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.