UUA trustees mull their role in Starr King conflict

UUA trustees mull their role in Starr King conflict

At Board of Trustees meeting in Alabama, UUA welcomes two new congregations, may have eight more by June.

Elaine McArdle
The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, UUA secretary

The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, UUA secretary and former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, spoke at the board’s meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, about conflict at the school, where she was an unsuccessful candidate for president (© Dea Brayden).

© Dea Brayden


What is the proper role, if any, of the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees in the controversy at Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, Calif.?

That question was debated—though not resolved—at the board’s meeting March 5 and 7 in Birmingham, Ala., where trustees also participated in the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday and the Selma voting rights campaign. The trustees and 400 other UUs participated in a three-day conference sponsored by the Living Legacy Pilgrimage and the UUA called “Marching in the Arc of Justice: Revisiting Selma,” which featured prominent veterans of the civil rights movement as well as young leaders calling for a recommitment to racial justice.

At its meeting, the board welcomed two new member congregations and learned that another eight groups are expected to affiliate with the UUA this year as member congregations or in a new “covenanting status.” The board also approved placing a motion on the General Assembly agenda that would change the independently elected Commission on Appraisal into a smaller, board-appointed committee that will no longer propose bylaw changes directly to GA.

The topic of Starr King, a school immersed in controversy since last spring when documents were leaked from a presidential search committee and two students’ diplomas were withheld for nine months, arose twice at the board meeting: first, in an unscheduled presentation and discussion not on the agenda, and two days later as a formal agenda item from the Finance Committee, in the context of financial support the school receives from the UUA.

The UUA board did not take any action on a request from the UU Society for Community Ministries (UUSCM) to appoint a mediator to address what the professional organization called “ongoing harm” to parties involved in the Starr King conflict, nor did anyone on the board explicitly mention the letter, although a number of trustees noted they were being asked to intervene in the Starr King conflict. (Key later told UU World that the letter will be discussed at a future board meeting, probably in April, when the board will meet via teleconference.)

On February 26, the UUSCM issued an open letter to the UUA board, asking it to appoint a mediator to bring “justice and healing to all individuals who have experienced harm” caused by release of the presidential search documents, Starr King’s ensuing investigation, the withholding of the students’ degrees, the resignation of faculty, staff, and students, and the February release of a report from an ad hoc investigatory committee appointed by Starr King. The investigation and report have “contributed to further harm to the reputation of many Unitarian Universalists who acted with integrity on behalf of our faith,” the letter said, and “further contributed to a profound brokenness of relational trust throughout our Unitarian Universalist web.”

When the board meeting began, after Moderator Jim Key noted the historical circumstances, the board had fairly short discussions on several topics including proposed changes to the Commission on Appraisal (COA), to which the COA has agreed and which will be voted on at General Assembly 2015 in Portland, Ore. The UUA board and the COA have jointly submitted a bylaw change that will make the COA a board-appointed committee rather than an independent body elected by GA.

When the meeting reconvened after lunch, the issue of Starr King arose obliquely during an unscheduled presentation on “conflict transformation” by the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, UUA program and strategy officer, made at Key’s request. Cooley said the conflict transformation model sees conflict as “a natural part of life” and “a motor for change,” and seeks to reach a place of sustainable peace. “This gives us context for some of the conflict brewing in the UU world right now,” Cooley said.

Without referencing any specific problem, Key said, “What does it call this board, this group of leaders, to do as it relates to conflict in our broader movement and outside our governance system? That’s what I struggle with.”

As the board discussed the mechanics of the conflict transformation model, a couple of trustees raised the issue of Starr King. Key said, “That’s why we’re discussing this.”

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, UUA trustee and chair of Starr King’s current capital campaign and an alumnus, said that “part of what happened [at Starr King] is that there was an idolatry around the issue of power.” He said it was not the first time at Starr King or other UU institutions “where investments of loyalty became interpersonal rather than loyalty to something higher.” Adding that he and other trustees “have very strong feelings” about the issue, he said if Starr King were to be discussed, he wanted to do it “consciously and carefully” rather than as an unexpected addition to the meeting.

The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, UUA board secretary and a former faculty member at Starr King who resigned in August in protest of the school’s actions toward the students, said that although the school has granted the two diplomas it had withheld, “It doesn’t seem we’ve moved to sustainable peace. It seems we’ve moved back to latent conflict. Nothing has in fact changed.”

“I know we as a board are being called to do something,” she said. “I’m interested in having us assert whatever our proper role is, but I’m not sure what that is, and don’t know where that authority is in the UU system to get any institution to move toward sustainable peace.”

The Rev. Andy Burnette, trustee, cautioned the board about jumping into the situation when its role was unclear. But trustee Christina Rivera said that she has seen the board “erring” on the side of avoiding conflict in various issues by claiming it has no role. “As leaders acting as the [General Assembly] between GAs, if we have folks coming to us and wanting us to engage in particular issues, that should be a huge heads-up for us,” she said.

Echoing comments by Ritchie about power differences, Rivera added, “From a person-of-color standpoint, silence means implicit approval of the situation at hand.”

While noting he sympathized with Burnette’s concerns, trustee James Snell said the board are trustees of more than just the UUA: “We are trustees of the faith community.” While he said he doesn’t know exactly what the board should do in the Starr King matter, Snell added, “I have a really strong instinct that this is our responsibility at some level.” Trustee Michael Sallwasser agreed; Vice Moderator Donna Harrison did not.

Larry Ladd, financial advisor to the board, who chaired Starr King’s ad hoc investigation committee, objected to the board’s discussion because it was not on the agenda.

Key said that, “with apologies to those who don’t think it should be discussed since it was not on the agenda,” he nonetheless saw it as important to present the conflict transformation framework as trustees thought about the Starr King matter. The board then turned its attention to a video on the entrepreneurial ministry program that UUA President Peter Morales is helping spearhead.

When the board reconvened on Saturday, March 7, it again raised the topic of Starr King, this time as a formal agenda item placed by the Rev. Sarah Stewart, chair of the Finance Committee. Stewart asked the board to review a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding between the UUA and the two UU-identity seminaries, Starr King and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

Eller-Isaacs described a summit about eight years ago on theological education in which UUA leaders agreed that the UU-identity seminaries were essential to denominational life. The memorandum grew out of a desire by the schools and the UUA to have a more formal agreement regarding financial support. As a result, the UUA, through its Panel on Theological Education, currently supports each school with $200,000 annually.

Trustee Julian Sharp said he doesn’t believe there has been any violation of the memorandum, but “the elephant in the room is there’s an issue at one of the theological schools.” Eller-Issacs then said the board was “having a symbolic conversation about something some of us want to have and others don’t think is appropriate for the board. Some feel that because we are trustees of Unitarian Universalism we have an obligation to intervene when we feel that one of the expressions in our faith is in trouble or conflict,” he said, while others, including him, feel it is “not our business.”

Rivera responded that it was important for the board to come to an agreement on whether it should get involved and to “very clearly articulate” its decision to the wider UU community, and Eller-Isaacs agreed. However, the board did not do so at the meeting.

Stewart said the discussion about accountability was helpful to her as she wants to see the schools thrive and is worried about the effect the controversy is having on financial stability. Eller-Isaacs said that “the restoration of the school’s well-being and credibility is underway” and that trustees were welcome to support Starr King in its capital campaign. He reiterated that he did not think the UUA board had a role to play “in negotiating or holding the school accountable in some way.” The discussion then ended as the board took a recess, and there was no further talk of Starr King.

In other items:

  • The Congregational Boundaries Working Group will meet in April with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to discuss possible revisions to rules governing the ministerial misconduct complaint process.
  • The board formally welcomed two new congregations into membership with the UUA: the Open Door UU Fellowship in Owensboro, Ky., and the St. Croix UU Fellowship in St. Croix Falls, Wisc.
  • Cooley reported that UUA staff have reached out to 53 UU-affinity groups to see if they wanted to affiliate with the UUA without necessarily becoming formally recognized as congregations. The board agreed to call such groups “covenanting communities.” The outreach has had an unexpected and exciting result, Cooley said: in addition to the two new congregations that have joined the UUA, another eight are expected to apply for congregational membership or covenanting status by the time of GA.
  • The board accepted, as written, monitoring reports including policies pertaining to audit cooperation and asset protection.