What really happened at Starr King?

What really happened at Starr King?

Faculty who resigned say seminary conflict was about claims made by former President Rebecca Parker.

Elaine McArdle
The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker (Starr King School for the Ministry)

Courtesy of Starr King School for the Ministry


This story has been updated.

In early 2014, when Starr King School for the Ministry was searching for a new president to replace the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker after her twenty-five years of leadership, the search committee sent an online survey to faculty, staff, trustees, and students asking them to rate and comment on three finalists.

Parker wrote that her first choice was the Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, minister of First Unitarian Church in Dallas. Her last choice was the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, a Unitarian Universalist minister and historian who was the only finalist from the Starr King faculty and who pledged major changes as president.

Ritchie, Parker wrote, claimed to be committed to collaborative leadership but instead was a “lone ranger.” To support her point, Parker described an incident she said had occurred the previous spring, when Ritchie headed up a project related to the school’s accreditation review. A staff member was assigned to assist, but Ritchie preferred to work alone, and “the staff member resigned in frustration,” Parker wrote.

There was one problem with Parker’s account. It was untrue, according to Ritchie and to others directly involved. “My interaction with Dr. Ritchie was not negative and had nothing to do with why I left [Starr King],” wrote Noach Dzmura, the staff person who resigned.

Parker also wrote that Ritchie was “disruptive of good working relationships” because she “subtly usurped the role of a vulnerable staff member’s supervisor, to the point that the staff member has become confused about who her supervisor is.” But that story, too, was untrue, according to the “vulnerable staff member,” Cathleen Young, who later resigned from her position as online education director and who sent a letter of concern to the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees about Starr King, a UU-identity seminary in Berkeley, California.

The survey results were compiled into a document, and soon thereafter that document was leaked out of the nine-person search committee and sent to a number of people at Starr King.

Suddenly, Parker’s assertions about Ritchie were in the open.

The results were explosive. Parker’s comments set off a chain reaction that for the next year would immerse Starr King in public and divisive controversy. Two graduating students would have their degrees withheld for ten months when they refused to turn over emails to help the school find who provided the survey results. Three faculty, four staff members, and two trustees would resign over the school’s focus on punishing those students instead of examining what one trustee called “broader systemic dysfunction.” Several students withdrew from Starr King. The New York Times covered the story. One of the professional organizations representing UU clergy asked the UUA Board of Trustees to get involved.

Yet to date, the catalyst for the crisis has never been aired publicly.

When the survey results were first leaked, students held a meeting at which some decided to address Parker directly about their concerns, as they believed ministerial ethics required. But that avenue shut down following wider dissemination of the documents by one or more persons identifying themselves as “Strapped Student.” The chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, Helio Fred Garcia, wrote an open letter claiming the documents were confidential, that anyone with them “may be in possession of stolen property,” and that anyone who conveyed them “may have committed a crime.”

Suddenly, “no one was even willing to admit they had [them] or had seen [them],” said Ritchie, who resigned from Starr King last summer in protest of its actions toward the students. “The conversation changed dramatically at that point.”

For the next year, Starr King kept attention tightly focused on the “how” of the leak: How did the survey results get leaked and disseminated? It criticized the leak as a serious ethical breach but quashed any discussion of Parker’s conduct and refused to entertain any inquiry into the “why”—was there a legitimate whistleblower-purpose for the leak?—despite repeated requests by stakeholders.

When the school appointed an ad hoc committee to find the leak’s source, the three-person committee was directed to avoid any inquiry into the search process or the “environment of mistrust at the school at the time,” wrote Garcia, a crisis management expert. He said other processes were dealing with those issues.

Yet when the committee issued its report in February, it said it found no evidence the search process was unethical. It also said those who received and disseminated the documents did so in a “sneaky manner” to “effect a change in the outcome” of the search process, which had chosen the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt as the next president.

The report “was a complete trivialization of the real concerns of the folks who saw the lie itself as the serious ethical issue,” said Ritchie, who was never contacted by the ad hoc committee despite being a key figure. Ritchie, minister of North UU Congregation in Lewis Center, Ohio, serves on the UUA Board of Trustees along with the chair of the ad hoc committee, Larry Ladd.

The committee’s report only inflamed the controversy. It pointed to a faculty member, Jyotsna “Jo” Sanzgiri, as the probable source of the leak. The school placed her on leave—even though the report’s evidence of her role was immediately contradicted by a former school trustee, the Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar. The report also published the names of a number of students it said acted improperly. The UU Society for Community Ministry (UUSCM), a professional organization, challenged the investigation and said the report had damaged not only its members’ reputations but also many relationships within Unitarian Universalism.

Contrary to the report, the faculty, staff, and students who quit say they weren’t contesting the choice of McNatt as the school’s next president. They say the central issue is what Parker did and how the school reacted to protect her.

“What bothered me the most was the lying,” said the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, minister of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, who resigned from the Starr King faculty in protest.

When the report found the students in question were not responsible for the leak, Starr King finally conferred degrees on them. It is now working hard to change a longstanding culture that led to the crisis, according to the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, chair of its capital campaign and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. “With any luck, the crisis out of which we are emerging will make [Starr King] stronger and more effective,” he said.

Yet the faculty who quit believe that without addressing the reason for the crisis, Starr King can’t heal, let alone thrive. That Parker, a renowned theologian, minister, and president of a seminary, would speak untruths about the candidate she didn’t support goes to the very heart of the crisis, they say.

UU World has interviewed dozens of people in connection with the incidents at Starr King. It’s clear that the stories Parker wrote about Ritchie in the survey rang false to many at the school, including every person referred to in Parker’s stories. The staff members Parker mentioned have refuted her accounts, in writing. When the survey results were leaked, Parker telephoned Ritchie asking her to call off a student meeting where the documents would be discussed. “She said I would learn that she said some things about me that people might construe as a mischaracterization,” said Ritchie, who hadn’t yet seen the comments. “The phrase I remember, word for word, is that she wouldn’t care if I hated her for life, but she wanted me to call off the student meeting, which of course I had no ability to do.”

After reading the documents, “I was completely outraged,” Ritchie said. Right before Ritchie resigned, she met with Parker. “I said I didn’t expect her to support my candidacy, and that was fine, it was her right to give me a negative evaluation. But to actually lie about it was puzzling and unacceptable,” said Ritchie. In response, according to Ritchie, Parker said, “‘I suppose some people might see it that way.’”

When the survey results started circulating, two dozen people, including a trustee, staff, faculty, and students, approached Ritchie about making Parker’s allegations known in a responsible way. They were upset, she said, “because it seemed to be emblematic of how power and cloaks of secrecy were used inside the school.”

Then something happened that everyone agrees was a disaster.

Under the name “Strapped Student,” an anonymous email, with excerpts from the survey results, was sent to dozens of people inside and outside Starr King, including media. (A student, Edith Love, has since admitted she was involved.) It honored McNatt as newly selected president, but said the search process was “deeply corrupted” with “outright lies told by some within the current administration, regarding Dr. Ritchie.”

Ritchie said she was “totally devastated” because “when Strapped Student released that document in a sloppy way it took away avenues of [addressing Parker’s actions] in a more complete, responsible—and non-anonymous—way.”

Suzi Spangenberg, who finally received her degree when the school conceded she wasn’t involved in the leak, said the Strapped Student letter, while regrettable, “didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened as a result of students witnessing egregious behavior for quite a long time, and this was the tipping point.”

Once Parker’s comments emerged, why didn’t Parker simply apologize or explain herself—especially after the issue became a public relations disaster?

Parker, who retired in July, has stayed out of the fray since then. She has turned down multiple requests for comment. Mr. Barb Greve, the acting chair of the school’s board of trustees who served on the ad hoc committee, has not returned messages from UU World since February. [Update 6.25.15: Parker released a statement through this school responding to the allegations made by former faculty and staff in this story. Read it here.]

McNatt has been left dealing with the fallout since she became president in August. It’s unclear whether Parker’s comments swayed the search committee, which chose McNatt before the crisis erupted.

Yet for Ritchie and others who resigned, the ethics and effects of Parker’s actions were overshadowed by the school’s response: Garcia decried the ethics of those connected to the leak while refusing to examine what Parker did.

“As crazy and harsh as many of the things the board has done are, it has completely effectively prevented people from talking about the Survey Monkey,” said Ritchie. (The school collected survey input using the online tool SurveyMonkey.com.)

“It was a masterful job by someone whose career is focused on damage control and crisis management for major corporations and the U.S. military,” said Spangenberg about Garcia, a prominent UU lay leader who is president of Logos Consulting, a crisis management firm in New York. Spangenberg, who now works as a hospital chaplain in San Francisco, believes she and Julie Brock were targeted because they had often challenged the school’s administration.

Eller-Isaacs said the crisis erupted, in part, because of “idolatry around the issue of power . . . where investments of loyalty became interpersonal rather than loyalty to something higher.” Starr King, he said, had a hard time creating a board of trustees that could be loyal to the president yet provide responsible criticism. President McNatt “is making every effort to do that.”

He said that “institutions—and Starr King is not an exception—tend to close ranks in the name of loyalty when they feel leaders are being questioned in ways they feel are inappropriate or inaccurate or harsh. I think that’s a piece of what happened here. I think that at the end of a long and very distinguished career, a much-beloved leader came under attack. Whether she did things that justified concerns or not, the reaction of the institution was to close ranks and say, ‘How dare you!’”

“I don’t think that’s healthy,” he continued, “but I think it’s understandable.”

Eller-Isaacs said the school was deeply conflict-avoidant, a problem shared by other UU institutions, but he added that McNatt is comfortable with conflict and hopes to reshape the school’s culture.

“You improve the institution so people do not feel threatened by speaking openly, and you have a clear grievance policy that allows people with concerns to express themselves in ways that they can be resolved,” he said. Starr King and other Unitarian Universalist communities must regard conflict as a source of positive change rather than a threat, he said.

“They teach that at Starr King,” Eller-Isaacs said. “It’s an enormous irony, and one not lost on Starr King itself.”

When Blake resigned, he wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with somebody exposing something that’s ‘confidential’ if it exposes a wrong or injustice.”

He and other faculty and staff who resigned continue to try to find a forum of accountability for the consequences of Parker’s actions: Two students had their diplomas withheld for months; one lost an internship. Staff and faculty quit Starr King without having other jobs lined up. Students enrolled at other seminaries. The school spent at least $50,000 for a restorative justice specialist and spent an unknown amount on legal and private investigator fees.

Blake, who now teaches at the Pacific School of Religion, has written to the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools that “Starr King is in need of serious consultation regarding its way of operating that enshrines lack of transparency, intentional misinformation, threats and actions against those who question it.”

Ritchie said, “It’s been incredibly frustrating to me to not have had any good or obvious venue for making the truth of the matter known.” She has hesitated to talk widely about the matter because as a failed candidate for presidency, her motives can seem suspect.

The UUSCM, the professional organization for UU community ministers, asked the UUA board in February to mediate some kind of healing process between all stakeholders. UUA Moderator Jim Key, who chairs the board, responded that the UUA has no jurisdiction over Starr King. Some UUA trustees believe the UUA may have a role; others insist it doesn’t. The board is scheduled to discuss the UUA’s financial support of both Starr King and Meadville Lombard Theological School, the other UU-identity seminary, at its June meeting, at the request of the board’s Finance Committee chair, the Rev. Sarah Stewart.

Until there’s a full airing of what happened, it will be hard to change what has been an entrenched atmosphere of mistrust and power imbalance at Starr King, said the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald, a UU community minister in Oakland, California, who resigned from the Starr King faculty. He hopes for a truth and reconciliation process, where all the key players sit down with a facilitator and, without fear of retribution, “attempt to have an honest dialogue about what we’ve experienced.”


Update 6.25.15: After this story was published, Rebecca Parker released a statement on the Starr King website responding to the allegations reported in this story.

“In giving my opinions to the Search Committee, I expressed myself honestly and truthfully from where I sat and what I knew,” she writes. “The UU World has chosen to publish the accusation that I lied to the Search Committee in my assessment of one of the final candidates, and has suggested that this purported breach by me is ‘what really happened at Starr King’ that caused so much difficulty.”

She also writes: “If the motivation back at the beginning of the troubles in March of 2014 was to call me to account for a believed infraction of ethics, I am simply heartbroken that no one with this concern chose to address it through appropriate and available channels. Starr King School and the UUMA have established processes for grievances and for accountability.”

Read the full statement.