The mess at Starr King

The mess at Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) continues to be an absorbing topic of conversation among Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers in the Bay Area. The mess can be summarized as follows: Someone sent an anonymous email to a number of people inside and outside SKSM alleging that the then-ongoing search for a new SKSM president was marred by “ethical violations.” Attached to that anonymous email were documents that the SKSM board alleges were confidential. The SKSM board responded by hiring a law firm and private investigators to determine which student sent this anonymous email, and demanded that all students turn over all their email some students turn over their email files files to this law firm. Two students who were about to graduate did not turn over their email files, and their diplomas have been withheld. (UU World magazine offered good coverage of the story here. Deletion and correction thanks to Lindasusan’s comment below.)

If you’re a UU minister it is also a fascinating topic for conversation. The ethical implications alone would fascinate any minister. On top of that, any minister is going to be interested in how a theological school is training new ministers — your future colleagues. And finally, given the decline and financial struggles of theological schools, this matter makes you wonder about the future of SKSM.

Ethical implications of securing electronic communications

Let’s start with the ethical implications. I was talking to D., another UU minister, and she made the obvious point: if confidential documents were truly “leaked,” the most obvious source for such a leak would be the search committee. I doubt that any member of the search committee played Edward Snowden and deliberately released documents. But I’m willing to bet that the search committee was naive, and had poor electronic security protocols in place (I mean, I seriously doubt that someone hacked into search committee members’ computers). So from an ethical point of view, the SKSM search committee is at fault for having poor security.

If you’re a congregational leader, you should pay attention to this. Email is not secure — it’s way too easy to choose the wrong address when you send email, too many spouses and partners have access to each others’ email accounts, too many people are careless with their passwords. Storing sensitive material on something like Dropbox or Google Drive may be slightly more secure — as long as everyone remembers to keep their password secure. Storing sensitive documents on a computer in the church office is only mildly secure — more than once I have seen a church computer sitting unattended, with the main user logged in, and a sensitive document open on the screen. Most congregational leaders and staff are just like the SKSM leadership — way too careless about how they use electronic communications.

(I can’t resist making one parenthetical point: it is extremely easy to send anonymous email through a remailer that strips out identifying information. Furthermore, while it can be difficult to erase files from a hard drive such they are completely unrecoverable, it would be very easy to send anonymous email from a public library computer, attaching documents from a USB flash drive, then physically destroying the flash drive to prevent recovery of the documents. Since anyone with half a brain can figure out how to do this, it seems naive for SKSM to call in private investigators thinking they are going to find the incriminating email and attached documents.)

In short, the SKSM leadership is definitely at fault for having lax electronic security. As far as I know, they have never acknowledged their culpability, nor have they announced better security protocols for electronic communications and files. I hope SKSM is carefully reviewing their electronic security, because if they don’t this is just going to happen again. (Similarly, congregations should have firm policies and procedures in place for sending or storing sensitive information electronically; naivete is not an acceptable excuse.) This means that from an ethical standpoint, the SKSM leadership should accept blame for the release of sensitive information, and they should publicly apologize to all three candidates for the SKSM presidency, staff, students, and anyone else affected by the poor security protocols.

Educational implications of calling in private investigators

Now I’d like to turn from the ethical implications to the educational implications. After all, SKSM is an educational institution, and they are teaching future UU ministers — my future colleagues — not just through the explicit curriculum of course work, but also through the implicit curriculum of how SKSM leaders comport themselves.

Here’s one obvious disconnect between SKSM’s explicit and implicit curricula. SKSM trains future ministers. We all expect ministers to maintain confidentiality. If someone came to me, as a minister, and asked me to turn over all my email files, I would tell them that in the absence of a court order or compelling evidence that someone was about to commit suicide or cause bodily harm to another, I would not give them access to my email files. Everyone in my congregation would expect me to do this, and would feel violated if I turned over email files. Knowing some of the faculty at SKSM, I am sure this standard of confidentiality is explicitly taught to SKSM students.

But the implicit curriculum that SKSM leaders are presenting, given the way they are handling this mess, is something quite different. The SKSM leadership has now set a precedent that they can demand any student’s email files, and if this demand is not met, SKSM can withhold that student’s diploma. This implicit curriculum is directly at odds with the explicit curriculum.

This is poor educational practice. This is not good training for future ministers. I have to admit that I will be inclined to be cautious around SKSM students who did, in fact, turn over their email files to a private investigator.

Systemic problems, and the future

As so most UU ministers in the Bay Area, I know SKSM board members, faculty, and staff. Most of them seem to me to be good, well-meaning people. As near as I can tell, everyone involved in this mess at SKSM is trying to do the right thing.

How, then, could this blow up into such a horrendous mess?

When I see this kind of spiraling conflict in a congregation, or in a small nonprofit, my first thought is that there’s some kind of systemic problem in the organization. I don’t know what is causing the organizational system at SKSM to melt down like this, but something appears to be seriously wrong. And this systems problem, whatever it is, will have to be addressed. If SKSM leadership works hard at it, my guess is that this mess will take two to five years to clean up — if it is addressed openly and non-defensively, and right now there’s not much evidence of openness or non-defensiveness at SKSM.

My question is: does SKSM even have two to five years to clean this up?

Ever since the Great Recession hit, theological schools have been having financial difficulties (as have many nonprofits). Liberal theological schools have been especially hard hit, as liberal religion becomes less popular, and there’s a lengthening list of such schools facing serious financial troubles. Meadville Lombard Theological School, the other UU theological school, had to sell its campus in 2011 and end its program for residential students. Bangor Theological Seminary, a liberal Christian school, closed completely in 2013. Pacific School of Religion, a neighbor of SKSM, is currently selling real estate in order to stay afloat financially.

If someone came to me right now and asked my advice about which theological school to attend which residential school to attend in order to become a UU minister, I would point them to Harvard Divinity School, with its big endowment and historic connections to Unitarianism, or to Andover Newton Theological School, which though not a UU school has more UU students than just about any other theological school. Were I asked directly about SKSM, I would say: wait and see how the new president addresses the mess at SKSM, before applying. (Deletion and correction thanks to Brad’s comment below.)

If other people are thinking the same way, SKSM could see its student body shrink, and therefore see its revenues decline. And if SKSM continues to delay dealing with this mess — if SKSM doesn’t admit its culpability in neglecting to have electronic communications security protocols in place — if SKSM does not manage to align its implicit curriculum with its explicit curriculum — I think its continued existence is at risk.

All because the SKSM board can’t admit that the presidential search committee screwed up. That makes me sad.

20 thoughts on “The mess at Starr King”

  1. Do you know about Meadville Lombard Theological School? Shouldn’t our only other UU Seminary be on your preferred list – at or near the top?

  2. One quick correction: As someone who just graduated from SKSM, I can confirm that *not* all of us were asked to turn over our emails; I’ve only heard about the two people whose diplomas were withheld. For what it’s worth, other colleagues from my graduating class and I have noted that we would not have complied with the request either.

  3. I can’t even count the number of errors and assumptions in this, Dan. It seems unlike you to publish something without assuring accuracy. All the communications from the Board are available on the Starr King Website. At no time were students asked to “turn over all electronic communications.” Here’s what WAS requested:

    1. Promptly delete all electronic copies (including those on computers, back-up drives, other
    storage devices, phones and tablets);
    2. Promptly destroy all hard copies, or return the hard copies to me care of the school;
    3. If you have received copies of the confidential documents, and you know from whom
    you received them, please provide that information to the School by communicating to
    me; and
    4. If you have distributed the documents, whether accidentally or intentionally, that you
    please notify the School, by contacting me as soon as possible. My contact information is
    at the end of this letter.

    I believe the framing of the Board’s request as “demanding that students turn over all their electronic communications” is false and is meant to inflame the situation.

    As far as how the documents were acquired by students, it’s important to know that both electronic and hard copies of the documents are likely to have existed. (Many people print documents for easier reading.) It’s not known how the documents were acquired. While I agree with what you have to say about securing confidential electronic files, I think it’s important to point out that hard copies are not immune from security issues. People print, discard, and recycle printed materials without thinking.

    While securing confidential files is important, it is still the person or people who released them publicly who are at fault. Assuming they cared deeply about the presidential search, they would have been informed of the details of the search process, including that the information in the documents was gathered from various constituents of the school in a confidential process that included interviews, written materials, and a survey instrument. Even if we assume that the documents were not marked “confidential,” (I don’t know whether they were or not) I can’t imagine they did not know that the information they had “discovered” was shared as part of that process. (Which, having been a part of, I know WAS promised to be confidential.)

    As for calling in investigators: I must first repeat my first point: the students were not asked to turn over “all their electronic files,” which makes much of your argument moot. However, the Board of any institution is responsible, fiscally and ethically, for the health of that institution. Once informed of a breech of confidentiality and accusations of unethical behavior on behalf of the Search Committee and President of the School, they HAVE to investigate. Because the release of confidential documents is also potentially illegal, they also had to consult counsel. It’s my educated guess that the investigators (retained at the same time as a specialist in restorative justice, which you don’t mention.) It seems to me that allowing an independent investigation is exactly the right, ethical thing to do since the Board itself was part of the conflict.

    The majority of the students in the graduating class were cleared in the investigation. Two were not. It’s important to note that the School did not reveal who those students were. They quietly withheld diplomas pending further investigation. (The students were still invited to participate in commencement ceremonies so as not to imply guilt.) Considering the seriousness of the accusation and the centrality of confidentiality to ministry, it seems to me that they again did exactly the right thing. The Board needs to assure that graduates of the school are aware of and willing to comply with the obligation of confidentiality in our ministry. If that is established, they will get their degrees.

    We get extremely upset when other institutions allow people to participate and graduate that have done things we disapprove of. We hate it when colleges ignore behavior issues, crimes, and even violent crimes committed by students. But in this case, we immediately assume that Starr King is abusing their authority rather than upholding important values. I think that says more about our assumptions about Starr King and authority than it does about this particular situation.

    It seems to me that Starr King IS handling this directly and openly (making all the documents public on the website, etc.), engaging appropriate experts (legal, investigative, and in restorative justice), and holding students accountable for their actions and those are signs of a system that is trying to restore itself to health after an unfortunate conflict. In our movement, people are always quick to blame the institution and write its obituary. I’m sad you’ve jumped on that band wagon with this post.

    (full disclosure: I am a Starr King graduate and served on its Board from 2007 – 2009.)

  4. I get caught by your first point – that the ethical responsibility for the breach is in the hands of those who have lax security. I can’t disagree more strongly. If someone leaves confidential documents on their desk and I read them I am still ethically responsible for my behavior. If someone accidentally sends me an email I am responsible for my behavior in response. The ethical response, if it is clear I should not know something is to delete it and tell the person what happened. We SHOULD be able to leave our doors unlocked without getting robbed. If I leave my door unlocked and get robbed I have made a mistake. But the ethical responsibility for the behavior is on robber – they are the ones who need to apologize. I disagree with you that SKSM should accept blame for the release of the information. If I as a minister received information I shouldn’t have I would not then send it out to others.

    This speaks so loudly to me that it is hard for me to address the rest of your concerns. But I agree that SKSM is walking a dodgy line asking for students to turn over email files. I don’t see how that would work anyway. And I agree that how SKSM handles this is going to matter a great deal to their future. I’m not sure if there is even a right way at this point.

    Thank you for your post.

  5. Well said, Dan. But it isn’t that liberal religion is losing popularity, it is that the institutions which nurtured it through the 20th century have ossified. Ironically, longer lifespan has meant longer tenures for old faculty, and less grim reaping of ideas, habits, and prejudices from previous generations.

  6. Whoa, whoa, whoa Dan! You are jumping to a lot of conclusions here, and making assumptions which you then claim to be the truth. Would you please just slow down a bit?

    You start right off by saying “If confidential documents were leaked,” [italics mine] and then go right on to assume that they were, and that the search committee is at fault. That’s a big IF right there. You are “willing to bet” that the search committee was naive, and immediately then assign blame to them for this breach. Sorry, but in this case all bets are off.

    A bit farther on, you say “In short, the SKSM leadership is definitely at fault for having lax electronic security.” Whoa, wait a second. You are the one suspecting lax security, and then immediately asserting it. Not a foregone conclusion by any means. “Definitely” by what standard?
    You then go on to assert that the Starr King leadership should “accept blame for the release of sensitive information.” [italics mine] So now it’s not just lax security, it’s the RELEASE of sensitive information? You are leaping blithely from point A to point K with little regard for all of the other possibilities that lie between.

    As for the ethics of instigating an investigation, that issue is so fraught and complex that it can’t be simplified in the way that you attempt to do. What about teaching the ethics of “don’t be sneaky” or “honesty is the best policy” or simply “tell the truth?” I know enough about “the Starr King mess” to realize that any of these admonitions could be used to address the students — these ethical issues cut both ways.
    No system is perfect, and while the school has stumbled now and then, it continues to graduate superb ministers. As a former member of the Board of Trustees of Starr King, I agree that there are systemic issues that need to be addressed. I hope that the new administration will address them forthrightly, and that we all will see creative new solutions to the kind of long-standing problems that can happen with any institution, no matter how successful.

    And while I agree with you that it will probably take years to clean this up and get the school back on an even keel, I don’t appreciate your prematurely sounding the death knell for Starr King because of the financial difficulties of other schools. That doesn’t help. Rather than standing there gleefully rubbing your hands and looking for blood, how about supporting the school financially, and praying for its success in the near and distant future?

  7. Hi Dan,

    I need to correct a statement you made that Meadville Lombard had to sell it’s campus. Nothing could be further from the truth. I worked for the seminary in 2006-2007, when the institution was taking a hard look at the way they were forming new ministers, along side the way other institutions were preparing ministers for service. What I was most proud of was that Meadville was taking an honest assessment of their program. When fewer students were interested in a residential program, they addressed that in their modified residency program. Ask any of the theological schools out there if they would rather spend their funds on maintaining an aging campus (and what school doesn’t have aging buildings they need to pour more donor money in to to keep them running, let alone updated) or spend those same dollars on recruiting and training more ministers. Specifically, ministers who are ready to serve their communities in this technology-centric society.

    Let’s be realistic. Theological education is changing. It used to be assumed that the best way to learn is only within a community of discernment where every challenge to our spiritual calling can be discussed and answered by a circle of school colleagues . That worked in the past, but that is not what students are asking for these days. Meadville students today do create a community of discernment. It’s just done through triad groups that meet weekly via conference calls as well as in person when they come into Chicago for their intensive courses throughout the year. They want to spend three years in theological school and then get out to work in their field after that quick obligatory stop at the UUA’s ministerial fellowship committee.

    I hope that Starr King can get beyond this glitch in their history. I’ve been privileged to work with interns from Starr King and I am impressed with them. We need two good, solid UU identity seminaries.

    Please, do what you can to support both Meadville and Starr King! And please, before you start sending aspirants to Andover Newton, check their financials. Just because they have a lot of students, doesn’t mean they are financially viable. I’m sure that you want to send prospective students to institutions that will still be there in their third /fourth year of studies.

    Mary Ellen Morgan
    Administrator-churches in Bay Area, San Francisco
    Former President, Pacific Central District

  8. Brad — Yes, I know Meadville Lombard — I’m a graduate of the Modified Residency Program — and I mention Meadville Lombard in the post. What I meant to say in the post was that if someone asked me to recommend a *residential* program, I would mention Harvard and Andover Newton. I apologize for the error.

    Lindasusan — Thank you for the correction. And indeed, that’s exactly what the UU World article says — I read it too quickly, and missed the qualified “not” in the last sentence of the third paragraph. Another apology.

    Sean — Lindasusan already corrected me — yes, I got it wrong about who was asked to turn over files. And yes of course physical documents are easily reproducible — we learned that back when Daniel Ellsberg photocopied the Pentagon Papers — but it is so much easier to distribute electronic documents that we must be even more careful with electronic documents. Whether or not you disagree with me about anything else, I hope you will agree that electronic security is a major issue facing all search committees now. Yes, whoever released those documents was immature, unethical, and nasty. This is why we must maintain excellent security around confidential documents — because, among other things, we don’t want immature, unethical, nasty people to get their hands on them. That is why I think SKSM leadership has to acknowledge its own culpability.

    Sean, I’d also say as someone who is in a leadership position in the nonprofit world, when something goes radically wrong, I try to remember to automatically accept blame, and apologize. Because if I’m really in charge, then I am indeed to blame, and it is up to me to apologize. And I have found that once I as a leader accept my portion of the blame, others are more willing to come forward and acknowledge their own culpability — which accelerates the healing process. Acknowledging blame is not only the right thing to do, it helps strengthen the organization.

    Jennifer — Clearly you and I disagree on this. It’s OK for me to leave my door open and risk getting robbed. But when I am entrusted with something — as in this case SKSM was entrusted with confidential materials — then it is indeed my responsibility to secure it. This is why I believe it is every organization’s responsibility to keep personnel files secure, including social security numbers, results of criminal background checks, evaluations, etc. In my view, a search process is a personnel matter (in part), so if for no other reason, search committees must pay attention to security.

    Elz, good point. This is a complex social change that’s going on, and I oversimplified it. Thank you for amplifying.

    Judy — “Gleefully rubbing my hands and looking for blood”? Uh uh, not me — as I say at the end of the post, I’m sad. Really sad. If SKSM disappears, we will have lost 50% of our UU theological schools — that would be more than sad, that would be a huge tragedy, and I believe a real blow to Unitarian Universalism.

  9. Mary Ellen, I’m a graduate of Meadville Lombard’s Modified Residency Program, and a fan of non-residential seminary programs. But residential programs work better for some people, and in an ideal world Meadville Lombard would offer both. Obivously, we do not live in an ideal world.

    Andover Newton’s financial situation is stable, at the moment — I was just talking to one of my contacts there. Of course, that could change. I think many of us were shaken when Bangor Theological School closed so quickly. The economy is not being kind to theological schools right now.

  10. Dear Dan–

    It’s good to see that you spoke to your contacts at Andover Newton to check on their stability. I wish you had extended the same courtesy to me as your new colleague here in the Pacific Central District. As the president of Starr King, I have quite a different perspective about the events of last Spring and their consequences, as well as more current information. I hope that those readers who have a genuine interest in the life of our school will continue to visit our new website,, where my periodic letters to the community are typically posted. There will be a new one on Monday, in fact, that speaks about our work on this issue. Please feel free to read and comment, or even be in touch. I’m not exactly hiding. Thanks.

    The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President
    Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, CA

  11. Hey folks, I am one of the students who had their degree withheld. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not SKSM asked for “all my emails.” SKSM has let me know that I need to be willing to turn over all my emails in an unlimited investigation in order to graduate. Here is the wording from the letter that was sent to me the night before graduation letting me know my degree would be withheld. My degree is condition upon: “1. Cooperation with the ad hoc committee of the Board (and/or such persons that it designates), including an interview at the time and place of which you will be given notice in writing, plus complete transmittal of such information and electronic information, as may be requested by the ad hoc committee of the Board (and/or such persons that it designates) including your transmittals in writing, attested and signed by you.”

  12. I cannot comment other than to say the following:
    1. I did not send the anonymous email
    2. I do not know who did. No one has publicly claimed responsibility so I still don’t know
    3. I cooperated fully with the restorative justice representative and told her the above and when asked, shared my concerns about some of the growing edges/systemic problems of the school.
    4. I did not know the school had any concerns about me until I received an emailed letter the night before graduation telling me my degree was being withheld and I had to appear before an as yet unformed ad hoc committee appointed by the Board of Trustees and be willing to turn over all my email.
    5. At no time before or since has any member of the administration or Board of Trustees of SKSM contacted me or used direct address.
    6. In spite of multiple inquiries from my good officers, my attorney, and others, my degree is still being withheld.
    That is all I can share at this time.

  13. Rosemary, thanks for commenting. Yes, I do try to keep up with the relative health at four theological schools which Unitarian Universalists regularly attend in relatively large numbers. You raise an interesting question: why didn’t I contact you, as the incoming president of Starr King? Well, I already have a network of contacts of faculty and former students at Starr King (as well as at Andover Newton and Meadville Lombard, and to a lesser extent at Harvard). Since I’ve already heard plenty about this situation from people who were at SKSM last spring (people, by the way, who would both agree and disagree with my opinion), it never occurred to me to contact you. Besides, I would not expect a theological school president to spend their time replying to a random email messages from all of the hundreds of UU ministers who have Strong Opinions — if you did that, you wouldn’t have time to actually be a theological school president.

  14. And then there’s the growing number of UUs getting their MDivs at Boston University where one can receive a full scholarship and a stipend for a full-time program, or as was the case with me somewhere around 70% scholarship for part-time. Bless those generous Methodists!

  15. Wendy, you’re right, B.U. is an excellent place to prepare for UU ministry. Hey, MLK Jr. did his doctoral work there!

  16. Wow, interesting discussion here, especially from the primary sources of information, who confirmed the report we read.

    Ultimately, no board (especially one with a member who is a crisis consultant) should expect zero fallout if it pulls something extreme such as withholding diplomas. If the cat is out of the bag (and several of us are hunching on the nature of the cat) and the school didn’t conduct the most upright process, it should write off its losses. Move on. Because maybe IF the school doesn’t conduct the most professional and fair hiring process and IF students don’t know they shouldn’t anonymously leak confidential info from the process (tempting, I know), then SKSM should replace one of its interpretative dance/dream classes with How to Conduct Fair Staff Hiring and Negotiation 101.
    At a time when there are fewer minister jobs for div school graduates, why burn energy on this stuff? Let’s stress over bigger issues.

  17. Zeek, thanks, and well said. Especially your last two sentences — that helps put this whole thing into perspective.

  18. Reading the articles and comments on this issue, what strikes me most is the anger and anguish on so many sides, the cries for justice, the insistence from many that this is all about oppression, and against our UU values. I confess to being primarily a Universalist and this response comes from that perspective: where is love in all this? Love of each other, love of an institution, love of a religious response to the world. Everyone is very concerned to be right, to get out the truth, to have restorative justice, but can that be possible if all the people involved don’t take a breath and remember to work from the perspective of love: love for each other, for their community, for their religion, and that love in a case like this should be about forgiveness not punishment. Apparently there have been some deep hurts within Starr King for years, suing and punishing each other will not make that better. Admitting we are all flawed humans who sometimes act wrongly but are willing to forgive, listen to each other, and create a new relationship of justice and love would seem to me a truly Universalist and Unitarian approach.

  19. The privacy issue involves far more than those two students. As someone who has corresponded with Suzi in the past, I can state firmly that I do NOT wish to have my e-mails perused. Naturally, if she were accused of a crime and her computer was confiscated, I would have to deal with my privacy being infringed–such are the requirements of a criminal investigation. The seminary, however, has not justified that level of action. As far as I know, it has not even leveled an accusation.

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