I earned my Master of Arts in systematic theology at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, affectionately known as GTS. The seminary is a magical place in the heart of Manhattan. It consists of a set of beautiful, red-bricked, collegiate gothic buildings surrounding a leafy close. The land was donated to the institution by Clement Clarke Moore, author of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and professor at the seminary.
The buildings and grounds are grand, but at the heart of the institution are the faculty and students. Many of the faculty members under whom I studied are still at GTS. Others have retired and been replaced by new scholars, many of whom I’ve had the privilege to get to know. The key thing about studying at GTS was the balance between deep spirituality and academic inquiry. This is a difficulty and rare thing to achieve, but GTS has a faculty and attracts students who are up to the challenge of trying to balance these two concerns.
Now all of this is in jeopardy. After months of increasingly serious strain between the dean and president, the Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, and most of the faculty, the board of trustees has fired 80% of the full-time faculty after they declared they were unable to work with the dean due to his “overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.” This leaves nearly 140 students without faculty to teach them.
The purpose of this post is not give the reader the full picture of the situation, which is complex. To piece together the picture, I suggest you visit the NY Times article, the faculty group’s webpage, and the GTS website. What I want to reflect on here briefly is the nature of leadership, and propose that whatever the facts of the situation may be, both the dean and board of trustees have failed in their leadership duties. I also want to argue that everyone who cares about the future of GTS needs to speak out and hold the board accountable to provide the leadership required at this critical time.
Rev. Dunkle's main job at GTS is to re-align the organization to prosper in a new and uncertain religious landscape. This is a huge undertaking, and one that cannot be done alone. To succeed, he needed to create strong alliances with the major seminary stakeholders, including the various diocese, parishes, alumni/ae, and donors who provide funds, the faculty members who deliver the education, the various parishes in and around NYC who participate in field education, and the students who pay the tuition and represent the future of GTS and the Episcopal Church. Of these constituencies, the faculty is perhaps the most important. They provide the continuity that creates the culture of the institution as groups of students come and go. They are the soul of GTS. With 80% of the faculty willing to walk out of work due to his leadership style, one can say without exaggeration that Rev. Dunkle has totally failed at one of his most important and essential duties. By his own admission, his style is one of “consultation rather than collaboration,” and this style created conflict.
As a former senior manager in a Fortune 20 company, I’ve had the privilege of working for some outstanding leaders. I’ve seen firsthand how a good leader understands and adapts her or his style to guide the organization in new and unsettling directions. More importantly, I’ve witnessed that organizations where leaders take the time to work collaboratively, create shared viewpoints, and nurture relationships are more likely to successfully survive turbulent change. In fact, organizations like the Boston Consulting Group identify developing share perspectives, fostering collaboration, and nurturing relationships as essential components of managing in turbulent times.
The behavior of the board of trustees is as depressing as the failure of the dean. As chair of the board, Bishop Mark Sisk appeared content to let a very serious conflict (which he had known about for at least four months, possibly more) fester without taking any action. Now that the meltdown occurred, his management of the situation has been tone deaf and ineffectual. Furthermore, some members of the board seem to not understanding the seriousness of their position. For example, one board member posted a long personal reflection on the situation to social media. Having a board member offer public "personal reflections" on an institutional matter with legal implications is problematic and seriously jeopardizes the ability of the board to govern impartially. While I'm free to do so as a concerned GTS stakeholder, I would never write a blog entry like this one were I in a leadership position at an organization in the midst of addressing such a huge challenge.
The most perplexing question of all is this: why would the executive committee of the board, faced with a walkout of 80% of the most essential employees of the institution, seek to engage in political power plays rather than address the pressing issues at hand? I fear that it is because few of the leaders at GTS really understands leadership, which is a terrifying prospect. I hope I’m wrong.