Starr King belatedly grants degrees to two students

Starr King belatedly grants degrees to two students

On heels of report by ad hoc investigative committee, seminary puts professor on administrative leave.

Elaine McArdle
Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock

Two Starr King seminarians, Suzi Spangenberg (left) and Julie Brock, will receive the degrees the school withheld while investigating the leak of documents from the presidential search committee. (Courtesy Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock)

Courtesy of Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock


Starr King School for the Ministry has decided to grant degrees to two students nine months after their graduation ceremony because an ad hoc committee has concluded they were not involved in leaking sensitive documents from the school’s search for a new president. Board chair Helio Fred Garcia, who released a redacted report on February 10 from a committee that investigated the leak, said the school was “closing a sad chapter” with the release of the report.

The school-appointed committee could not definitively determine the source of that leak, although it identified a faculty member on the search committee as a probable source of the leak. It also identified people who were early recipients of the documents.

In a letter accompanying the release of the report, Garcia said, “In our opinion, the report suggests that a faculty member who served on the Presidential Search Committee, two former Board trustees (one a student and the other an ordained, fellowshipped minister), and several students knowingly and willing [sic] violated their covenants and commitments.” Garcia stepped down from the board the next day, noting that his term was to have ended last year, but that he had agreed to stay until the committee completed its work.

Immediately after releasing the committee’s report, the school placed the faculty member, Associate Professor Jyotsna “Jo” Sanzgiri, on administrative leave.

“I placed Jo on administrative leave because the report raises sufficient questions about her possible involvement,” the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, president of the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, Calif., told UU World.

UU World could not reach Sanzgiri for comment.

Sanzgiri denied to the committee that she provided confidential documents to anyone, “yet information suggests to the contrary,” the report says. It points to two pieces of evidence: one trustee told the committee that another trustee had reported receiving the documents from Sanzgiri, and Sanzgiri “was an outspoken supporter” of the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency who resigned from the faculty last summer in protest of the school’s actions toward the students.

According to the report, trustee Vanessa Lowe, an economic development specialist with the National Credit Union Administration, told the committee that the Rev. Dr. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar, a fellow trustee, told Lowe she received the confidential documents from Sanzgiri. Moldenhauer-Salazar herself never spoke to the committee.

But Moldenhauer-Salazar—who later resigned from the board of trustees in protest of its actions around the leak—said the information the committee relied on about Sanzgiri is inaccurate.

“The person who sent me the leaked document was not a member of the SKSM Search Committee,” Moldenhauer-Salazar told UU World on February 11. “The ad hoc report [says] that Dr. Jo Sanzgiri relayed the document to me. She did not. I believe that Vanessa Lowe was relaying what she remembered, but her claim is not true.”

Moldenhauer-Salazar, who is now the endowment director for the UU Ministers Association, said she refused to meet with the committee because its work was limited to finding the source of the leak rather than examining longstanding problems of power and trust at the school. She has published an open letter responding to the ad hoc committee report’s statements about her role. She said she had received the documents from someone affiliated with the school, but that it was not Sanzgiri, and that she had discussed them with Lowe. She said she did not know who had distributed the documents to students.

Lowe resigned from the board January 18, the day after the board’s first meeting to discuss the ad hoc committee report.

Brock and Spangenberg will receive degrees

Since May, the school had withheld the degrees of two graduates, Julie Brock and Suzi Spangenberg, because it wanted to examine their personal emails and laptops to try to find who was responsible for the leak. The students refused, citing their ministerial duty to maintain confidences. As UU World has previously reported, Brock and Spangenberg engaged a lawyer with help from a fund established by former UUA Moderator Gini Courter, and their position was supported by the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries and others, including three faculty who resigned over the school’s actions.

In September, the board appointed a three-person committee chaired by Larry Ladd, financial advisor on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees, to try to find the source of the leak.

Despite interviewing 20 people over four months, the committee was unsuccessful in finding “the precise source(s) and manner of the unauthorized disclosure” of the documents, according to its report, which was submitted to the school on January 7.

Many people refused to participate in its inquiry, including two former faculty, the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald and the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, who said the investigation was illegitimate because it wasn’t examining whether there was a legitimate whistleblower purpose for the leak. They also objected that the three-person committee appointed by the school included two people with strong ties to Starr King, Ladd and Mr. Barb Greve, the vicechair of the Board of Trustees.

While the committee could not determine the precise source of the leak, it did name seven people it said had improperly received the confidential documents, including Moldenhauer-Salazar and a number of students, including those whose degrees were withheld.

Brock and a number of others named in the 18-page report told UU World they are still reviewing it and would be making responsive statements in the near future.

The board met three times in January and again on February 1 to take action on the report, according to the board minutes.

On January 26, it voted to confer degrees on Brock and Spangenberg, even though “it would be proper to deny the degrees” because the students had failed to cooperate with the committee. “Denying the degrees would not be equitable,” the board concluded, “because it appears more likely than not, that one or more persons with a higher level of ethical responsibility to the School and the UU Community than the two students, were responsible for the fact that the confidential documents came into the students’ possession.”

Citing federal laws protecting student privacy, the school has emphasized that it has never publicly named Brock and Spangenberg as the two students whose degrees were withheld.

Identity of ‘Strapped Student’ partially revealed

One of the central issues in the controversy has been the identity of someone who, after the confidential documents were initially leaked out of the search committee, then widely disseminated them within and outside the school using the email alias “Strapped Student.”

One of those named in the committee’s report as having received the confidential documents is Edith Love, a Starr King student who withdrew from the school in the fall. On the day the school released the committee report, Love wrote a letter that she posted on Facebook and elsewhere taking responsibility as one of the people involved in sending the Strapped Student email. In explaining her motive for widely disseminating the confidential documents—which contained the results of a survey about three presidential finalists—Love said, “It seemed to some of us who had access to the information in the search process documents that the president, dean, and provost were using the private nature of the survey to say things that were not true. I thought it was urgent that the entire student body be able to access this information, as it was extremely relevant to our interests and the long-term best interests of our institution itself.” Love apologized to everyone affected, including McNatt and the two students, but said she would not identify the other people who had also been involved.

In response, Brock told UU World, “I do not accept Edith Love’s apology because she has done nothing to cause me harm. The school chose to hold my degree with no evidence of my wrongdoing; the school chose to react in a manner that caused me harm. She could not have predicted the school would retaliate so strongly against people who were not involved in the writing or sending of that email. Edie’s actions actually showed a lot of courage and integrity that we don't get to see, as the school has held all the power to frame the story up until now.”

In its report, the committee said it was of the opinion that the motive for leaking the documents was to “cause institutional disruption, so as to attempt to effect a change in the outcome” of the presidential search process. The report said those who “gave, obtained, and/or distributed the documents” did so in a “sneaky manner” and because they preferred Ritchie over McNatt. Although the committee had a narrow charge that did not include evaluating the validity of the search process, its report said that there is no evidence the process was conducted unethically, as the Strapped Student email had accused.

Ritchie said, “I am astonished by the school’s ongoing claims that no misconduct occurred within the search process itself.” The former associate professor at Starr King, who is minister of North Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Lewis Center, Ohio, is also a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. “The Survey Monkey document [leaked from the search committee] contains feedback from the school administration regarding me that was not simply negative, but overtly fallacious,” she said. “My attempts to directly this address this issue as well as others connected to the search process have been ignored.

“I am happy that Suzi’s and Julie’s degrees have been released; however I am seriously dismayed that the school has yet to take responsibility for the damage done to their reputations, nor has the school issued a long-overdue apology to them,” she said. “The school’s failure to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions points to the ongoing pattern of abuse of power that requires intense and systemic address.”


Correction 2.15.15: An earlier version of this story said Associate Professor Jo Sanzgiri is one of seven people named by the ad hoc investigative committee who improperly received documents from the presidential search committee. The ad hoc committee report does identify seven people, but Sanzgiri is not one of them. Instead, the report suggests that Sanzgiri, who was a member of the search committee, improperly disseminated the documents.