Winners and Losers in the Emmanuel Christian Seminary Scandal

Dr. Christopher Rollston is kicked off the sinking Emmanuel Christian Seminary ship. Image by Daniel O. McClellan (http://danmcclellanart.wordpress.com)

Image by Daniel O. McClellan (http://danmcclellanart.wordpress.com)

It’s finally over. The Emmanuel Christian Seminary tenure scandal, stemming from Emmanuel’s attempt to fire (the very tenured) Dr. Chris Rollston, has been resolved.

Dr. Rollston has voluntarily resigned his position at Emmanuel Christian Seminary after completing the Fall 2012 semester. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Dr. Rollston had accepted a Visiting Professorship at George Washington University in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations beginning in the spring of 2013.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Sweeney, President of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, announced that Emmanuel is taking steps toward being wholly acquired by neighboring Milligan College, but only after a donor forks over a substantial sum to alleviate Emmanuel’s existing debts.

All of this has caused me to reflect upon Emmanuel’s self-inflicted wounds in the form of an old Newsweek-style (remember them?) “Winners and Losers” post.


Winners

Chris Rollston – Some will spin argue that Dr. Rollston lost because Emmanuel ultimately got what it wanted: his departure. But those with eyes will see that this is a HUGE win for Dr. Rollston. He ended up with a better job at a much more prestigious university (had you ever heard of Emmanuel before the scandal?), with a faculty and administration that will protect, defend, and promote him, and, he won’t miss a day of teaching during the transition. He’ll have colleagues like Dr. Eric Cline with whom he can discuss his discipline, and he won’t have to worry about duplicitous “colleagues” on the thought police questioning his scholarship or divulging confidential personnel matters on Facebook. Dr. Rollston landed at better school, didn’t miss a day of work, and I’m guessing got paid for his troubles. (Again, please correct me if no cash was paid to Dr. Rollston as part of this “amicable resolution“). This is definitely a win for Chris Rollston.

George Washington University – What a steal! GWU got to hire an excellent professor the way that other ball clubs sign talented free agents out of Oakland or Miami. (Sorry, baseball joke.) AND, Eric Cline gets credit for stepping up with a great offer, which will earn him many points (as well as a few beers I’m guessing) with the academy. Big win for GWU!

Academic Freedom – It’s actually nice to see academic freedom win one every once in a while. With the deplorable treatment of excellent scholars by confessional schools over the past few years, it’s nice to see academic freedom, critical scholarship, and fundamental concepts like academic tenure come out on top now and then. It was nice to see Inside Higher Education get involved when Libby Nelson’s article broke the story onto the national scene. It was also nice to see the multitude of scholars line up to lend their voice and support to Dr. Rollston. It demonstrates that scholars must stick together to protest the underhanded workings of many confessional schools, who only hope that the academy will stand idly by and silently hold the coats of those attempting to dismiss good scholars because of their academic speech. This was a win for academic freedom.


Draw

Milligan CollegeMilligan will get to pick up the remaining Emmanuel assets during the forthcoming fire sale, and some quality professors to boot (if they choose to stay, but I’m guessing a few have updated their resumes and, let us say, have perhaps had some quiet conversations with colleagues at other schools during SBL last month). However, Milligan now has to deal with a fiscally problematic seminary with a tainted reputation. Will students will want to attend a place that fires their favorite (and very tenured) professors because said professors won’t toe a denominational line? Will students want to pay big private tuition dollars for a degree from a school now associated with the far right and the suppression of academic theological thought?

Still, the acquisition of the property across the 359 from Milligan (presently Emmanuel) should be seen as a opportunistic acquisition.


Losers

Emanuel Christian Seminary – Some will surely argue that Emmanuel won this standoff, and Emmanuel may attempt to spin this as a victory because they got what they ultimately wanted: the departure of Chris Rollston. However, the price they paid both in attempting to fire a tenured professor, and the price of the clumsily orchestrated and completely botched administrative handling of this scandal is so great, they must be characterized as losers. This is more than cutting off your nose to spite your face: this is sinking your own ship to spite your best professor.

Emmanuel may have avoided a law suit by paying off Rollston (allegedly), but the damage done to the Seminary’s reputation, coupled with their existing financial woes, ultimately doomed the school.

When all is said and done, Emmanuel Christian Seminary will cease to exist as an independent entity. It is desperately trying to get itself acquired by Milligan.

So sure, they got rid of a professor that a couple of people thought wasn’t doctrinally conservative enough, but in doing so, the school went under, and will have to be absorbed by Milligan College.

Ironically, that’s usually what happens when the good professors leave a school: it suffers and ultimately ceases to be. And this is probably not a bad thing, as the “Emmanuel brand” is so toxic right now, they essentially need to do like Philip Morris did and just change their name to Altria (or in this case, “Milligan”), start over, and hope no one notices (or at least that everyone forgets). The school will cease to be independent, they sullied their academic reputation, and they lost Chris Rollston. Three HUGE losses for Emmanuel.

Paul Blowers – Hardly anyone outside of Emmanuel had ever heard of Paul Blowers prior to the scandal. And now that the scandal is over, he’ll be forever known as the thought policeman who tried to get Chris Rollston fired. Lowlights include an awful article at Bible and Interpretation, in which he attempted to wiggle out of the mess he helped create (AKA trying to dig himself out of a hole), which generated a plethora of puns and the ever-puzzling “cheap seats” refrain, as well getting into an online shouting match with an undergraduate (and having it handed to him.) He disclosed confidential disciplinary proceedings on Facebook (proceedings some say he helped start), and was exposed for doing so. What’s more, it took Blowers far too long to put down the shovel and stop talking online. In trying to clean up his own mess and defend himself, he only made matters worse, and placed Emmanuel in a precarious legal position (which fortunately was “amicably re$olved”). BIG time loss.

Michael Sweeney – From attempting to fire a tenured professor, to not knowing how to handle a simple press release, this was an abject failure for President Sweeney and the Emmanuel administration. Dr. Sweeney successfully oversaw the demise of his seminary. It was an utter mess – one that will end with Milligan College having to step in and bail out what’s left of the school.


In the end, Dan McClellan‘s editorial cartoon captures it all in a single frame: Dr. Rollston improved his career, and Emmanuel will cease to be.

When all is said and done, it’s a victory for critical scholarship, tenure, and academic freedom. And for once, it’s nice to see the good guy win.

Emmanuel President Sweeney Announces Pursuit of $3,000,000 Donation, Merger with Milligan College

Dr. Michael Sweeney, President of Emmanuel Christian Seminary

Dr. Michael Sweeney, President of Emmanuel Christian Seminary

Confirming two items that I’ve mentioned on this blog over the past month (here and here), Emmanuel Christian Seminary President, Dr. Michael Sweeney, confirmed via two separate emails sent to all Emmanuel students the following two items:

  1. Emmanuel is close to signing a $3,000,000 donation from a donor, who has offered the money to be used in debt reduction.
  2. Milligan College has voted to pursue acquiring Emmanuel Christian Seminary, including its assets and debts.

The October 29, 2012 email reads as follows:

From: Michael Sweeney <msweeney@ecs.edu>
Date: Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 2:46 PM
Subject: Emmanuel and Milligan
To: Emmanuel Students Distribution List <emmanuel.students@ecs.edu>

Dear Emmanuel Students,
The Board meetings are finished and we are all trying to catch our breath. Last Friday, Milligan’s Board voted unanimously to move to the next step in integrating Emmanuel into Milligan – which is a very positive thing in light of our situation! Below, please see the press release from Milligan. A great deal of things need to come together before this will be able to happen, but we will proceed one step at a time.
Dr. Sweeney
_____________________
The Milligan College Board of Trustees today approved that Milligan President Dr. Bill Greer continue the process of due diligence toward the possible integration of Emmanuel Christian Seminary into Milligan College.

The two institutions have always operated independently but have a strong shared history, since Emmanuel was founded in 1965 using shared space on the Milligan campus and under the leadership of then-president Dr. Dean E. Walker. Both institutions are part of the Stone-Campbell Movement and have a similar mission of preparing men and women for ministry and servant-leadership.

Financial and economic conditions have been difficult for Emmanuel in recent years, which led Emmanuel’s board and president in Summer 2012 to begin discussions with Milligan about some sort of operating relationship. Since then, both institutions have been in a period of due diligence to explore the options and determine if such a relationship would be in the best interest of both parties.

No definitive decisions or agreements have been reached. Today’s decision to prepare a non-binding Letter of Intent formalizes the period of due diligence in order to fully investigate the financial, academic, administrative, and logistical details of such an arrangement. There are many details and decisions still to be explored prior to a final agreement being reached.

It is in the interest of both institutions to perpetuate quality academic degrees in Bible and ministry. It is the hope that the result of this process will be to integrate Emmanuel into Milligan College in a way that strengthens and continues that mission.

Michael Sweeney email footer
.

The November 7, 2012 email reads as follows:

From: Michael Sweeney <msweeney@ecs.edu>
Date: Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Subject: Answer to Prayer
To: Emmanuel Group <Emmanuel@ecs.edu>, Emmanuel Students Distribution List <emmanuel.students@ecs.edu>

Dear Emmanuel students, staff, and faculty,
As many of you know, last week Dan Lawson, Linda and I took a trip out West to visit a new prospective donor. This contact came about through the connecting efforts of one of our alums, who contacted me about a month ago. He said that there was a woman of significant means in his congregation who was looking for a Christian cause to support and asked for his advice.  He told her about Emmanuel. She wanted to see us and only had a window of a couple of weeks before she was heading south for the winter.
We had a wonderful visit, and in the end she informed us that she would be giving Emmanuel a gift of $3,000,000 to be used exclusively for debt reduction. I believe this will be the largest gift ever given to the school. Of course, the timing could not be better. The greatest barrier to our moving ahead in our talks with Milligan was Emmanuel’s debt. A reduction of $3,000,000 will go a long way in overcoming that problem.
We are praising God for bringing this about as a very direct answer to prayer.
Dr. Sweeney
Michael Sweeney email footer
.

Let us set aside for a moment that fact that the President of Emmanuel Christian Seminary sent these emails to the entire student body.

These emails from the Emmanuel President all but confirm what many have been saying throughout Emmanuel’s scandalous attempt to dismiss a tenured professor: that Emmanuel’s “very direct answer to prayer” appears to have involved an attempt to terminate Dr. Chris Rollston in exchange for a large donation. There is certainly evidence to support such a claim.

Likewise, the letter reveals that Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s financial woes are far greater than many thought; Emmanuel’s present administration appears to have led Emmanuel into such a deep financial hole that discussions of the acquisition of Emmanuel’s debt and remaining assets have been ongoing with Milligan College for some time now. Likewise, President Sweeney explicitly hopes that “the result of this process will be to integrate Emmanuel into Milligan College”. That is, according to an email Emmanuel’s President sent to its students, Emmanuel wants Milligan to assume control. Thus, we’re past the point of if it’s going to happen, but we are now talking about when.

Beyond violating the rule of never announcing a major donation until the deal has been inked, Emmanuel appears to have handed Dr. Rollston more evidence than he needs to argue, quite compellingly, that financial factors played at least some role in his attempted termination – evidence that can only add to Emmanuel’s (and apparently now Milligan’s) financial woes, as a wrongful termination case appears to be all but inevitable.

So not only has President Michael Sweeney led Emmanuel into a financial position that can only be solved by the wholesale assumption of the seminary by another school, but he has publicly announced a forthcoming donation, adding support to earlier claims that at least part of Dr. Rollston’s attempted dismissal was, in fact, based on financial reasons that, according to Dr. Sweeney’s letter, originated “about a month ago”.

What is no longer in question is that Emmanuel Christian Seminary, for all intents and purposes, will cease to be what it has been: an independent Christian seminary.

And as Milligan College picks up the remaining pieces of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in this forthcoming fire sale, Emmanuel has done its students no favor by casting itself the symbol of academic and intellectual suppression, and of selling out good professors for quick cash. I shudder to think how Emmanuel students have watched as its administration has damaged the school’s academic credibility, and therefore the reputation of an Emmanuel degree – which their students are paying good money to receive! What good is a degree from a seminary that has so quickly come to be associated by many scholars as the poster child for ultra conservative, religious fundamentalism, and a place where the religious thought police prohibit professors from saying anything out of line with a predetermined statement of beliefs required as a condition of employment?

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the students – both present and future – who are associated with Emmanuel School of Religion (and apparently soon to be Milligan College) might begin to transfer to other schools so as not to sully their chances of getting into PhD programs. Given the overwhelming number of faculty members who have written in support of Dr. Rollston from a wide array of schools, both confessional and secular, what are the chances that these institutions are going to accept Emmanuel students into their PhD programs?

Beyond putting Emmanuel in a precarious legal and financial situation, President Michael Sweeney may very well have destroyed Emmanuel’s one true asset: its reputation as a school that produces quality, critically thinking biblical scholars.

What is more, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Emmanuel students will begin to demand refunds for they education that they’ve paid for, but which has now arguably lost value because the “Emmanuel brand” has become associated with the suppression of scholarly inquiry.

It is time for President Sweeney and Emmanuel Christian Seminary to admit what many scholars already know: they made a HUGE mistake. They tried to pressure a good scholar out of a tenured position, in part at least, to secure a donation from a donor that did not like Dr. Rollston. The emails from President Sweeney to the Emmanel students certainly support this claim, as does the disciplinary action letter from Dr. Sweeney to Dr. Rollston.

It is time for Emmanuel to apologize and settle this case quickly, before any further damage harms the Emmanuel brand, and before the lack of academic credibility begins to stain Milligan College.

Inside Higher Ed Exposes Emmanuel Scandal: Christian Seminary To Terminate Professor in Exchange for Donation?

Dr. Chris Rollston, a tenured professor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, has had termination proceedings begun against him. According to documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed, his dismissal appears to be in exchange for a potential donation from a donor who personally dislikes Rollston.

Inside Higher Education reporter Libby A. Nelson has written an exposé this morning that sheds tremendous light on an academic scandal presently unfolding at Emmanuel Christian Seminary (formerly Emmanuel School of Religion).

The scandal involves the current attempt to terminate a tenured professor, Dr. Chris Rollston, the Toyozo W. Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies – a disciplinary process which a another Emmanuel professor, Dr. Paul Blowers, divulged to the public on Facebook last month while criticizing Rollston online for an article he wrote for the Huffington Post in August 2012.

In documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Emmanuel Christian Seminary President, Dr. Michael Sweeney, began the termination process of the tenured Rollston, in part, because of the acute financial crisis presently being experienced at Emmanuel, and the potential of a “six-figure” donation that could bail out the seminary, but from a donor who does not personally like Rollston. In this way, the school could kill two birds with one stone: ridding the faculty of a tenured professor to make way for a donation from a potential donor who does not like Rollston, and saving the money from the endowed chair and salary line Rollston presently earns.

That Emmanuel’s president would list multiple economic reasons (the potential of a donation, trouble recruiting tuition-paying students, etc.) for the termination of Dr. Rollston – in the notice of termination to Rollston – is scandalous in itself.

The fact that President Sweeney would attempt to blame the school’s best known and most prolific professor for the school’s present financial troubles is not only shameful, it appears to be unsubstantiated by the evidence. Dr. Rollston is the very reason many scholars even know about Emmanuel.

And, the fact that Dr. Rollston’s immediate supervisor, Dr. Paul Blowers (who serves as Chair of the Area Chairs, and who is therefore necessarily involved in any termination process) would divulge knowledge of this disciplinary process to the public whilst criticizing Rollston publicly is not only highly unprofessional, it is potentially actionable legally due to the confidentiality that necessarily surrounds cases of termination (that Emmanuel suddenly appears to want to honor as reason for not responding to the Inside Higher Ed article).

Dr. Blowers’ comments criticizing Rollston and divulging the disciplinary process can be found here and here. Dr. Blowers bragged:

We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out.

I responded to Dr. Blowers in comments on the Bible and Interpretation website.

Yet, even after apologizing for making the disciplinary action public, Dr. Blowers continued his defense of his criticism of Dr. Rollston on the Bible and Interpretation website and various blogs around the web. Dr. Blowers’ apparent obsession with defending himself throughout this entire scandal may have placed Emmanuel Christian Seminary in a very vulnerable position legally.

Indeed, the article notes that Dr. Rollston has retained a lawyer.

The Inside Higher Ed story highlights the central problem in this scandal: The argument over Dr. Rollston’s recent Huffington Post article seems to be, at best, a distraction that the seminary hoped it could use as an excuse for a “for cause” termination of the tenured Rollston.

Likewise, arguments about issues of academic freedom of private Christian institutions are moot for the following reasons:

  1. Emmanuel includes language on “Academic Freedom” in their faculty handbook that is adopted word-for-word from the secular American Association of University Professor’s (AAUP) statement on academic freedom.
  2. Emmanuel sought and was awarded accreditation from the secular Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
  3. Emmanuel awards tenure. (This is unlike many Christian universities that only extend term contracts to professors, so that in the event a professor ever says something the administration finds disagreeable, the school simply need not extend a contract extension to the professor.)

From the beginning, this appears to have been a case about the wrongful termination of a tenured professor, on trumped up grounds of interpretation of scripture, when the real reason appears to be one of a financial nature: sacrificing academic integrity and disregarding the tenure process in exchange for a potential donation from a theologically conservative donor.

If this turns out to be the case, then Emmanuel deserves any and all pending litigation brought against it.

An institution simply cannot fire a tenured professor who broke no rules (and who happens to be the most credible scholar at Emmanuel) just because the institution wants a donation. Tenure is designed to protect freedom of thought. If Emmanuel wants to fire its professors for thinking outside of Emmanuel’s predetermined theological constraints, why offer tenure in the first place?

In my professional opinion, Emmanuel has committed a grievous violation of academic integrity, and one that will not only cost them financially, but one that will ruin the reputation of the institution for years to come.


(N.B.: Note that the image of Rollston used in the Inside Higher Ed image depicts Dr. Rollston wearing a Pepperdine University sweatshirt. Pepperdine is another tenure granting college and like Emmanuel, affiliated with the Restoration Heritage.)


The mash-up images and internet memes below are satirical commentaries on the present apparent Emmanuel scandal as first reported by Inside Higher Ed. They do not reflect the opinion of Emmanuel Christian Seminary. All free-speech, satirical comments below are solely the opinion of the blog author. All images below are freely available online.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,453 other followers

%d bloggers like this: