Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King

Recently, I talked with Kurt Kuhwald, former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, about the school’s search process for a new president. Kurt had some interesting things to say about the search, and the conflict that erupted during and after the search.

Before I get to Kurt’s thoughts, you may want to review what happened at Starr King. I have a short post about the situation here. Since I wrote that post, the New York Times covered the story in a balanced and well-written article here, and UU World did a carefully-written article in November which you can read here. Now back to Kurt.

Kurt is someone for whom I have great respect, particularly in his thoughtful and passionate approach to ethical issues, and to issues of prophetic importance. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kurt a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about several prophetic issues: global climate change; the protests following Ferguson; and the mess at Starr King. We wound up spending most of our time talking about Starr King, not because it is of greater importance than Ferguson or global climate justice, but because it was so fresh in the minds of both of us. Actually, mostly I listened — Kurt has a unique and powerful interpretation of the Starr King situation, and I wanted to hear what he said.

Kurt has been kind enough to send me several documents that he is willing to make public, and with his permission, I am posting them here on my blog. You can click on one of the links below to go to a specific letter, or just scroll down to read these four documents in order:

Kurt’s letter of resignation from Starr King;
An addendum to that letter giving more detail on his reasons for resigning;
A letter to the Ad Hoc Committee set up by Starr King to investigate the situation;
A letter to the members of the UUA Board regarding Starr King.

As I talked with Kurt, it struck me that there was a deep current of theology running through everything Kurt said. He is talking about a theology of power; he is critiquing one way power is wielded in contemporary religious institutions. This is an incredibly important critque. I believe it would behoove anyone with an interest in the mess at Starr King to read or re-read Bernard Loomer’s important 1976 essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” Finally, out of respect for Kurt’s deep theological insights, I’m going to say that if you’d like to comment here you should exhibit some theological thinking. If you’re not sure how to think theologically about this issue, read Loomer’s essay.

As always, I reserve the right to delete or edit comments that I feel are discourteous, rude, or off-topic.

Scroll down to start reading Kurt’s letters….

Update, 14 January 2015: Kurt Kuhwald asked me if I’d be willing to post Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation from Starr King; until January 9, he was Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice. Since Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake timed their resignations for the same day, and since they share a prophetic vision for liberal religion, I felt it was appropriate to add that letter to this blog post. Having received Dorsey Blake’s permission, I have added his letter below:
Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation

 

KURT KUHWALD’S LETTERS

[A note on the texts: I have reproduced Kurt’s letters as closely as possible to the originals; I did have to change the formatting slightly for the Web, but I have kept Kurt’s wording at all times. There are a few brief editorial insertions, which are always enclosed in square brackets [].]

 

Kurt’s letter of resignation
Letter copyright (c) 2014 Kurt Kuhwald

[On Starr King School for the Ministry letterhead]

December 18, 2014

To: Office of the President, Starr King School for the Ministry

Dear Rev. Bray McNatt:

I have served Starr King School for the Ministry as faculty since August, 2008. I deeply appreciate having had the opportunity to serve this School whose mission and high resolve to educate for counter oppression is central to its identity and is a beacon to seminary education across the world. It has also been personally rewarding to participate as faculty within the highly esteemed Graduate Theological Union for these six and one-half years.

I have been humbled by the respect shown to me and to my work as a seminary teacher and advisor, as well as by the consistent positive evaluations of that work I have received from both students and the School’s administration. Their good opinions have been some of the most gratifying affirmations offered to me during the over twenty years of my professional career in ministry.

Teaching and advising Starr King students has been a deep joy for me, and surely was the fulfillment, during those years, of my call as a Unitarian Universalist minister to engage the world prophetically, supported always by a cloud of witnesses to whom I owe the deepest gratitude.

It is therefore with deep regret, but a clear heart and vision, that I must offer my resignation from my position as Assistant Professor of Practical Arts and Prophetic Engagement at Starr King School effective as of 5:00 pm on January 9th, 2015.

I have come to this decision through a careful, comprehensive and deep process of discernment assisted, always, by the support of faculty and UU ministerial colleagues, as well as, preciously, family and friends.

While I continue, without reservation, to be strongly committed to the mission of the School, and believe its place in the world of UU and interfaith religious leadership education is necessary for our times, I declare my resignation from my faculty position because I am in deep disagreement with the Board and with the School’s past and current Administrations about their policies and practices concerning issues about and stemming from the presidential search. I have attached to this letter a list of points that name and explain where I am in disagreement. The nature and depth of my disagreement is such that I find it simply impossible to continue serving the school as faculty with integrity and in good conscience.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I have had to serve the School, its students, the UU community and the wider world, so desperately in need of religious leaders with integrity, courage and heart. I will always cherish these years and hope that in some small way I have made a difference to the School and to our beleaguered Earth home.

As I continue in my ministry in the years ahead, called now to devote myself fully to Climate Justice/Just Transition work, as well as to being an activist ally to the Black and POC [People of Color] communities that are rising in resistance to police brutality, I am hopeful that I can continue to serve the mission of the School in other ways. I wish you and the School every success.

Respectfully submitted,

Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald

 

Addendum to the letter of resignation
Letter copyright (c) 2014 Kurt Kuhwald

[On letterhead reading: “Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald | UU Community Minister — Endorsed | Climate Justice / Just Transition]

Dear President Bray McNatt, Board Trustees and Faculty,
Starr King School for the Ministry:

Listed and discussed below are the reasons that I have found it necessary to resign as faculty from Starr King School, effective January 9, 2015. They represent, not a legalistic account, but rather are a testimony of the heart, from, as best as I have been able to access it, my moral core. They address nine areas of concern. Five of those concerns are issues related to the presidential search; the other four have to do with the current culture/environment at the School:

The Search:
(1) The interview process for the presidential search.
(2) The environment of mistrust.
(3) The treatment of two students whose diplomas were withheld.
(4) The Restorative Justice process.
(5) The contents of the “leaked” documents.

Current Climate/Environment:
(1) The Ad Hoc Committee and its charge.
(2) The treatment of faculty.
(3) Current Climate of Mistrust.
(4) Historical Lack of Faculty Power.

———

THE SEARCH

The Interview Process:

I am deeply concerned about the irregularities that transpired during the interview process of the three candidates for the position of President of the School. Until a full exploration of the problems that marred the interview process has been sufficiently undertaken and completed, the difficulties that arose with the leak of documents cannot be adequately understood. The interview problems were several in number, not the least of which was the then President’s participation in the faculty and other interview groups, which in the afternoon session with candidate Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, was disturbingly disruptive, as well as the inclusion of another person in the interview process who had been a candidate for the position. Additionally, two other issues affected the search and interview process: The staff made a request of the Board to have representation on the search committee. It was denied — their lack of representation ran counter to the commitment to counter oppression and the building of sustainable community as well as the image of one community held up as emblematic of the School. Secondly, early on the final three presidential candidates were told the interviews would not be made public, but instead, forty-eight hours before the interviews were to take place, the candidates names were in fact made public leaving them in a highly awkward position regarding the constituencies they served professionally.

Given all of these issues, the repeated statements from the School’s leadership and search committee members that the search process, which includes the interviewing process, was without flaw, is staggering for those who experienced it first hand.

The Environment of Mistrust:

In my estimation any attempt to understand the leak of search committee documents must — absolutely must — address the context in which the leak occurred as well as the culture within the School that contributed to and/or exacerbated its occurrence.

The Board President’s statement, in his letter inaugurating the Ad Hoc committee, that issues about the presidential search and the environment of mistrust at the school at the time of the leak have been dealt with or are being dealt with by “other processes,” is, from my perspective and observation as a faculty member, simply and quite sadly not true. Further, this assertion is disconcerting, to say the least, because it undermines trust in his and the Board’s leadership and raises questions about the veracity of their statements as well as their capacity for humility and self-reflection.

Treatment of Two Students:

Additionally, I will reiterate the convictions expressed in the open letter sent to the Board of Trustees that Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake and I signed: I feel that the tactics the Board has used, and is using, in regard to the two students whose diplomas have been withheld are egregious and inappropriate for a seminary with a commitment to counter oppression. By demanding that the students essentially prove their innocence, the Board has turned the time-honored, morally just and legally grounded process that characterizes our democracy on its head. The Boards’ withholding of the two students’ diplomas, when there has been no accusation of wrongdoing, is, I feel, stunning in its abuse of authority.

Restorative Justice Process:

The School spent close to $50,000 dollars for a consultant to institute a Restorative Justice process with the School. As someone who has had some experience with RJ, I feel its use at Starr King was a failure. The particular form of RJ process the consultant was bringing was never explained to the students or the faculty as a whole as it should have been. This meant that anyone who had participated in the “leak” of documents was never offered a process for coming forward that would have engaged them within community in a restorative way and would have avoided a punitive route (the very purpose of RJ). This meant that the Board and School Administration, by choosing to publicize a cascading series of punishments for those deemed “guilty,” took a behavioral path that severed community bonds. What ensued, I believe, was an increasing sense of vilification of anyone associated with the leak in ways deemed unethical or unprofessional by the Board and Administration — which then stirred increasing fear, vulnerability and indignation in the student body leading several of our best students to leave the School. Designating what is being offered currently through verbal attempts to convince individuals to come into right relationship with the School, and that within an atmosphere many view as punitive, is not Restorative Justice. I feel it is inappropriate and confusing to use that terminology when the opportunity to benefit from the highly evolved RJ process was squandered.

Contents of the “Leaked” Documents:

Very importantly, any attempt to understand the issues of the “leak” of search documents must necessarily address why anyone would choose to leak them in the first place. What could those documents have contained that would prompt someone to commit such an act? Could they contain information that affected the very legitimacy of the search process itself? Do they reflect a larger systemic problem negatively impacting the culture and governance of the School? Do they evidence responses to any of the candidates that are violations of collegiality, and/or are inappropriate reflections of bias and untruth? Do they demonstrate, in any way, a disregard for the constituencies, which responsibly and with integrity and care filled out the interview questionnaires for each candidate? I simply find it impossible to comprehend how any attempt to understand the how or the why of the circumstances of the leaked documents could ignore the issue of the documents’ contents. Those contents are the legitimate and necessary focus for any full and comprehensive understanding of the leak. Certainly an inquiry into the contents of the search documents would have to be done through a specially appointed committee capable of strong objectivity and with an investment in the truth.

All of these issues are critical to the culture and functioning of the School. Because they have not been addressed adequately, if at all, I feel they deeply affect the present and on-going health of the School, and, in my estimation, make it impossible for the School to flourish. Instead, I feel the School is caught in a web of tragic and painful incompleteness, of deep and unacknowledged mistrust, of moral dis-ease, of an unpredictable and intimidating use of power, and of a culture of leadership that lacks self-awareness, but instead adopts a stance of righteousness, all of which casts a disturbing pall over the educational enterprise of the institution.

All of these points form a tragic lacuna that threatens the future of the School and leads me to these questions: Which persons or what committee is going to address these difficult issues? How can the School move into a robust and morally grounded future if these issues are not fully, openly and thoroughly dealt with?

CURRENT CLIMATE / ENVIRONMENT

While the consequences stemming from the unaddressed issues of the past currently affect the climate of the School, there are other present and on-going issues that I feel severely hinder a realization of the School’s mission and negatively affect the integrity of its faculty.

The Ad Hoc Committee:

Limiting the work of an “arms length” committee intended to help the School heal the damage wrought that resulted from the issues surrounding the search process to: discovering the perpetrator of the leak, what the students who got possession of the leaked documents did with them, and how (not why) the person/persons using the pseudonym “strapped student” “came to distribute” the documents … but not examining the search process, nor the environment of mistrust at the School that existed prior to the search (acknowledged by the Board president), is a prescription for both ethical and functional failure that further undermines the School as an institution.

Additionally, demanding that students and faculty members give up personal documents, and/or turn over their computers, is, I feel, chilling in its abuse of power and lays claim to an inappropriate and inflated sense of authority akin to that of a military or policing institution rather than a seminary. This, I further feel, inherently precludes the possibility of healing, stunts the exercise of compassion, and threatens the integrity of those expected to comply.

Furthermore, I am also unclear how the committee can claim the appellation “arms length,” when one of its only three members is a member of the Board of Trustees of the School and another, the Chair, is involved in fundraising on behalf of the School.

Treatment of the Faculty:

The removal of faculty members from their responsibilities as Core Faculty was stunning to us all. There was never an explanation given neither to the School nor to the faculty. Part of the difficulty of this decision by (… by whom? The Board? The President? The Provost? The Dean of the Faculty? … we were never told who made this decision … nor what the process was to make it) … by whomever did make it is that it is a violation of the original understanding of why the majority of us were hired: To serve at the center of the faculty of the School, exercising duties contributing to the governance of its educational program.

To have done so faithfully for years, with no indication that there was any problem with our fulfilling of that role, but rather having received consistent affirmation that our work was outstanding, was a shock and an undeserved taint on our reputations.

Similarly, removing myself and Rev. Dr. Blake from our roles as Advisors, then hiring individuals with little to no experience in the role to replace us, and then expecting all of us to participate together in the truncated faculty meetings (that were created without any explanation about how the shift could be made with emotional integrity), demonstrated, I feel, a lack of leadership unbecoming a seminary. Additionally, the reason for this shift in our responsibilities was never spelled out fully. The effects this had on relationships with students with whom we had been working, some for a period of years, and leaving us to create reasons that they could understand … seems, to me, to be insensitive about the core nature of the Advising role, which was central to the reason we were hired; it is insensitive, as well, to both the students and the two faculty involved.

Throughout the time of our rehire in August, 2014 until today, it is my feeling that the Administration has had a consistent problem with communication with the faculty and a lack of understanding of what can be legitimately and respectfully expected of us given our status as part-time. Meetings have consistently been set with little notice and arranged on days difficult to attend.

Recently, we were sent a directive about how to talk about what is called (in militaristic terms) the “breach” and about the finances relative to the consultancies the School has used since the search was completed. The letter was for me quite offensive because it presumed the authority to dictate the exact words we were to use when talking with anyone about those issues. Rather than giving talking points, a script was prescribed, and in addition, that script was set out in red type exacerbating an already dictatorial tone that simply was not fitting for dealing with faculty professionals nor with staff; it demonstrated, I feel, a ludicrous lack of awareness of the implications this would have within an institution whose faculty is highly familiar with the use of such font colors in the Christian biblical texts.

Current Climate of Mistrust:

While newly appointed President Bray McNatt has worked hard to turn the School’s attention to the future, a climate of mistrust continues to exist. How could it not be the case? In any human community, when difficulties in truth telling, trusting and power imbalances have existed, they will not cease to exist merely by turning away from the past. They will not “go away” unless the root experiences contributing to them are honestly and openly named and a process of reconciliation/restoration is instituted and adequately completed. In my experience, mistrust at the School currently continues behind closed doors in precisely the ways the Administration hoped to eliminate. There is, as has been noted in at least one well respected UU blog, an uneasiness and a chilling effect that runs through the community of candidates for the ministry at the School. Because the original issues have not been dealt with openly, the original wounds have not been, or have only very partially been, addressed. While surface anxiety seems to have decreased, that is, in my estimation, due to the fact that students, faculty and staff are learning to “keep their heads down.”

Historical Lack of Faculty Power:

Along with the points raised above, within the core of all the difficulties at Starr King is the fact that the faculty is essentially powerless. Without a structure of tenure, union representation, a faculty senate, or some other authentic form for giving the faculty a ground of protection and support for their authority and for their freedom to express their opinion as teaching professionals, a culture of mistrust is unavoidable over the long term. Without such structures, ensuring a faculty’s free and equitable participation in roles appropriate to the managing of the School’s program and governance, as well as the right to protected speech, the faculty is always subject to the personal foibles, human errors, blindnesses (and all the other dynamics power tends to breed and exaggerate) of the President, Provost and Dean. In a school committed to countering oppression and establishing sustainable communities, this is untenable and unacceptable. The good will of leadership is simply not enough to ensure a strong, committed and empowered faculty.

———

Lastly, I do want to share, as I did with the Ad Hoc Committee, how terribly sad and tragic I feel all of this is for the School and for all who have invested in its life and future. I have deep sorrow that the School has ended up in such a difficult and damaged place.Starr King School has been one of the most creative seminaries in existence. I have served as faculty at the School for six and one-half years, and always hoped that the issues of honesty, integrity and fairness, including a fully and authentically empowered student body and faculty, would wholly emerge as clear characteristics of the School and its culture. I am still hopeful that this will one day become the reality … but at the moment that hope is challenged by a strong sense of despair because of all that has taken place.

It is my prayer and fervent hope that what is best for all, may truly and widely prevail.

Sincerely,

Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald
Associate Professor of Practical Arts
and Prophetic Engagement

 

Letter to the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee
Letter copyright (c) 2014 Kurt Kuhwald

[On letterhead reading: “Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald | UU Community Minister — Endorsed | Climate Justice / Just Transition]

Dear Larry,

As I devoted the majority of my energy concerning the school this week to the question of whether, within my own heart and mind, I was being called to resign, the conclusion of which was an emphatic “yes,” I also realized quite clearly what my answer needed to be to your request for an interview by the ill-conceived and inappropriate Ad Hoc committee that you now chair.

It is also and equally emphatically “no.”

Let me offer a few words as to why that is so.

First, as I just noted, I believe the Ad Hoc committee is ill-conceived and inappropriate. It is ill-conceived because it flies in the face rather blatantly of two of the major tenets of the mission and purpose of the school: To prepare religious leaders within a context that (1) counters oppression and (2) builds sustainable communities … while also preparing them to ground their leadership on those commitments.

One of the hallmarks of counter oppression work is that it is all about relationships. When an individual or a group of people find themselves being mistreated, marginalized or oppressed, it is incumbent upon them to challenge that treatment — because it represents a breaking of the social bonds of support that are the foundation for their humanity, first, and second, because it is an assault on their inherent worth as persons.

Starr King’s emphasis on building sustainable communities is right at the center of one of the primary roles of seminary education: To provide a womb in which right relationship is brought into being and initially nurtured in order to support the emergence of religious leaders.

What is happening between you and I right now is that we are contesting for power — or rather, you are asserting a kind and conception of power, and I am contesting with you about the legitimacy of that assertion, and taking a stand to bring into the conversation, and into awareness, a different understanding of what I believe power between constituencies in the seminary actually needs to be — and, indeed, what the deepest purpose of the seminary needs to be.

There seems to be a false notion at the center of your request that I submit to an interview with the committee you chair. The notion is that you believe you have the power to make such a request, and to lace it with intimidating remarks about my obligations to the Board, intimating that if I do not comply, you will report me to them. Please understand that I am not so naive as to assume that your statement “Failure to comply with the requests of you by the ad hoc committee will be reflected in the committee’s final report to the Board” is a simple reporting of a simple task that you simply must follow. It is a statement about power, and it is a statement about relationship. And it is wrong at its very heart.

What it represents is a statement that the illegitimate creation of the Ad Hoc committee, by an illegitimate conception of power and relationship held by the Board, actually is an expression of the true relationship between me and the other faculty members, and the Board of Trustees of the School.

The fact is that the Board’s conception of power, as evidenced throughout the whole debacle of the presidential search and its aftermath, does not err solely in its “top-down” behavior, but because its conception of its responsibility leads it to sanction punishment, reprisal, and a disregard of the quality of relationships necessary to cultivate religious leaders.

The power that religious leaders wield, does not have to do with dominance, it has to do with living and modeling equity, fairness, compassion, truth-telling, respect … and as we would hope the inventor of the slogan, “Standing on the Side of Love,” would understand … love.

There is a reason that the UUA is an Association, and not a hierarchy (and despite the fact that the School does include multi-religiosity in its identity — it is a UU seminary, at its core): it is so named because it is conceived and organized to reflect and embody a quality and structure of power. Power is meant to be shared. In this statement I am, again, not so naïve as to assume that there are not differing roles within an institution (or indeed within any human group), and that within the role of the Board there are certain fiduciary responsibilities for which I as a faculty member am not responsible. Our roles do differ in that way and in others.

However, I believe, as I have witnessed and as I have been victimized by the Board’s use of power, the Board is using power inappropriate to its role. Part of that abuse, since I sincerely believe it is abusive, is the creation of the Ad Hoc committee that is not “arms length,” and that is charged with demanding confessions and the turning over of personal documents and computers, and that resorts to the use of threatening behaviors to intimidate and force compliance.

I contest this use of power, and I am therefore responding to your second request for an interview with me with another simple … no.

Submitted, December 19, 2014

Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald
[Contact information removed for privacy]

 

Letter to the UUA Board regarding Starr King School for Ministry
Letter copyright (c) 2015 Kurt Kuhwald

[On letterhead reading: “Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald | UU Community Minister — Endorsed | Climate Justice / Just Transition]

Dear Board of Trustee members:

My resignation, in protest, as faculty member from Starr King School for the Ministry will be effective this Friday, January 9th at 5:00 p.m. The resignation of my faculty colleague, the highly esteemed Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, who is Senior Minister at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, will also be effective the same day and time. We share a deep concern about the School at this moment in its history.

My resignation comes after a lengthy discernment process. I believe, as you will read in my attached documents, that the School is taking a path that is ill advised and extremely damaging to its reputation, as well as to its students, faculty and staff. That path has been guided by its Board of Trustees, which has taken an alarmingly punitive and harmful direction and tone in its response to the issues surrounding the search for a new president.

I am requesting that the UUA Board conduct an inquiry into matters at SKSM as a function of the fact that the UUA and the Panel on Theological Education are in relationship with SKSM through a memorandum of understanding that includes a covenant of accountability.

In addition, I believe that the UUA Board of Trustees needs to seriously consider withdrawing all funding for the School until its leadership is willing to engage in a process of compassionate, realistic dialogue with all parties involved for the purpose of authentic healing and reconciliation. It is critical that the School’s leadership commit to a process for addressing the misdirection that it has undertaken and to offer redress for those affected by its de facto policy choices and punitive behaviors.

I am enclosing three documents for your consideration in support of my above requests. The first is my letter of resignation, which I read and handed to Rev. Bray McNatt on December 18th, 2014. The second is the list and discussion of the reasons for my resignation. The third letter is my second and final statement of refusal to participate in an interview with the “arms length” Ad Hoc committee set up by the Starr King Board to deal with the issues concerning the presidential search.

I hope that these documents will make clear for you the nature of the issues at Starr King from the perspective of a faculty member who deeply believes in the mission of the School. Believes deeply enough, in fact, that I have been willing to terminate my position there, at great cost to me personally and professionally, in order to challenge the system of abuse that has taken over the School’s leadership and to disassociate my self from its behaviors.

Thank you for your consideration of my request and for your attention to this matter.

In the Faith, I am…
Sincerely and Respectfully,

Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald

 

DORSEY BLAKE’S LETTER OF RESIGNATION
Letter copyright (c) 2014 Dorsey Blake

[A note on the text: I have reproduced Dorsey Blake’s letter as closely as possible to the original, making changes required for Web Formatting, but keeping his wording at all times.]

December 19, 2014

Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President
Starr King School for the Ministry
2441 Le Conte Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709

Dear Rev. Bray McNatt:

It is with very mixed emotions that I submit my letter of resignation from the faculty of Starr King School for the Ministry effective January 9, 5:00 p.m. I have been on the Starr King faculty in a somewhat permanent position since the Fall of 2005 and served for approximately 6 years as Dean of Faculty. I served because I truly believed in the mission and vision of Starr King, its educational philosophy, and its pedagogy to a great extent. I feel that presently these values are being eroded, subverted or betrayed.

The responses of the administration to the leaking of documents have been, in my opinion, far more damaging than the leak. Students are afraid to speak up at their own school where they pay thousands of dollars to attend. They see what has happened to two other students, neither of whom has been proven guilty of anything.

I contemplated resigning before the beginning of the semester; but, I pledged myself to attempt to work with you. I was concerned that you had been placed in a very difficult situation; and, I imagined that my work and presence could help. Yet, I have felt that you too have followed a punitive course rather than a healing one. The removal of advisees from Professor Kuhwald and me was a sign of things to come. Graduates and current students spoke to me during the Symposium. One stated boldly: “We can read; and, we can read between the lines also.” They all saw that action as punishment for our support of the students who diplomas have been withheld. However, I still wanted to see if we could work together. This was my desire although you demoted core faculty and changed the entire configuration of the faculty. No one seems to understand the reasons for the change or the new configuration itself.

While being profoundly pained by the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that has been created, I was stunned by your “red letter” version of what we should say “and nothing more” if asked about the breach. I also felt that your response to the news articles was completely unnecessary. There appears to be a need to control thought, knowledge, speech and actions of members of the Starr King community rather than recognizing that we are adults. The hiring of the board president’s daughter as a consultant during this time of great turmoil, including financial challenges, and seeming improprieties continues to
undermine my confidence in the administration’s ability to do the right thing. Consequently, I have concluded that I cannot continue to be complicit with such leadership.

While there have been organized discussions about “the breach,” I am not aware of any organized discussion about the problems that may have contributed to “the breach.” Starr King has been dysfunctional throughout my employment. Students had raised numerous concerns and have been disappointed with the response or lack of response of the administration. Several students over the last few years have asked to meet with me, but off campus. I have discovered numerous coffee shops in the area as a result. And, yes there were serious problems with the search process itself. There were no staff on the search committee; and, the core faculty had only one representative while the adjunct faculty had two. Dr. Parker actively participated in determining who her successor would be, developing questions to ask the candidates rather than recusing herself. She aggressively confronted candidate Ritchie in a public setting in a rude, totally unprofessional manner. The impact of her venomous and, I assert, fallacious comments regarding candidate Dr. Susan Ritchie cannot be ignored. Perhaps, whoever leaked the document was enraged by the discovery that the assessments for Dr. Ritchie to serve as president totaled 42 while the recommendations for you as president totaled 18 with 17 people saying no. Yet, you were selected president. There has never been any discussion of what the committee thought you would bring to the position that would justify choosing you over someone with much greater affirmation from those who participated in the search process. Perhaps, the person(s) releasing the document felt that this was the final blow to integrity and that something needed to be done, something even so strange as releasing the documents. Perhaps, those responsible saw the release of the document as whistle blowing. The public has often benefited from whistle blowing. The criticism voiced by “Strapped Student” also should not be dismissed without questioning whether there is some truth to the allegations.

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. I would expect such action from the National Security Agency, the Defense Department, or CIA; but, not from a seminary, especially a UU seminary. This ill conceived committee should have completed its demeaning work by the end of the summer and that should have led to the releasing of the diplomas. An article in the UU World quotes Starr King Board Chair, Helio Fred Garcia, as stating: “At this time, the board has no evidence the two have done anything wrong, Garcia said. If they cooperate, including by sharing their emails and other correspondence, and if the investigation determines they were not involved, then the board would take that into consideration in deciding whether to give them their degrees, Garcia told UUWorld.” Hear again the words, the board would only “take that in consideration in deciding whether to give them their degrees.” What happened to the idea of being innocent until proven guilty? How many months later is the committee trying to carry out its charge? How many months have the students been without their diplomas? How much longer will you allow the punitive direction to destroy Starr King, an institution with a rich history, and your legacy.

Starr King still holds extraordinary promise. That promise cannot be fulfilled by following the present oppressive course of action. A school cannot be great when fear permeates and stalks its halls. This is the atmosphere that currently exists. It results not only from Fred Garcia’s actions as chair of the Board of Trustees; but, also from the nature of your leadership that carries out such offensive measures.

That needs to change if there is to be a healthy Starr King. And, I do long for a healthy Starr King. You have a wonderful opportunity to bring healing to a troubled community. May you seize the opportunity that is before you.

Sincerely,

Dorsey O. Blake
Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice

9 thoughts on “Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King”

  1. Counter oppression work creates an oppressive amount of text to read’s all I can say. Dancing around the point may say more about the problems at SK then anything else. This soap opera not worth a uu’s time and effort and your better off without it.

  2. Thank you for your detailed inclusion of Rev. Kuhwald’s letters. What comes to mind, and I’m not sure whether this is a theological thought, is the idea of institutional hubris. Unitarian Universalism in general, and Starr King seminary in particular, have soared through the heights of pride. We are beyond dogmatism, we are socially engaged and we are inclusive. It is so sorrowfully ironic that our arrogance belies an inner institutional/theological insecurity to the extent that this tragedy occurred and continues to unfold and unravel. Having worked as a faculty member at another overweening academic institution, I understand how the expression of power can turn to self-protectiveness under perceived threat. The problem, as I see it, with Starr King is that it lacks any checks and balances and perhaps, as Kurt argues, faculty freedom of expression aside from that ultimate act of resignation. Other universities/educational institutions tread a slow path towards action; Starr King seems like an impulsive kid who can’t help but jump off the monkey bars in a playground. I hope and pray that some good will come of this; perhaps just a recognition that excessive pride and subsequent shame are inevitably linked for both individuals and institutions.

  3. Roy, your phrase “institutional hubris” caught my eye. That might be a very interesting extension of Loomer’s conception of “linear power” (a.k.a. “unidirectional power”) in his essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” As a process theologian, Loomer was very interested in size — so one of his books is titled “The Size of God”; and in this essay he writes: “The problem of power is the problem of size and stature.”

    In this essay, Loomer eventually argues that what he calls “relational power” is best, a kind of power in which “the ultimate aim … is the creation and enhancement of those relationships in which all participating members are transformed into individuals and groups of greater stature.” Hubris, in ancient Greek literature, always led to the downfall of the hero/ine and others; thus hubris always led to the diminishment of stature of those involved.

    So too I suspect with what you’re calling institutional hubris: it is a kind of overwhelming power that diminishes those that have to live under it; and thus ultimately it diminishes itself. Mind you, I’m probably going beyond Loomer here, but nevertheless I think this is a theological idea that could possibly make for a very interesting and relevant sermon series, a sermon series that anyone involved in human institutions (which is all of us) might profitably listen to.

  4. Wow, just wow to all of this, but especially Kurt’s letter to the Ad Hoc Committee. I got chills down my spine reminiscent of hearing about McCarthyism. How are good people of faith going so very wrong? I can’t help but think it is due to our sectarian nature and very small size and the threat we seem to feel to our theological schools. Inevitably fear leads to efforts to control leads to further constriction and ultimate failure. What will create less fear in this situation overall?

  5. Thank you so much for posting these incredibly helpful documents.

    As a recent Starr King alum, everything that is being described sounds all too familiar.

  6. Also, could you post the initial letter of concern that Revs. Blake, Kuhwald, and Ritchie sent to SKSM last Spring?

  7. I am a 1989 graduate of SKSM and served on the Board as president of the Grad’s Associaion in the late 90’s. My deep gratitude to Kurt for expressing so eloquently the dysfunction and mistrust that I observed creeping in at that time.

  8. D, you ask about the “initial letter of concern” — well, I don’t want my blog taken over by SKSM madness. I’ll let someone else post it somewhere on the Web, and then they can post a comment here giving the URL.

  9. Institutional hubris, indeed.

    The Ad Hoc Committee issues its report and the diplomas get delivered.
    http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/300929.shtml uuworld.org

    Can somebody post the initial letters of concern?

    Revs. Kuhwald and Blake resignation letters were right on target. I appreciate the sacrifices they have made and standing up for what is right. The board should beg them to rejoin Starr King.

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