Seminary's Racism Deeper Than Black Professor's Layoff, Students Say | Sojourners

Seminary's Racism Deeper Than Black Professor's Layoff, Students Say

This past spring, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary laid off Rev. Emmett G. Price III, a popular professor and former dean of chapel who founded the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience there in 2016. The decision not to renew his contract as part of budget cuts prompted letters of protest from alumni, community leaders, and the Hamilton, Mass., campus’ student association.

But students had been raising concerns about racism on campus with senior administrators for months, Sojourners has learned. In January, a group of students sent a letter to Rev. Jeffrey Arthurs, dean of the Hamilton campus, and Jana Holiday, dean of students, to express their concerns about what they described as an “abusive” environment for Black students, faculty, and staff at the campus in Hamilton.

“Even though Gordon Conwell is classified as a Christian institution, we do not deem it wise or safe for any of us to advocate or recommend Black students to get a degree or take classes at Gordon Conwell-Hamilton,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Sojourners.

More than half a dozen current and former students and faculty who spoke with Sojourners painted a picture of an institution that has struggled with inclusion for decades. Several said Gordon-Conwell embraces white evangelical ways of thinking, teaching, and worshiping that do not fully accept or value Christians of color — particularly those from the Black church.

“We’re doubling down on our white, racist evangelicalism,” Jaronzie Harris, a master of divinity candidate and ISBCE scholar, said of the school after Price’s departure. “That’s what it feels like to me. The institution is saying, ‘We’re going to be what we’re going to be.’”

Gordon-Conwell declined to answer a detailed list of questions, and President Scott W. Sunquist declined multiple interview requests, citing “legal considerations.”

A tale of two campuses

In the Boston area, Gordon-Conwell is split between two campuses. Its main campus and headquarters — and its only residential campus — is located in Hamilton, a bucolic suburb north of Boston. The town was just over 92 percent white in 2019, according to census estimates. The student body on the Hamilton campus was at least 37 percent white in fall 2020, according to the school, with 16 percent Asian, 7 percent Black, 4 percent Latino, and 25 percent “unknown or unavailable.”

About an hour’s drive south is the Campus for Urban Ministerial Education, located in Roxbury, a mostly Black and Latino neighborhood of Boston. Its student body is just 6 percent white, with 23 percent Black, 39 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian, and 11 percent “unknown or unavailable,” according to the school.

The diversity page on Gordon-Conwell’s website lists a link to faculty demographics, as well as the school's diversity task force, the Southeast Diversity Council, and women at Gordon-Conwell, but those links do not currently lead anywhere.

Concerns about racism, particularly on the Hamilton campus, came to a head well before the school laid Price off.

Two students who signed the January letter expressing their concerns, and praising Price, told Sojourners they had no idea his job was in danger but felt the need to speak up for a professor they described as a mentor.

“As the only Black faculty member, he was under stress and wasn’t being valued by the community of his peers and administrators,” said Harris, the ISBCE scholar, in an email.

“There were many parallels between what students were experiencing and also witnessing in the experience of the only Black faculty,” she added.

A group of students later met to address those concerns with Arthurs; Holiday; Rev. Virginia Ward, dean of the Boston campus; and Eun Ah Cho, dean of the Ockenga Institute, which is relaunching as the Gordon-Conwell Institute.

Then, in May, they found out Gordon-Conwell laid Price off.

Arthurs, Holiday, Ward, and Cho did not respond to a request for comment.

In a July 12 letter to the Gordon-Conwell community, Sunquist said the decision to end Price’s contract was part of a larger effort to close a $2.5 million budget gap that prompted a public warning from the New England Commission of Higher Education in September 2019.

That warning — or “notation,” as it’s called — meant that Gordon-Conwell’s accreditation was in danger. In his letter to the community, Sunquist said that laying off Price was part of a plan to “prove to our accrediting agencies that we are economically viable.”

“This has been a very painful decision for our community given the many ways Dr. Price has blessed and impacted us,” Sunquist wrote. “We pray God’s blessings on Dr. Price in his next area of ministry and teaching.”

New conversations about race

In August, the seminary announced that it received a $15,000 seed grant from In Trust Center for Theological Schools for its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The money is slated for “institutional assessment and training,” the school said.

The grant followed years of reinvigorated conversations about race at Gordon-Conwell.

Sunquist convened a task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2019, shortly after he became president, that included Price and others. Last year, the school published a statement on its theology of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It has also launched a new section of its website to highlight its diversity initiatives and link to outside resources. At least one photo on that site, showing a multiethnic group of young people listening to music, is a stock image.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 reinvigorated the national Black Lives Matter movement and brought conversations about racism back to the fore at Gordon-Conwell.

A list of “diversity-focused initiatives” that Gordon-Conwell published online in March includes Sunquist and his cabinet reading and discussing books on racism, the school hosting several events about race and diversity, and guidance that “whenever feasible,” faculty incorporate materials and topics related to the global church in their course syllabi.

“Feeling like it culminated in the last full-time Black faculty member being let go — it's absurd, really,” Harris said. “I have really no other way to describe it.”

Price did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment. But in an interview with GBH News on July 20, he said that he was proud of his work at Gordon-Conwell, especially in founding and building up the ISBCE.

“I sleep well at night, because I’ve done what I was supposed to do — even though others may feel that it was not beneficial to their cause,” Price said.

The Berklee College of Music, in Boston, announced on Aug. 3 that Price will join its faculty as the inaugural dean of Africana studies.

Black students and alumni who spoke with Sojourners described Price as a mentor who gave generously of his time to help students from all backgrounds.

“He became the pastor for the Black students,” said Rev. Kenneth Young, a Gordon-Conwell alumnus and former recruiter who is now deputy director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. “Not only was he the pastor for the Black students but for students of color and what you might call the more liberal students who want to know, ‘What does it mean to reconcile, and how do we do that?’”

A long-running problem

In communications with Gordon-Conwell’s administration that were reviewed by Sojourners, students raised several past issues they said illustrated the hostile environment for Black students on the Hamilton campus.

One occurred in the spring of 2019. Zachary Stephenson said he had spent most of the day in an office set aside for ISBCE students on Gordon-Conwell’s Hamilton campus. He had a Hebrew test the next day and needed to finish up some notes for his job as a social worker so he could get paid. When he left the office for a quick trip to Trader Joe’s, he said he knew he'd have to come back later to get more work done — he even left his books and laptop on a table.

When Stephenson got back, he found the lights off and the office locked. That had happened before, but a professor or campus security would always let him back in, Stephenson said. There was one campus security guard who always gave Stephenson a hard time about it, though, and he was on duty that evening.

As soon as the guard arrived, Stephenson said, things began to escalate. After some back-and-forth over whether Stephenson was allowed to be in the office, Stephenson said he began to grow frustrated.

“I was like, ‘You're the only person to do this. Why are you playing these games? I'm a student here at the campus. I should not be getting treated like this. I have work I have to do,’” he said.

That’s when Stephenson said the guard threatened to call Hamilton police — a threat Stephenson said was especially serious for him as a Black man going to seminary in an overwhelmingly white Boston suburb.

Once things escalated, Stephenson decided to call Price, who he said quickly diffused the situation.

“He was just very calm and very peaceful,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said the incident left him feeling so shaken and unsafe on Gordon-Conwell’s campus that he reached out to his therapist for help processing what had happened.

“I never experienced that when I went to Alabama State University, which is a historical Black college, [where] I got my bachelor's in social work,” he said. “I never experienced that when I went to UConn and got my master's in social work. But when I came to a Christian campus, that's when I experienced that.”

Stephenson’s feeling that he was out of place at Gordon-Conwell may have been particularly stark, but it isn’t unique among former students and faculty of color who spoke with Sojourners.

Rev. Alvin Padilla, who received his master of divinity from Gordon-Conwell in 1984 and spent almost two decades on the faculty from 1997 until 2016, including as a senior administrator, recalled complaining about how few professors of color there were when he was a student there.

(After Padilla spoke with Sojourners, he said in an email that he’s returning to Gordon-Conwell as dean of Latino and global initiatives and professor of New Testament. “My love for GCTS has never waned, and I am thrilled to return,” he wrote.)

Edwin David Aponte said he received little support as a master’s student in the 1980s as he wrestled with what it meant to be Latino and Christian in the United States.

Since Aponte graduated from Gordon-Conwell, he’s had a long career as an academic dean and scholar of American religion. He’s now executive director of the Louisville Institute, based out of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. But he said that he has been treated as an “outsider” by his alma mater.

Unanswered questions about the school’s future

It’s not clear exactly when Gordon-Conwell laid Price off, but sources who spoke with Sojourners said he was let go in early or mid May.

That was after the New England Commission of Higher Education removed the seminary’s notation on April 23. But in a meeting with concerned students about Price’s layoff on June 9, Sunquist said it was clear to him after a May board meeting that he had to eliminate more faculty at Gordon-Conwell’s campus in Hamilton to keep the notation from coming back, according to meeting notes obtained by Sojourners. Sunquist told the students that he would come under criticism for laying off Price, according to the notes, but he didn’t want to put Gordon-Conwell’s accreditation in danger.

Bishop Claude R. Alexander Jr., chair of Gordon-Conwell’s board of trustees, did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s not clear what will happen to the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience. The school moved the center under the auspices of the Ockenga Institute, which also houses its other academic centers, in 2020. The Ockenga Institute’s website links to a separate website for the ISBCE, which still listed Price as executive director as of press time.

Price brought significant funding to the ISBCE, including a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2018 for a youth empowerment program called #EQUIP that works in 15 Black congregations in New England.

The Lilly Endowment’s communications director, Judy Cebula, said the foundation doesn’t comment on its grantees’ personnel decisions.

“We do however monitor grant-funded projects to make sure they are executed effectively. Accordingly, we will continue to follow the progress of the #EQUIP program under its new leadership,” Cebula said in a statement.

The ISBCE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.