressing the school’s “broader systemic dysfunction.”
Another trustee, Starr King student Zachary (Zak) Wear, announced April 8 that he was resigning from the board at the conclusion of its April meeting. Wear praised the search committee’s work and wrote that “Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt has my full faith and support in leading the school,” but said he was resigning in part because of what he called the board’s “underwhelming level of engagement, critique, and discernment” during the presidential selection process.
Three faculty members have strongly objected to the board’s actions and asked it to lift the conditions on the students’ diplomas. In an open letter to the board May 29, these faculty—including the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, the acting dean of faculty and an unsuccessful finalist for the presidency; the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald; and the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake—said that requesting students to produce private communications forces them to breach confidences and covenants. The letter said that students are “feeling intimidated” and some are discussing transferring to other schools.
And former UUA Moderator Gini Courter is raising money for a legal defense fund for students so they can receive legal advice. Courter said she was asked to establish the fund by persons concerned that the students receive adequate legal counsel. Unlike others who might not feel the same freedom, Courter said her decision to manage the fund—which quickly surpassed its original goal of $3,000 and as of June 4 was close to $7,500—won’t impact her career or have other consequences for her.
“I think when students are being asked or told that one of the conditions of graduation is to turn over personal electronic files, it’s okay for them to have access to someone who can tell them if that’s legal or not,” said Courter, who noted that she has friends on both sides of the conflict and is saddened by the situation. “Regardless of ultimately what the conflict is deemed to be, we’re talking about a large institution that has a great deal of power over the lives of seminarians, and seminarians who don’t have a lot of resources.”
Garcia maintains that the school has a fiduciary duty not to confer degrees on any student it deems has not met all formal requirements, including “personal readiness” for ministry—intellectually, spiritually, and professionally. He said that bestowing diplomas on all of this year’s the graduates without determining who was responsible for the leak would cast a “cloud” over the entire class.
For that reason, the board decided to confer degrees only on those it had found were not involved in the leak, and “conditional degrees” on the others, he said. The vast majority of students cooperated fully with the administration, he said, and 22 received degrees or certificates. The diplomas of the students in question are being held at this time, he said, “because we don’t know the degree of their involvement and they haven’t shared the degree.”
Spangenberg and Brock have been given conditions they must fulfill before the board will consider bestowing their diplomas, he said, including participating in the investigation, which is expected to take several months.
At this time, the board has no evidence the two have done anything wrong, Garcia said. If they cooperate, including by sharing their emails and other correspondence, and if the investigation determines they were not involved, then the board would take that into consideration in deciding whether to give them their degrees, Garcia told UU World.
Garcia said that participation in the investigation is relevant to the students’ fitness for ministry. Asked why the students were obligated to reveal to the board the degree of their involvement with the leak, if any, Garcia said, “They’re not. But they’re also not obligated to get their degrees.
“Our hope is to find out what happened and find an appropriate way to hold people accountable for any inappropriate behavior they may have engaged in,” he said. “We don’t know who they are. We do know that a subset of deeply confidential documents” came into the hands of students not on the search committee.
“We don’t know how. We don’t know if they were intentionally leaked by the search committee, if it was an inadvertent mistake by a search committee member, a malicious acquisition by technological means—we just don’t know,” Garcia said.
To date, there is no evidence that the documents were leaked from the search committee, he added.
The current controversy began in March, during the school’s search process for a new president.
On March 31, the Board of Trustees voted to accept the Presidential Search Committee’s recommendation to name the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt as president, starting July 1. A day earlier, on March 30, some students came into possession of confidential search committee documents, including results of a survey of students, faculty, staff, and others, which contained detailed comments about the three finalists.
Over the next several days, as the search committee tried unsuccessfully to learn how the documents got into student hands, a student meeting was held to discuss concerns about the presidential selection process based on information revealed in those documents, which by then had reached more students.
On April 6, an anonymous email criticizing the search process, from someone named “Strapped Student,” was widely disseminated, including to news media, an accrediting body for Starr King, UUA leaders and affiliates, the Starr King community, and others. The email included an attachment with some of the search committee’s confidential information. Garcia posted a letter in response that same day defending the search process and decrying significant harm to the school and individuals from the breach.
The school brought in a restorative justice consultant, Miakoda Taylor of Fierce Allies, who held meetings with the community. When no one stepped forward to take responsibility for the leak, Garcia announced on May 8 that restorative justice was no longer an appropriate way to resolve the conflict.
On a May 31 post on her Facebook page, incoming President McNatt said the restorative justice process was “blocked when several students declined to participate in the process.” She added, “The school’s insistence on discovering as much as possible about this breach of confidentiality is not a witch-hunt, as one writer put it so gracelessly elsewhere. It does not include suing students. It is not an effort to exact revenge. Instead, it is an act of faithfulness to our calling and our mission: to educate Unitarian Universalist ministers and progressive religious leaders.”
Spangenberg and Brock participated in the restorative justice process, their lawyer told UU World.
After the restorative justice effort was called off, the school hired a lawyer and private investigator to continue the investigation, according to Garcia.
The board is now in the process of appointing an ad hoc committee to continue the investigation by interviewing students, faculty, staff, and search committee members, Garcia said.
“I agree there is a longstanding atmosphere of mistrust at the school,” Garcia said, which he attributes to “a system that did not have clear enough boundaries and structures of accountability.” He said the school is now in the process of taking steps to address its problems, “perhaps later than we should have,” including through a “circle of trust” meeting with students, staff, and faculty on the evening of June 4.
“All of that, however, does not take away from serious, serious breaches of integrity that may have occurred during a time of mistrust,” he added. “The climate by itself does not excuse the serious breach and the harm that it has caused.”
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