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.

How NOT to Issue a Press Release: Lies, Misleading Statements, and Coverup at Emmanuel Christian Seminary

The scandal at Emmanuel Christian Seminary involving the attempt to (wrongfully) terminate Professor Chris Rollston appears to be much uglier and more mishandled than we first thought.

Thomas Stark, who first broke much of this story on the Religion @ the Margins blog, has posted a new story that at first seems too unlikely to be true. But after reading the story, and more amazingly, viewing the screen shots, it unfortunately appears to be all too real.

Emmanuel President Michael Sweeney apparently asked Thomas Stark to issue a press release for Emmanuel that addressed the Chris Rollston disciplinary action presently underway at Emmanuel. This is, quite frankly, insane! (With all due respect to Thomas Stark and the Religion @ the Margins blog.) Since when does a university president ask a blogger to issue a press statement on the blogger’s blog?  Does the Emmanuel President not own a computer and a website? And how is it that we STILL haven’t heard a single thing from Emmanuel on this issue (outside of Paul Blowers divulging the confidential business of a disciplinary action to the public on Facebook, and then writing an entire article to the B&I website discussing the situation publicly)?

Who taught these guys to deal with press? And who taught them to do damage control? Silence from the Emmanuel administration only further exacerbates the perception that they have committed a grievous crime and STILL haven’t even figured out how to begin to address it. The Emmanuel administration’s complete failure at damage control (i.e., Blowers’ self-serving, and quite unhelpful article at B&I, and nothing else?) and their inability to communicate to the public even an acknowledgment that something is, in fact, going on at Emmanuel, belies just how bad things are there.

(Side note: screaming “mind your own business” and “cheap seats” is not considered effective damage control.)

Not only is Emmanuel missing opportunity after opportunity to address and settle this matter in an expedient manner, now they have apparently taken to attempting to convince bloggers to release “official” statements containing numerous falsehoods on their behalf. That is, they appear to be trying to get bloggers to lie to the public for them. This is absolutely shameful.

Stark’s latest post offers examples of four misleading, incorrect, or false statements in the Emmanuel statement. Here is an example of just one of them:

A fourth and final problem with Emmanuel’s statement is this: “nor is a disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article an issue in our discussions.” This statement is, in no uncertain terms, false. It is not simply a mischaracterization; it is a lie. It is a very troubling lie, and it is a lie that could not have been unintentional. As revealed last Monday in the Inside Higher Education article, President Sweeney’s letter to Rollston does in fact bring up the Huffington Post article as one of the causes justifying termination proceedings against Rollston. A whole paragraph is devoted to the subject of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article and his Facebook posts. In fact, the letter mentions the Huffington Post article more than once, and does in fact express disagreement with Dr. Rollston’s conclusions.

But of course, Sweeney’s letter resorts to obvious mischaracterization of Rollston’s conclusions in his Huffington Post article. Sweeney’s letter alleges Dr. Rollston’s article made the claim that “the Bible, as a whole, marginalized women,” and that its conclusion was, “we cannot put our trust in ‘biblical values.’” This is of course completely false. Rollston did not argue that the Bible “as a whole,” marginalized women. He argued that a majority of texts relevant to the question of women’s status in ancient Israel reflected patriarchy, while a minority of texts pushed back against this ideology in various ways. In the article, he identified eleven examples of such push backs. Moreover, he did not conclude that we cannot put our trust in “biblical values.” He concluded that patriarchy was one biblical value among many (and who in their right mind can deny this?), and that this specific biblical value is not something we ought to value. (Does President Sweeney wish to defend the patriarchal institutions established throughout much of the Bible, and argue that they should remain in force within modern Christianity?) Clearly Dr. Rollston’s article showed that he saw a clash of values within the Bible, and demonstrated that he found some of those values to be morally praiseworthy. President Sweeney and the experts in hermeneutics at Emmanuel should be defending him from those who have plainly misinterpreted his article, not engaging in the same careless and sweeping mischaracterizations themselves.

More to the point, clearly this displays that there was discussion of and disagreement over the contents of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article in connection to disciplinary proceedings. So when President Sweeney releases a statement in which he flatly denies that any “disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article” was “an issue in our discussions,” we know he is lying. I have spent a great deal of time trying to imagine a charitable interpretation of this claim that does not amount to an intentional lie, and I have been unable to do so.

Unbelievable! But there it is. Not only has Emmanuel apparently begun termination proceedings against a tenured professor (wrongfully, I might add), but they have yet even to address the matter publicly, because their one attempt to quell the growing outrage from other scholars and former students against them failed miserably when the blogger they asked to release an official statement refused to do so because the statement was utterly false – falsehoods that were immediately confirmed by the publication of the Inside Higher Ed article.

Had Thomas Stark published the Emmanuel statement from President Sweeney as-is (like he was asked to do), Stark would have been roped into lying on behalf of Emmanuel, which based on the evidence, Emmanuel asked him to do!

Stark describes how he felt when he finally realized that he had been asked to lie for Emmanuel:

Then, when I was sent a deeply problematic “statement” described as “officially” from President Sweeney, to be published on my website, I had come firsthand into solid confirmation of my suspicions of incompetence. No matter whose idea it may have been, how incompetent would President Sweeney have to be to approve the publication of an official statement from Emmanuel, with his name on it, on my blog! Does this evoke a sense of direction? Does this communicate a sense of properly handling a potentially damaging scandal? What is more, to include in that statement a number of mischaracterizations, evasions, and an outright lie—a lie he should have known full well could be proved false at any time—I ultimately concluded that President Sweeney appears to be in over his head, and is having a great deal of trouble managing the combination of this financial crisis, this ideological controversy over the direction of the seminary, and now what appears to be the wrongful termination of Professor Rollston, in anything remotely resembling a competent manner. It seems to me that President Sweeney has made mistake after mistake after mistake, and in doing so, has put Emmanuel’s reputation and its viability in serious jeopardy.

IMHO, Emmanuel should settle this case ASAP. They should either drop this farce of a “disciplinary action” against Professor Rollston immediately, apologize, and perhaps open an inquiry into Professor Blowers’ activity in this whole mess, OR, Emmanuel should pay Professor Rollston his salary for the next bunch of years, apologize, part ways (I can’t imagine Dr. Rollston (or any other faculty member for that matter) wanting to stay at Emmanuel after this), and end this absolute nightmare before they end up in court and the national press picks this up. It’s only a matter of time. Emmanuel should go to their “six-figure donor”, ask him for the money to buy out Dr. Rollston (and avoid court), and then at least Emmanuel can claim a partial victory (the departure of Prof. Rollston). Professor Rollston can go to a school that will actually appreciate him, and the remainder of the faculty can watch their backs as the Paul Blowers thought police plays hall monitor in Johnson City.

Only time will tell if Emmanuel’s credibility and reputation are too damaged to recover from this inexplicable mess, brought upon their own heads by their own mismanagement.

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