Columbia Theological Seminary under fire again because of race issues
Black students at the Columbia Theological Seminary are objecting to the firing of a beloved Black administrator, Rev. Samuel White, director of admissions and recruitment, saying this action is the latest of a series of firings of faculty and administrators of color since 2019.
Frustrated students are protesting and demanding the resignation of the school’s President, Leanne Van Dyk, among other demands. Van Dyk had already announced her decision to retire in July.
Columbia Theological Seminary is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in Decatur, Georgia that has had a history of racial complaints. According to a May 2021 admissions brochure, African Americans made up more than 64% of the student body at that time.
After most had left the campus for the summer, Van Dyk informed remaining students, along with faculty and staff, that it was Rev. White’s last day. He was terminated the day after the school celebrated the Juneteenth holiday.
His firing follows an earlier complaint this year that White filed with the EEOC. In that complaint, he requested the right to sue Columbia, according to White’s attorney, Grace Starling, who says the complaint will be amended to include White’s firing. In his EEOC filing, White, who served since March 2020 as director of admissions and recruitment, said his work was “degraded” and resources needed to perform his job were delayed after he complained of employment discrimination based on race and sexual orientation for others at the seminary. He also informed seminary officials that he was interviewed by an attorney representing another employee regarding employment discrimination.
The seminary’s African Heritage Student Association published a letter the day after White’s firing that was addressed to the president’s council and board of trustees expressing “deep sadness and tremendous frustration” over the incident and asserting that Van Dyk’s tenure “has been defined by racial injustice.”
The students referenced White’s time as director of admissions, which they say “resulted in the recruitment of one of the largest incoming classes in recent history, and the most diverse incoming class in the school’s history. Without fail, Rev. White is committed to ensuring that the seminary upholds the values and ethics it professes around justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The Rev. John DeLoney, president of the African Heritage Student Association, said in a virtual news conference Thursday morning, “This is not an isolated incident, but it’s more of something that is systemic with Columbia.” He noted that 60% of the students at CTS are of color. “With that majority of people of color coming to the university, you should be adding more administration of color, but they seem to be ushering the people of color in the administration out.”
In addition to White, the students claim that the Rev. Brandon Maxwell, another Black administrator, was forced to resign as vice president for enrollment and student affairs and cited the 2019 firing of the Rev. Ruth-Aimée Belonni-Rosario Govens as the seminary’s chief enrollment officer, prompting outrage from the school’s Hispanic and Latinx association, as well as a lawsuit.
That same year, the school did not renew the contract of Kevin Park, dean for advanced professional studies who oversaw Korean American ministries, and John Azumah, a Ghanaian professor of world Christianity and Islam and director of international programs, left sooner than expected, according to the Presbyterian Mission, after the seminary announced that its office of international programs would be realigned.
The letter from the students demand that the president, who is scheduled to leave her post in six weeks, resign immediately, that the board president resign, that White be reinstated and that a new advisory board be appointed to oversee personnel changes at the seminary.
Jennifer Cuthbertson, the seminary’s director of marketing and communications, declined to say why White had been let go instead saying, “Columbia Theological Seminary is sensitive to students’ concerns over the departure of Rev. Samuel White. However, it was a carefully considered decision and out of respect for the privacy of all current and former employees and consistent with our policies, we do not comment on personnel matters.”
DeLoney added that the lack of transparency about the terminations only makes the matter more concerning. He also noted that the arrival of a nonwhite person coming in as the new president does not disqualify concerns about racism on campus. His reference was to the Rev. Victor Aloyo who is expected to become the first person of color to serve as president of the seminary. Some among the student body have expressed concerns that Aloyo is a “cover for the legacy of racism that the administration at CTS has sustained and that its hostility toward people of color will stall any progress that could be achieved under Aloyo.
DeLoney speculated that the administration is pushing back on the school’s increasing diversity saying, “Columbia got too black, too fast, and now we’re facing a Blacklash. I believe Rev. Sam White is a victim of the Blacklash from all of the students of color coming to Columbia.”