Starr King seminary continues investigation of students

Starr King seminary continues investigation of students

Excitement over new president marred by ongoing controversy over withheld degrees and search committee leaks.

Elaine McArdle


Amid excitement over a new president taking the helm, controversy continues at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, formerly senior minister of Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, became school president July 1, succeeding the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker, who retired after 25 years in that role.

McNatt, who said she has been warmly welcomed in her new role by students, faculty, staff, and many outside the school, is “very excited” about her vision and goals, including “my dream that anyone who wants a Starr King education can have one in a variety of ways.” She envisions expanding access to Starr King throughout the world by continuing to develop distance learning, offering new programs for laypeople, partnering with like-minded organizations, and providing more financial aid.

“UU identity schools are one of the great repositories of the faith, and it’s up to all of us in Unitarian Universalism to protect that and protect the capacity of people to afford it,” she said in an interview with UU World November 6 at the Starr King campus.

Yet over the past six months, a controversy that arose before McNatt arrived has persisted. Four more people—a professor, the communications coordinator, and two ministerial students—have resigned in protest of Starr King’s ongoing withholding of the degrees of two recent graduates and a related investigation into documents leaked from last spring’s presidential search. A third ministerial student told UU World that the controversy was a “huge factor” in the decision to withdraw from the school this fall.

Florence Caplow, who decided to withdraw from Starr King in May and is now enrolled in a non-UU seminary, said, “My decision to transfer was entirely based on what was, for me, a moral decision. I could not continue knowing that my tuition would be used for attorneys and private investigators on a trajectory I did not support, particularly the withholding of degrees without evidence of wrongdoing.”

Actions by the school administration over the summer—including removing the student advisory roles from two professors who publicly called for the school to grant the diplomas—“have only confirmed that I made the right choice,” Caplow said.

Robert Packenham, who worked for six years as Starr King’s part-time communications coordinator, resigned in September. He said he told McNatt he was leaving because he objected to the two graduates being denied their degrees and also to the way they found out: on the night before graduation—via email—when their families and friends were already in town to attend the ceremony.

Katie Garcia, daughter of the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, Helio Fred Garcia, has replaced Packenham as interim communications director.

These departures follow the May 24 resignation of the Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar from the Board of Trustees. In her resignation letter, she said she was leaving because the “focus of the Board is primarily on identifying perpetrators of harm and on punitive consequences and not yet on addressing the broader systemic dysfunction” at the school. A student trustee, Zachary Wear, also resigned from the board, in April, for reasons that included board actions during the presidential search process.

The conflict erupted last March, when results of a school-wide survey regarding three finalists for the school presidency, conducted by the nine-person presidential search committee, ended up in the hands of some students. Board Chair Garcia said the board has determined these early recipients were four students—two on the brink of graduation. A few days later, an anonymous email under the name “Strapped Student,” which criticized the search process and included some of the leaked documents, was sent to the media, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) leaders and affiliates, the Starr King community, and others. The school began an investigation and hired a restorative justice consultant, J. Miakoda Taylor, to meet with the community. On May 8, Garcia said the restorative justice process would not continue because no one had admitted responsibility.

On May 13, President Parker asked a student, Julie Brock, who had already met with Taylor, to “further engage in some restorative justice with another person helping the school with that process," according to Brock. Brock said she refused because she thought the process thus far was focused on finding fault rather than restoring relationships. A few days later, through an email Parker wrote to a third party, Brock learned that the person she had been invited to meet was not a restorative justice expert but rather an investigator for the school’s lawyers.

Garcia told UU World he did not know the details of how Parker described the person. However, he said that Parker told him that in the May 13 conversation, Brock threatened her with a lawsuit. Brock strongly denies that.

On May 19, in a letter to the Starr King community, Garcia said some students would not receive their diplomas. Instead, their degrees were being “conferred with conditions,” at least until they cooperated further with the investigation. That same day, Brock and Spangenberg received letters stating that cooperation would include but not necessarily be limited to turning over electronic and other information the school wanted.

That same night—the night before graduation—Brock and another seminarian, Suzi Spangenberg, learned via a letter attached to an email from Starr King that they would not receive their diplomas. Brock, president of the Starr King student body in 2012–2013, and Spangenberg, who served as student trustee to the board from 2011 to 2013, told UU World that no one called to inform them or explain why they had been singled out. No one from the school spoke to them, they said, until they met with members of the school’s investigative committee on November 6.

The school has no evidence the two seminarians have done anything wrong, Garcia told UU World. But since they were early recipients of the leaked documents, it wants to examine their electronic communications and other items to try to find how the breach happened. If they cooperate, he said, the board will take that into consideration in deciding whether to grant their degrees. (See our earlier story, “Starr King seminary withholds diplomas amid investigation,” 6.6.14.)

When UU World asked Garcia on November 20 if there is any chance the two will receive their degrees, he replied, “That’s an open question. We’ve kept an open mind. I hope we can resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Spangenberg and Brock have publicly stated they don’t know who “Strapped Student” is or who leaked the documents. Short of turning over confidential communications, they said, they have done everything the school wants, including meeting with the restorative justice consultant. But divulging personal emails from colleagues and others would violate their duty of confidentiality and breach ministerial ethics guidelines, they say.

Six months have passed, and they still don’t have their diplomas. The two have endured “severe financial and spiritual impact” from the school’s actions, they wrote in a recent letter to the school’s ad hoc investigative committee; Brock lost a ministerial internship. They are now preparing to sue the school for their diplomas “very soon,” their lawyer told UU World on November 18.

On July 1, McNatt, who served on the Starr King Board of Trustees in the 1990s and was its chair from 1999 to 2001, took over leadership of the school. (McNatt is also a UU World contributing editor.) Describing herself as someone who loves to mentor ministers in formation—her New York City congregation ordained seven ministers in her 13 years there—she sees the Starr King role as a natural step and one she is already deeply enjoying.

She acknowledged that she has come onboard during a challenging time. Still, McNatt said she has seen no indication of “the longstanding atmosphere of distrust” that Garcia described to UU World in June. “I’ve experienced a couple of people unhappy with previous leadership by the board or Rebecca [Parker], but for the most part since my arrival, there has been an incredible amount of excitement about the life of the school,” including from new and returning students, McNatt said.

McNatt is emphatic that the controversy arose because of events during the process of choosing a new president, not because she was selected by the board over other candidates. “At no point did I experience any of the distress being about me personally, ever,” she told UU World. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”

Still, the troubles have not abated.

Since the summer, two ministers on the faculty who publicly opposed withholding the students’ degrees have had their student advisory roles taken away; at least five people have left the school in whole or part due to the school’s actions around the controversy; an ad hoc committee appointed by the board is continuing the investigation; and the school—which is using about $400,000 from endowment income to cover “extraordinary expenses” this year, mostly transition costs related to getting a new president—had spent approximately $75,000 on restorative justice and private investigator fees as of August, according to McNatt. She said the school has not spent much on attorneys’ fees to date, since the matter is not in court.

Garcia believes that students’ refusal to turn over their personal communications to the school is relevant to their fitness to be ministers.

The students believe the exact opposite: that despite great personal cost, they are taking a moral stand by not turning over confidential communications, thereby upholding ethical obligations under the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). “Several colleagues have contacted us and stated explicitly that they do not want us turning over communications from or to them to Starr King,” the students wrote in a November 6 letter to the ad hoc committee.

Three ministers on the faculty of Starr King agreed. The students are “effectively being coerced to breach their own confidences and covenants” by turning over confidential communications, wrote the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, acting dean of faculty and an unsuccessful finalist for the presidency, the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald, and the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake in an open letter to the Board of Trustees on May 29. They urged the board to grant their degrees.

On August 4, Ritchie, who is also the UUA secretary and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, resigned from the faculty. “I continue to believe that the withholding of the two students’ diplomas this spring, along with the continued failure of the school to resolve this matter in a timely way, represent a serious injustice,” she wrote in her resignation letter to the school. “I am dismayed at the school’s apparent indifference to the severe and undue harm this action has had on the two students whose diplomas were withheld, as well as on everyone involved.”

Not long after, Kuhwald and Blake were informed that their student advising roles were being taken away. McNatt told UU World she “wanted to re-envision how we do advisement and shift some emphases around.”

At around the same time, Kuhwald, Blake, and three other faculty learned that they were no longer designated as “core faculty” and that their voting rights—including the right to vote on student diplomas—were being removed. There are now four core faculty who can vote on diplomas and school governance: McNatt; Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, provost and professor of cultural studies and Islamic studies; Dr. Gabriella Lettini, dean of faculty; and the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, acting dean of students and community life.

McNatt told UU World that she has worked with Farajajé, Lettini, and Ramsden in other settings, and that while the school is “looking at what kind of faculty best meet our needs going forward,” she wants to “make sure I had a team who were core whom I already had experience working with.”

On August 21, McNatt announced that “at least one person” responsible for the “Strapped Student” email had been identified“by digital means.” In a letter posted on the school website, McNatt wrote that she had met with the student the day before in an effort to “restore the student to right relationship to the school,” but that those attempts were rebuffed and the student indicated an intent to withdraw from the school.

But the core question, to Garcia, is how the documents got into the hands of the students in the first place, and that has not yet been answered. In September, the Board of Trustees appointed a three-person ad hoc committee—Larry Ladd, UUA financial advisor and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, Mr. Barb Greve, and the Rev. Emily Gage—to continue the investigation.

McNatt believes it’s important “to help the school figure out what happened so it doesn’t happen anymore.” She said she is not involved in the ad hoc committee’s work and will wait to receive its report before taking any action. Garcia said the committee has until March to complete its work, although the board hopes they will finish by the end of December.

On October 6, Ladd sent a letter to Spangenberg and Brock asking them to participate in a meeting that would be recorded. The letter requested that they bring all of their emails and other communications from the period of March 22 through March 31, 2014, related to Starr King or to or from “any individuals at Starr King,” including previously deleted emails if recoverable. It also requested all documents related to the Starr King presidential search process, and asked the two to produce the laptops they used during that period for a committee member to review.

On November 6, Spangenberg, Brock, and their lawyer met with the school’s lawyers and the ad hoc committee, some attending in person and others via teleconference. In a letter that they read at the meeting, Spangenberg and Brock said they desired reconciliation with the school but that they would not “break UUMA guidelines regarding collegial confidentiality by turning over our emails or laptops.”

“Doing this would set a dangerous precedent and send the message that we agree that an institution with power should be able to wield that power over those with less power in order to compel them to give up privacy and confidentiality,” they stated. “It would also put our careers into further jeopardy by compromising relationships with colleagues and demonstrating an inability to hold confidential communications.”

Rachel Lederman, their lawyer, told UU World that Spangenberg and Brock “have met all the requirements to get their degrees and fulfilled all their obligations. There’s nothing in the student handbook or anything else that says to get a degree, you have to give up your laptop and turn over these communications.”

Brock and Spangenberg are “preparing to sue” the school “very soon,” Lederman said. “My clients weren’t involved in the so-called ‘Strapped Student’ email.” And, she added, “I’ve looked at the documents attached to [that email], and there’s nothing confidential about them.”

A legal defense fund for the students, set up by former UUA Moderator Gini Courter, has raised nearly $9,000.

Asked whether she has considered reaching out to the two students to try to open dialogue with them, McNatt said she cannot, since lawyers are involved. (The school hired lawyers in April; the students retained a lawyer in late May after they did not receive their degrees.)

UU World asked McNatt about her response to the students’ position: that they have done nothing wrong and don’t know who did, and that they are taking a moral stance by refusing to turn over confidential information, which might breach their ministerial duty to other people.

“Wait and see,” she said. “I don’t know anything, and I don’t want to contribute to a culture of talking about stuff I don’t know.”

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Updated 11.22.14: An earlier version of this story misquoted a May 19 letter from Helio Fred Garcia to the Starr King community. The letter did not say that degrees were being “conditionally granted” to some students; it said they were being “conferred with conditions.” In addition, the letter to the community did not specify that the conditions included turning over electronic information; those conditions were spelled out in letters sent the same day to the students.