Western Theological Seminary's Call to Public Accountability
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To the Board of Trustees,
The Office of the President,
The Office of Formation for Ministry,
& the Office of Development
of Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI.
We, the undersigned alumni and friends of WTS, are deeply grieved and sadly unsurprised to learn of the existence of a recent report, produced by an independent investigator and described in the attached letter to the students from President Tim Brown, detailing incidents of harassment, hostility, and discrimination directed toward the seminary’s women students, staff, and faculty.
Our hearts are heavy for our sisters and siblings in Christ, particularly women-of-color and LGBTQ women, who have endured such things in the spaces meant to be preparing them for ministry. Our sense of justice is kindled for them, for those who have come before them, and for those who will come after them. We honor the courage of those who spoke up, and we honor the safety of those who could not.
As ministers, chaplains, social workers, and members of the Church, we take seriously our ordination vows which call us to the following:
Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.
In being called “to build up and equip the church for mission... to relieve the oppressed, [and] to comfort the afflicted,” we stand ready to care for and support our fellow ministers and future colleagues. Therefore, we will not tolerate silence or neutrality in the face of such behavior--not from individuals, and not from institutions.
We call on the Trustees and the administration to acknowledge that the sexism described in this report is pervasive and structural, that it resides in and affects people at all levels of the seminary administration, faculty, and staff, and that only system-wide self-examination can produce real cultural change.
We are unsatisfied with the vague promises detailed in President Brown’s letter to the student body (enclosed below), and we therefore insist that Western Theological Seminary be called to further transparency and accountability in the following ways:
- By issuing a public statement affirming the seminary’s commitment to nurturing the God-given gifts of women called to ministry, repenting of the sins of sexism and harassment, and apologizing to all those subjected to this hostile environment;
- By publishing on its website, well in advance of the seminary’s fall orientation dates, the curriculum to be used and dates/times on which the seminary plans to “..train administrators, faculty, staff, students, and trustees on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination as well as policies and procedures at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.”
--We fully expect that this training will go beyond the short seminars previously offered occasionally by faculty, and include theological perspectives on the inclusion, dignity, and equality of women.
- By issuing guidance to the faculty that “debates” between complementarian and egalitarian theological positions are not, and cannot be in the current seminary environment, supportive and nurturing of women called to ministry--and thus are not appropriate for WTS classrooms. Encourage faculty who need to discuss such theologies to find more creative and productive ways to prepare students to develop arguments.
- By using all of the resources at its disposal, including the gifts of faculty, local therapists, local clergy, already-established programs, and new programs and strategies, to create formal mechanisms for the support, retention, and development of current and future women students. We, the undersigned, stand ready to assist WTS in this endeavor.
- By publishing the results of the seminary’s “climate assessments,” to be conducted during the next academic year, along with a public commitment to addressing any ongoing issues discovered in those reports, including concrete steps to be taken.
Western Theological Seminary, in accepting federal student loans, is subject to Title IX rules and regulations protecting women--and for this, we are grateful. But we respectfully remind the seminary and its agents that they are also accountable to our denomination, to alumni, and ultimately, to the Triune God. Should this call to public accountability go unanswered, we the undersigned promise, in the interest of the future wellbeing of the Church, to continue to pursue transparency and justice.
The Rev. Sarah Juist, M.Div., 2014
The Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck, M.Div, M.S.W., 2016
The Rev. Calandra Nevenzel, M.Div., 2015
The Rev. Stacey S. Midge, M.Div., 2003
The Rev. Elizabeth Carroll, M.Div., 2016
The Rev. Paige A. Convis, M.Div., 2015
The Rev. Gregory D. Town, M.Div., 2007
The Rev. Rebecca L. Town, M.Div., 2007
The Rev. Patricia Weatherwax, M.Div., 2004
The Rev. Randy Van Doornik, M.Div., 2004
The Rev. Justin J. Meyers, M.Div., 2003
The Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland, M.Div., 2014
The Rev. Jim Keat, M.Div., 2013
The Rev. Jason Fulkerson, M.Div. 2011
The Rev. Jeffery J. Vedders, M.Div., 2016
The Rev. Donna Field, M.Div., NBTS 2013
The Rev. Bethany Popkes, M.Div., 2011
The Rev. Angie L. Mabry-Nauta, M. Div., 2004
The Rev. Lindsey De Kruif, M.Div., 2011; Th.M., 2012
The Rev. Karen Joy Kelly, M.Div., 2003
The Rev. Jessica C. Scholten, M.Div., 2001
The Rev. Lindsay Bona, M.Div., BCC, 2005
The Rev. Kate Meyer LPC, M.Div., 2005
Mr. Jonathan S. Owens, Th.M, 2016.
The Rev. Edith Lenz, M.Div., 2002
The Rev. Jes Kast, M. Div., 2011
The Rev. Marla Rotman, M. Div., 2012
The Rev. Tim Rotman, M.Div., 1996
The Rev. Dr. Kate Davelaar Guthrie, M.Div., 2008
The Rev. Jenni Yeski, M.Div., 2012
Mr. Zac Poppen, M.Div., 2012
The Rev. Terika Raak, M.Div., 2009
The Rev. Rachel Brownson, M.Div., 2010
The Rev. Catherine Martin, M.Div., 2007
The Rev. Izzy Rhodes, M.Div., M.S.W., 2016
Enclosure: A letter to the WTS community from President Tim Brown, dated April 2017.
Dear WTS Community,
Several people have requested more information since the emails sent in the last few weeks regarding Title IX compliance at the seminary. I am writing to share clarifying information.
The email from me dated April 13 stated: “On Monday, April 10, we received the results of an independent investigation conducted of a sexual harassment complaint filed by two faculty members on behalf of several female students at WTS earlier this year. The report concluded that female students have been subjected to a sexually hostile environment at WTS.”
Many people have wondered what precipitated hiring an investigator. As mentioned, in January two professors filed a formal sexual harassment complaint on behalf of nine students. Because of both the number of allegations and number of students represented, a decision was made to hire an independent investigator. The investigator is an experienced attorney from outside this area who specializes in Title IX. The investigator is also a woman. She conducted numerous interviews with members of our community between the time the complaint was filed in January and the delivery of her findings in April.
The investigator concluded the report with this finding:
“Based on the totality of the circumstances, the preponderance of the evidence obtained in this investigation supports that female WTS students have been subjected to a sexually hostile environment. While none of the individual incidents was sufficiently severe to constitute a sexual hostile environment, the harassment of female WTS students was sufficiently persistent and pervasive to be serious enough to deny or limit (and, in fact, for some students did deny and limit) their ability to participate in or to receive the benefits, service or opportunities of WTS’ educational program and activities.”
As I expressed in my April 13 email, I am deeply grieved by this finding and grateful to those with the courage to stand up and report their experiences and concerns.
It is important to keep in mind what the investigator is and isn’t saying. There have been no incidents of sexual assault at WTS. The source of several of the incidents reported is the Community Kitchen. It is not accurate, however, to say this is just a Community Kitchen problem. The report found that female students at WTS have been subjected to numerous incidents of sexual harassment and other offensive behavior by WTS employees, WTS students, and other third parties; this included sexual comments and jokes, gestures, and other comments of a sexual nature. This behavior is contrary to our values.
Subsequent to receiving the investigator’s report, we have been in dialogue with the Community Action House, the local organization which manages the Community Kitchen, and the Holland Police Department and have taken steps to provide increased security during the hours the Community Kitchen operates.
In response to the findings of the report, the Investigator made a number of other recommendations, all of which were outlined in my April 13 email. These are:
· Establish today a WTS Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force. The purpose of the Task Force will be to provide input to the Title IX Coordinator and senior leadership regarding the effectiveness of the Title IX compliance program and recommend strategies for continuous improvement. Members of the Task Force will represent the WTS community, including Rayetta Perez, Title IX Coordinator, a member of the Board of Trustees, administrators, faculty members, staff members, and students. Rayetta will communicate details about the task force soon.
· Update non-discrimination statements in all documents at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year.
· Train administrators, faculty, staff, students, and trustees on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination as well as policies and procedures at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.
· Revise grievance procedures with input from the Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force to clarify where and how students, faculty, and staff should report various types of sex discrimination and understand the grievance process in the first semester of the 2017-18 academic year.
· Develop and initiate a climate assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of WTS policies, procedures and practices relating to sex discrimination (including sexual and gender-based harassment). We plan to administer the first assessment in the coming months, and a follow up assessment at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. The results of the assessments will be used to inform future proactive steps to continuously improve our overall Title IX compliance program.
All of the recommendations are being implemented. In addition, the faculty received the investigator’s report at its meeting Tuesday afternoon, and shared my disappointment that students have been subjected to a sexually hostile environment. Kris DePree, the moderator of our Board of Trustees, was present at the faculty meeting and has been a part of our work on addressing the complaint since it was reported in January. This will be a prime topic on the agenda of the board at our May 9 meeting.
Time is tight because the end of the semester is at hand, and I am leaving in a short while and will be out of town for several days. However, our community needs to have a conversation about this next week. Plans are being made to do that next Wednesday, May 3, at noon. More details about that will be announced.
Grace and peace,
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