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.

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