Academe Needs More VSA


As some of you know, my money-making job is basically something like an assistant to the academic dean at a summer boarding school for gifted high schoolers. It’s called Vanderbilt Summer Academy. In short, in the fall I recruit a diverse crew of academics to geek out about their respectively disciplines for a few weeks; in the spring I help them turn that geeking-out into a syllabus; and in the summer I do observations, feedback, and general support. It is about 18 months of work for about 6 weeks of magic. And the academy needs more of it.

The magic I am referring to is not the magic of learning. It is the magic of taking all those people you interviewed—engineers, theologians, writers, mathematicians—and having a few beers with them after work, or sitting with them around the lunch table, and listening to the conversations unfold. The thing about academics is that we are naturally curious people, but we spend most of our lives focusing our curiosity into a narrow set of problems or questions. There is nothing quite like watching the enthusiasm on a historian’s face as an environmental engineer talks about water polymers.


It is worth noting that Vanderbilt has a robust culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. Believe it or not, when you are a biologist studying antibiotic resistance, it helps to know a chemist. Even informal collaboration has a creative benefit. We all need to get outside of our own heads every once-in-a-while. During the summers, the faculty I work with have very little time to do their own research, yet they keep coming back. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them say that working with our students helps them fall in love with teaching all over again. Their students are also very creative, and so a lot of our instructors come away with new ideas for their own work. I would also like to think that those lunch and happy hour conversations have a lot to do with it. At least, they do for me.

Knowledge is its own good. It is divine. I believe this is something most academics intuit (even the atheist ones). The natural enthusiasm that comes from conversations experts have with peers from other departments and other disciplines feels a lot like worship in some ways. It is an eschatological event of sorts. The kingdom of God comes to earth…over beers.

Rescinding Letters of Recommendation

I came across an article in Inside Hire Ed that tells of a teacher who was suspended for revoking a letter of recommendation she had written for a student. The young man in question had displayed a swastika in his school. The article deals with the ethics of rescinding a recommendation from the perspective of its impact on the student. This seems wrongheaded to me. What they need to be thinking about is the impact that recommendation would have on the teacher.  Continue reading “Rescinding Letters of Recommendation”

Funding My Theology Habit

It is never a good idea to announce online where you work. People get fired for saying stupid things about their places of employment. So I will not tell you the name of the university. But if you were to guess, “Vanderbilt,” you would be right.

I am staff, not faculty. I do not teach at Vanderbilt the university. I am an educational consultant for a department that offers services to support academically gifted students. What that means is that I help put the classes together. There is a large technology component to my job too, which happened somewhat by accident. Continue reading “Funding My Theology Habit”

What the Hell is Going on at NNU?

Thomas J. Oord was recently fired by Northwest Nazarene University. For full disclosure, before I was Orthodox, I spent time as a Nazarene. I have met Oord once or twice at conferences, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy. What I do know is the man had name recognition in the academy. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider the packed playing field. Not many theologians from Nazarene institutions garner the kind of respect he has. Continue reading “What the Hell is Going on at NNU?”

Rev. Tillotson’s Ridiculous Defense of GTS

Rev. Ellen Tillotson weighed in yesterday on the mess going on at General Theological Seminary in New York. Her article and the faculty’s response need to be read, but the short version is that the eight protesting professors were not fired. They resigned. Rev. Tillotson makes her case by talking about some of the things the faculty wrote to the Board of Trustees (of which she is a member).

In it [their letter], they said, twice, that they were unable and unwilling to work with Dean and President Kurt Dunkle and that unless certain changes were made, they would be “no longer able to serve in our positions at General” [sic]…

They stated again, at the end of the letter, that “If Dean Dunkle continues in his present position, we will be unable to continue in ours.”…

In [a] second letter, the eight members also stated that “the damage has been done,” “no working relationship is possible,” “we can no longer work with President Dunkle.”

Tillotson also challenges the narrative that the faculty had only one demand: to bring their grievances to the board. In fact, she says, the faculty laid out a series of conditions for the board to meet in order to have a discussion.

I feel like Rev. Tillotson has insulted my intelligence. I am in a bit of a leadership position. If someone presented similar complaints to me, I would see it as the start of a conversation. If the complaints came from several staff at once, in the form of a letter, I would interpret it as the opening gambit in a negotiating process (hence the conditions for meeting). I suppose if I were drunk or recovering from some kind of brain injury, I might ask, “So…are you resigning?” Basically, it is hard not to read Rev. Tillotson’s account and infer either that she and the entire board of GTS are lying, or they are extremely incompetent.

I am not an Episcopalian. I don’t have anything personally at stake in this issue except for the fact that one of my friends (whom I have known since 2004) is among those who have been fired. He has a wife with two kids, student loans, and a PhD in a market where jobs are few and far between. It is hard for me to see him, or anyone in his position, seeing a work stoppage as anything but a last resort. I am outraged for Josh, but I am also outraged by the obvious injustice (and possible illegality?) of firing protesting workers, particularly when it is a religious institution doing the firing. Is this how the Episcopalians respond to collective bargaining? They fire the people on strike and then lie about it?

Rev. Tillotson seems to be saying that what is going on at GTS is sad, but it is not her fault or the fault of the Board of Trustees. They are not responsible.

No matter what else you might think about this situation, that is just bad leadership.

Unfolding Events at GTS

A few days ago, eight faculty members at the General Theological Seminary in New York went on strike until their one demand was met. What was that demand? A meeting.

As of this morning, they have all been fired.

Here’s why you should care about this:

It is a spiteful act. Take a moment to read the original announcement. The protesting faculty took pains to be as diplomatic as possible, leaving readers uncertain as to what their specific complaints were. The word “heavy-handed” does not even begin to describe the administration’s response to their tact.

It is deceitful. The dean and president (who is also a reverend) announced to the student body that the protesting faculty had resigned. They did not.

It is unreasonable. The dean and president has basically fired people for wanting to talk to his superiors. In what universe is this an appropriate course of action?

It is stupid. Some of the faculty’s concerns seem to be about the president’s heavy-handed leadership style and his tendency to perceive discussion as dissent. He has not helped his case.

It sets a dangerous precedent. The erosion of the tenure system has already undermined academic integrity. If this act is allowed to stand, then a precedent has been set. Faculty protest against administration leads to termination. If you or anyone you love has any relationship whatsoever to higher education, then this is something to worry about.

I learned about this from a friend of mine at GTS. He is going through this right now. His wife also works at the seminary. They have two children. Here is how you can help them and the other people whose lives have been sent into a tailspin by this news.

1. Pray: Pray for my friend, his family, and his colleagues at GTS.

2. Share: Share this blog post. Share any of the links above. Draw attention to this issue.

3. Flood: The email address of the Dean and President is: [email protected]. If I can acquire the contact info of anyone on the Board of Trustees, I will update this post.

Seriously, this is insane. They only wanted to talk.

If you have thoughts or credible information about these ongoing developments, please share.