Organization of community ministers condemns school's actions; UUA leaders express dismay about 'heated rhetoric and broken relationships.'
Starr King faculty in May 2014 (Rob Packenham)
Two more professors have resigned from Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, Calif. The professional organization for UU community ministers is calling on the school to immediately grant degrees it is withholding from two students who graduated last May. And a current student has publicly called for the resignation of the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, Helio Fred Garcia.
Supporters of the school, meanwhile, are raising money in honor of Starr King’s 112th anniversary, and an ad hoc committee continues to investigate the leak and distribution of documents from the search last spring for a new seminary president.
The UU Society for Community Ministries is asking the Starr King board and administration to refocus their energies on healing the school rather than trying to find who is responsible for leaking the documents. “Continuing to seek to find a guilty party is clearly causing severe damage in numerous relationships, including a sense of brokenness in our larger UU community,” reads the statement, which was unanimously endorsed by the UUSCM board.
On December 18 and 19, the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald and the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, longtime teachers and social justice activists, resigned from Starr King, effective January 9, to protest the administration’s actions. They call the school’s ongoing investigation “illegitimate” because it is limited to finding the source of the leak but is not examining why the leak happened.
“The withholding of diplomas of the two students is, as I stated to the illegitimate ad hoc committee, the most ethically vile action I have witnessed in my extensive teaching career,” Blake wrote in his resignation letter. “I would expect this action from the National Security Agency, the Defense Department, or CIA; but not from a seminary, especially a UU seminary.”
Blake, who was associate professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice, is pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, which was founded by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman as the nation’s first interracial, interfaith congregation. Blake taught at Starr King for over nine years.
Kuhwald, who was assistant professor of Preaching, Pastoral Care, and Social Change, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist community minister who works with environmental justice communities of color. He taught at Starr King for over six years. A member of the UUSCM board, he said he voted on its statement only after he had resigned from his position.
In announcing the resignations on the school’s website, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, school president since July 1, wrote that Kuhwald and Blake were departing over “unresolved issues surrounding the presidential search,” and that while she disagreed with them, she respected their honesty. “Yet sometimes people of good will can’t reach agreement on a way forward together, and that is the case here,” she wrote.
Kuhwald and Blake reject her characterization of the situation as a disagreement, saying it downplays what they believe are serious ongoing issues at the school including, through its recent actions toward the students, abandoning its core values and justice commitment.
“I couldn’t disagree more, of course,” McNatt told UU World. “I believe that matters of accountability are inseparable from the work of justice. It’s my continued hope that the work of the ad hoc committee will provide us all with some much-needed insight into the events of the last several months.”
On January 9, fundraising letter for Starr King began circulating. Signed by alumni and other UU leaders, including Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and his two predecessors, the Rev. John Buehrens and the Rev. William G. Sinkford, the letter celebrates the school’s 112th anniversary by inviting gifts in increments of $112. It refers to the controversy: “We understand that the aftermath of a breach of confidentiality in the presidential search process has been incredibly challenging for all at Starr King, and we believe that the school will come through its current difficulties with integrity, grounded in ongoing commitment to its core values.”
Morales said that his support of the fundraising campaign “has nothing to do with the current controversy. I was asked by other alumni to join in pledging support for Starr King and I was happy to do that. I, like all UUs, want both of our identity schools to thrive and be strong.”
Another signer is the Rev. David Pettee, the UUA’s ministerial credentialing director, who oversees students in the ordination process. He told UU World he signed the letter only as an alumnus with a long relationship with the school. “I feel that it is necessary to support the school now so the next 112 years will be just as transformative for our movement as it has been for me both personally and professionally.”
Although the campaign has just begun, McNatt said it has already garnered many gifts of $112 or multiples thereof, and at least one gift of $1,120.
At the same time, Kuhwald has written to the UUA Board of Trustees asking it to withhold funding from Starr King until the school changes course. Through the Panel on Theological Education, the UUA currently provides a $200,000 annual grant to Starr King.
On January 16, Morales and UUA Moderator Jim Key read a statement to the UUA board that said, “[W]e are profoundly dismayed by the heated rhetoric and broken relationships that this situation has produced. And as other UU organizations are pulled into the conflict, we see the ill will spreading. This situation does not reflect who we aspire to be as religious people.” Morales and Key insisted that the UUA administration and board have no authority over the school.
“It is our hope,” Morales and Key said, “that everyone involved in this unfortunate situation will answer the call to be their best selves, to look with love and respect on those with whom they disagree, and together find a just and equitable resolution to this conflict.”
(Members of the UUA’s 14-person board include the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, who resigned from the Starr King faculty in August, and Financial Advisor Larry Ladd, who chairs the school’s ad hoc investigative committee.)
Former UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who set up a legal defense fund for the two students whose diplomas were withheld, condemned the statement by Key and Morales. “Shame, shame, shame, as our UUA leadership continues to side with the powerful and oppressive in the SKSM matter,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “The joint statement blames individuals and organizations demanding justice for increasing the conflict—a tactic of the privileged we should all be familiar with—and asks that we all get along.”
In their resignation letters and statements to the ad hoc committee, published on the Rev. Daniel Harper’s blog, Blake and Kuhwald called the school’s investigative committee illegitimate because it won’t examine why the leak happened. They say there may be a valid whistleblower reason for the leak, because of what they allege were serious improprieties during the presidential search.
“There’s nothing wrong with somebody exposing something that’s ‘confidential’ if it exposes a wrong or injustice,” Blake told UU World.
The board has limited the committee to finding how the documents got into students’ hands and what students did with them. Blake and Kuhwald have refused to cooperate with its investigation.
Blake and Kuhwald believe the investigation must also ask why the board chose to target two students, Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock, when many other students also received the leaked materials. They also object that the three-person committee includes a member of the school’s Board of Trustees, Mr. Barb Greve.
Last April, during the search for a new Starr King president, evaluations of three finalists by faculty, staff, and students leaked out from the nine-person presidential search committee and were emailed to a number of students, including two graduating students, Spangenberg and Brock. Shortly thereafter, someone identified as “Strapped Student” sent an anonymous email with some of the leaked materials to dozens of people within and outside the school, including media.
Spangenberg and Brock have insisted they do not know how the documents were leaked out of the search committee or who is responsible for the leak. They have said they are not “Strapped Student” and had nothing to do with the Strapped Student email.
Garcia said that shortly after receiving the documents, Spangenberg and Brock called a student meeting to discuss them, which he said was improper since the documents were confidential. However, the two students are adamant that they did not call the meeting, and an email obtained by UU World shows that two different students, not Spangenberg and Brock, convened that meeting.
Garcia has said the school has no evidence at this point that Spangenberg and Brock have done anything wrong. He said the board conferred their degrees “with conditions” because they would not turn over communications the school wanted to examine to try to find out how the leak happened. If they cooperate, the board will take that into consideration in deciding whether to grant their degrees, Garcia told UU World in June.
He said their willingness to cooperate is relevant to their fitness to be ministers. McNatt agreed: “Starr King’s concern with its students and their fitness to be ministers is not new at all. The school has seen this as part of its role for decades.”
Spangenberg and Brock have refused to turn over their computers, citing their ministerial responsibility to maintain confidences of others. They have also threatened to sue the school for their diplomas.
In September, the school appointed a three-person ad hoc committee to find the source of the leak and the identity of Strapped Student; it has a March deadline to issue its report. In August, McNatt said that at least one person responsible for the Strapped Student email had been identified.
In a “Statement of Concern” posted on its website January 10, the UUSCM announced that it has set up an escrow fund dedicated to covering legal expenses for the students and “others in need of legal assistance.” It will solicit contributions for the fund “until such time as a different course of action manifests between all parties concerned,” it said.
The UUSCM created the fund at the request of Brock, Spangenberg, and Courter, who established a UU Seminarian Legal Defense Fund last summer.
The UUSCM supports the students’ decision not to share their confidential communications with the school board. It said the materials from the search committee should not have been leaked, but the “same sacred trust of confidentiality applies to communications between ministerial students and those who trust them.” The board’s demand for the students’ confidential communications is “ethically unacceptable as a matter of principle,” the UUSCM said.
The community ministers group also asked the school to lift what it calls “gag orders” on faculty, staff, and students directing what they’re allowed to say about the controversy.
In November, staff and faculty received a letter from the administration specifying the exact language they should use if asked about the leak or expenditures on a related restorative justice process, both for legal reasons and also to keep the focus on the school’s mission. “Like many UU churches, and like many other organizations who must deal with the press, we created policies about how to talk about the school and who is authorized to speak on behalf of the school,” McNatt told UU World.
Current students, posting online and speaking to UU World, say they feel intimidated about speaking about the controversy after comments McNatt made during an all-school meeting in the fall, where they say she suggested that any student critiquing the school could be found in violation of ministerial guidelines that forbid ministers from “speaking scornfully or in derogation” of each other in public. McNatt strongly denies that any comments she made were meant to be coercive.
Blake’s and Kuhwald’s resignations prompted a current ministerial student, Kevin Mann, to publicly request at a school-wide meeting on January 5 that Garcia resign as board chair for “gross mishandling and severe negligence” of the controversy, and to demand that the two students receive their degrees immediately. In a letter he posted on UU World’s website, Mann reiterated those requests and also wrote that he is “deeply troubled, enraged, and saddened by the leadership of this school.”
“I think the student body has remained quiet so far because of fear our degrees will be taken away as they were with Suzi and Julie,” Mann told UU World. Asked why he chose to speak out now, he said, “Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake are immense hallmarks of institutional justice at Starr King and the reason students come to Starr King, literally. For them to no longer be able to remain at Starr King says something clear and strong to the administration and board that Starr King is no longer a place where people feel safe or feel justice is being served.”
McNatt, in contrast, said, “I would like people to know that, though it may be hard to believe from reading Facebook, leading Starr King is still a lot of fun, and the staff and I are having a great time.” She said that seven new students are being welcomed at the spring semester orientation this week, and the application rate is “steady.” Even before the 112th anniversary fundraising campaign, the school’s fundraising since July 1 has increased almost 18 percent since this point last year, she added. “All this is very good news for us, and I expect the good news to continue as the year goes on,” she said.
Photograph (above): The faculty of Starr King School for the Ministry gather at commencement in May 2014, when the school issued degrees “with conditions” to two students after documents were leaked from the search process for a new president after the retirement of President Rebecca Ann Parker (second from left; photo by Rob Packenham). Since then, three faculty—the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake (left), the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie (fifth from left), and the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald (sixth from left) have resigned to protest the board’s and administration’s response.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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