17 December 2020

Earlham College, ESR, and Anna Karenina

Matt Hisrich is at far left. Source.
Yesterday, I innocently opened my Facebook feed and was startled to read that the dean of Earlham School of Religion, Matt Hisrich, had been asked to vacate his office immediately, and his ESR e-mail address had been canceled.

In the "world," this kind of surgical removal implies that any delay in the employee's departure would harm the institution, but no such explanation was given. Matt's direct supervisor, Anne Houtman (president of Earlham College and ESR) was, instead, apparently reacting to a memo that Matt Hisrich had circulated among the Board of Advisors members concerning "the state of Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion." She was not happy about this memo, as she wrote to that Board:

Matt never once expressed to me the concerns he shared with you, even when I gave him ample opportunity to do so. His “reflections” are filled with misinformation and misinterpretation, and reflect more than anything a deep misunderstanding of ESR’s fiscal situation, its relationship to Earlham, and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time. This is not the first time Matt has behaved unprofessionally in our work together, but I have previously attributed this to his inexperience. It is an unfortunate way to choose to end a working relationship.

The letter from Anne Houtman to the Board contains no specifics of Hisrich's unprofessionalism or misunderstandings, so I have written to her to get some specifics or some context. I promised her I would publish her answers. Matt Hisrich had been affirmed as interim dean, and then dean, by two previous Earlham presidents, who obviously didn't see his understanding of the Earlham-ESR relationship as fatally flawed.

As for Hisrich's analysis of ESR's situation, he had (in a mild form, suitable for general audiences) summarized some of them in a post on the ESR Web site last June -- after Earlham decided to take half of ESR's designated endowment funds and transfer them to Earlham's unrestricted endowment. I remembering having an uneasy feeling at the time, and that feeling has just been confirmed. 

As for choosing "to end a working relationship," from all appearances this was not Matt Hisrich's choice at all. He had already submitted his resignation to take effect at the end of this year, making that announcement in an upbeat way, despite what we now know is a background of misgivings about the decisions made by Earlham's president and trustees. In any case, he communicated his most recent analysis to a group of insiders, the Board of Advisors, without a hint of personal disrespect. Apparently that was enough to earn immediate dismissal.

So that's how my day began yesterday. As the day wore on, one of the ESR Advisors sent me the text of an open letter to ESR alumni and Earlham's trustees, and I was invited to co-sign it, which I did. The letter is a valuable overview of recent Earlham-ESR history. I've known Margaret Hawthorn (the author) for many years, and have a similar testimony to hers concerning the importance of ESR in my life. I also was part of the committee that helped Earlham president Doug Bennett in the search that led to Jay Marshall's appointment as dean, and I agree with her assessment of Marshall's crucial role. Margaret Hawthorn's letter does not touch on yesterday's sad developments, but her (our) recommendations to the trustees would correct the dysfunctions that Matt Hisrich's apparently offensive memo identifies.

Here is the text of the open letter, followed by a link to a form that would allow you to co-sign the letter.

16 Mountain Road
Rindge, NH 03461

December 15, 2020

Dear Alumni and Friends of ESR,

My time as a student at Earlham School of Religion (ESR) was life changing. Like others blessed to have attended the seminary that calls itself a Quaker crossroads, I am intensely loyal and grateful to the school for my time there.

ESR is the only Quaker seminary in the United States. A good percentage of students, faculty, administrative staff, and trustees are Friends. Quaker spiritual practices for conducting business have traditionally been used by faculty and student bodies. The Religious Society of Friends in the US benefits from and relies on having a Quaker graduate level education available.

Last week I was shocked to receive an email from Anne Houtman, president of Earlham College (EC), announcing Matt Hisrich’s resignation as dean of ESR, effective at the end of this year. Matt and I graduated together in 2008. I only shared one class with him, but that was enough for me to appreciate his keen intellect and excellent people skills.

Although the brief announcement of Matt’s departure doesn’t mention it, in the years after he completed his Mdiv Matt went on to earn a doctorate in management at the University of Maryland University College. Matt brought a unique combination of spiritual gifts and pragmatic skills to his roles as dean of ESR and vice president of EC. Like many ESR alums who have known him, I was delighted when he stepped in as acting dean, and then moved into the permanent position a year later. I knew ESR was in good hands.

During his tenure as dean of ESR Jay Marshall did a commendable job of stewarding its finances, while Earlham struggled. Granted, it’s been a rough couple decades for small, independent colleges, but that doesn’t entirely account for Earlham’s money problems today.

In June 2020 EC’s president and the board of trustees abruptly de-designated roughly half of ESR’s $49 million endowment, appropriating it to help right Earlham’s deteriorating financial situation. At the same time, the president required Matt to reduce ESR’s budget by 20 percent without cutting salaries.

Matt made the excruciating decision to eliminate two administrative jobs created in response to the changing needs of twenty-first century graduate students. The positions of Director of Student and Alumni Engagement (DSAE) and Director of Community Development positions went on the chopping block. This, although the DSAE job was specifically part of ESR’s 2018 Five-Year Strategic Plan. Prior to the de-designation the seminary had more than sufficient funds to support those vital development positions.

Also in June, other administrative jobs performed independently within ESR and its partner, Bethany Theological Seminary (Bethany), were brought under the direct supervision of college administrators, which hasn’t benefited the seminaries. All of this placed Matt in an untenable situation. He was repeatedly stymied in his efforts to act in the best interest of the seminary before then, and has been since.

Another dean can be hired, but it will be difficult to find one with the knowledge of - and passion for - ESR that Matt brought. Should a candidate turn up with Matt’s qualifications, their hands will be equally tied. As long as ESR is financially held responsible to help bail out EC, its future is at risk no matter who assumes leadership.

Two great features about ESR have been its sister relationship with Bethany, right next door on the Earlham campus, and aspects of its relationship with EC. The two seminaries working side by side are able to maintain their unique theological perspectives while offering a richer course selection than either could separately. Similarly, students from the seminaries and the college have benefited by having access back and forth to certain professors and courses, libraries, and to cultural events on campus.

However, good boundaries are necessary for these three entities to work well together. Bethany is already affected by the placement of services shared exclusively by the two seminaries under supervision of college administrators. The primary relationship is between the two seminaries, but further changes in ESR’s status with the college will continue to spill over onto Bethany.

Ultimately, this is not just about the loss of one staff person. It is about accumulated losses over the past several months. It is about concern for the ongoing characters of Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion. It is about striving for the integrity Quakers value deeply, however short we fall.

Recently, Earlham’s president said, “ESR is the jewel in Earlham’s crown,” making an unfortunate reference to the crown jewel of England. Subjected to British colonialism, India was that crown jewel. By the time British rule ended in 1947, many of India’s resources and once-thriving businesses had been pillaged. If anything, ESR is a treasure to be shared, not squandered.

Please join me in calling on the president and the board of trustees of Earlham College to take the following steps:
  1. Return the de-designated endowment funds Earlham’s board had previously designated to ensure ESR’s financial stability;
  2. Return direct reporting of ESR administrative faculty to the dean of ESR;
  3. Restore the autonomy necessary for ESR to fulfill its distinct and board-approved mission and strategic plan.
I encourage you to either write your own letter or sign on to this one to be forwarded to Earlham’s trustees.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Margaret Hawthorn
ESR M.Div 2008

Co-signed: (as of today, December 17)

Micah Bales
ESR Board of Advisors Member
ESR M.Div 2009
Pastor, Berkeley Friends Church

Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn
ESR Board of Advisors Member
ESR M.Div 1991

Susan Kaul
ESR Board of Advisors Member
ESR M.Div 2007

Jaimie Mudd
Quaker Pastor

Windy Cooler
Quaker Public Minister, Baltimore Yearly Meeting

Michael Sherman
ESR Graduate
Pastor, Muncie Friends Church
Clerk, New Association of Friends

Andy Stanton-Henry
ESR, M.Div 2018

Ruth Cutcher
Current ESR student

John Jeremiah Edminster
M.Div., ESR, 2019.
Custodian, Quaker Bible Index

Nikki Holland
ESR MDiv 2020,
Director of FUM's Ministries in Belize

Anthony Kirk
ESR Graduate
Pastor of Klamath Falls Friends Church, Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting

Thomas Baker-Swann
Writer and ESR student graduating May 2021 in the MATW

Faith Kelley
Pastor, Berkeley Friends Church

Sarah Gillooly
ESR M.Div Student
Adelphi Friends Meeting, Adelphi, MD

Michael Jay
ESR M.Div 2013
Pastor, Raysville Friends

Leigh Tolton
Pastor, West Elkton Friends

Joe Tolton
ESR 2010
Pastor, West Elkton Friends

Daniel Mudd

L. Callid Keefe-Perry
Traveling Minister, Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting
New England Yearly Meeting Lecturer in Practical Theology
Boston University School of Theology
Earlham GPE Alum 2007

Johan Maurer
Retired Friends pastor, administrator, and missionary
Former ESR advisory board member

Caroline Morris
ESR M.Div 2020

Jason Kalis
ESR M.Div. student
Grand Rapids Friends Meeting (LEYM)

Christine Ashley
MAPST student '21

Joshua Brown
Pastor, Springfield Friends Meeting

Follow this link to co-sign the letter and this link to see latest version of letter and list of signatures.

You're probably familiar with Tolstoy's pronouncement about happy and unhappy families, from Anna Karenina:

All happy families are similar to each other. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Actually, if you substitute "colleges" for "families," the situation is probably reversed. All happy colleges, in the USA's current economic, political, and public health context, are probably unique, whereas unhappy colleges have many features in common -- the frightening and repelling prospect of higher education debt, increased skepticism about the value of their product for happiness, spiraling costs of competition in amenities, cycles of costcutting that lead to reliance on mercilessly exploited adjunct faculty, ... and all that was going on before the pandemic.

However, the case of Earlham and ESR has its unique aspects. Judged by numbers of students, ESR is a tiny division of the larger organization, but legacy has given it an outsized importance, both for the denominations it was founded to serve (Quakers in all our variety) and for the integrity of Earlham's identity as a whole. It cannot be treated as a modular profit center whose assets and goodwill can be lightly disposed of. By its very nature, it serves a community that can rarely afford to carry its share of ESR's costs. That has been the heart of ESR's case to Quaker donors: help us raise and nurture Friends' future leadership for the good of all of us.

This commitment breaks down if donors and the larger Quaker community stop trusting that their support is in fact carrying out that part of ESR's mission. This is why Margaret Hawthorn's message to Earlham's trustees is so important.

Of course, it goes both ways: if Earlham keeps its promise to cherish ESR and its traditional funding model, will the community continue to give the necessary support?

Chuck Fager has his eyes on Earlham and Guilford and their financial situations: May 12. June 15.

Save Guilford College: the Web site.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Alyssa Fowers describe higher education's economic plight in the USA before and after the pandemic hit.

Kenyan Quaker Miriam Were, internationally known leader in public health and medical education, receives Japan's Order of the Rising Sun. I was her chauffeur back in 1987, when Friends World Committee for Consultation's Section of the Americas celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a huge intervisitation project bringing distinguished Friends to local meetings and churches all over North America. I drove Miriam to several diverse locations in Indiana and Ohio. I still remember some of the stories she told me on those travels.

Liz Theoharis applies "vaccine thinking" to all of American life.

Remembering Dorothy Day: a Youtube recording of the lively panel discussion, cosponsored by the Dorothy Day Guild and America Media, that commemorated the the 40th anniversary of the death of Servant of God Dorothy Day.

Blues dessert! Christone "Kingfish" Ingram's amazing version of "The Thrill Is Gone."


frickthoughts said...

Remembering you and you entire Quaker path over these 40 plus years, I believe I can say with depth of feeling: Whatever you say or believe in this, or any instance, would be "the right thing." You are a good and faithful Friend. And a brilliant, and knowledgeable, person. It is sad that, on occasion, Friends are not up to the task of following the Truth.

Johan Maurer said...

It has been a long time, hasn't it? Thank you for your kind words.