Statement from former SKSM student Edith Love
My Beloved Starr King Community,
I am writing to you to offer a confession, and an apology. When I first came to our school, I felt like I had come to my spiritual home, a place I had longed for all my life, a place where justice, equity and compassion were among our highest ideals.
Being admitted felt like a dream come true. As soon as my acceptance letter came in the mail, I pinned it to the wall by my desk. However, I found to my great dismay, that the institution was not all I had hoped. I began to hear stories from other students about negative outcomes for those who spoke out about perceived injustices within our school.
When Dr. Parker announced her retirement, I was sad, as I had great admiration for her wisdom and her gifts. As the time came to select a new president, I was encouraged and hopeful that this would be the beginning of a new era. When student leaders called for an emergency meeting, only a handful of people were able to attend on such short notice. At the meeting, I discovered that some students had possession of documents they felt proved that the presidential search process had been flawed. My friends told me that the school was about to announce Rev. McNatt as the new president. In these documents were the results of a survey, including responses from the current students, faculty, staff, and even Dr. Parker. When I looked at these responses, I was shocked. I saw overwhelming support from the student body and others for Dr. Ritchie, but highly negative responses towards her from our Dean, Provost, and current President. I did not understand why their responses seemingly weighed so heavily against all the positive responses from the others.
I questioned whether it was common practice in hiring a new president of a theological school to allow the current president to have so much influence on whom their successor should be. It seemed unethical, and I was very upset. The negative words said about Dr. Ritchie seemed mean-spirited as well as untrue. I wanted so badly to believe in my school, and I felt like our faith had been betrayed. It seemed to some of us who had access to the information in the search process documents that the president, dean, and provost were using the private nature of the survey to say things that were not true. I thought it was urgent that the entire student body be able to access this information, as it was extremely relevant to our interests and the long-term best interests of our institution itself. Starr King has long struggled with a culture of mistrust. How could such a pivotal decision be made in such a trust-breaking way? It was my hope and intent that collectively, we students could address these issues, and help our school more fully enact the values we cherish as Unitarian Universalists.
At the time, I did not believe that the administration’s interest in withholding the results outweighed the students’ interest in access to the information. As a student, I felt that this information belonged to the entire student body, and the survey results called into question the credibility of the presidential selection process, at least as it had been originally presented to us. I had hoped that sharing the documents would spur the other students to the same sense of outrage that I felt, and then, united, we would be able to enter into meaningful dialogue about the selection process.
A trustee of a religious educational institution has not only a legal duty, but also a sacred responsibility, I believe, to safeguard and defend the school’s best interests, even if those interests conflict with personal or individual interests. While I hope and trust that those ultimately responsible for the outcome of the presidential search acted in accordance with their own understanding of their duty, I felt strongly that the presidential search process was carried out in a manner that seriously conflicted with the core values of our school.
Therefore, I was one of the people involved in the email attributed to ‘Strapped Student.’ To protect others’ privacy, I removed the names of all the students, staff, and most of the faculty from the survey results that were released. At the time I did not believe that the redacted results of the survey were confidential. As a student at Starr King, we had often filled out queries on surveymonkey, as this one was. The results of those surveys were then usually released to the entire student body.
The only names remaining in the documents belonged to the candidates, and to the administration of the school. In the heat of outrage at what was perceived to be injustice, there was insufficient consideration of the implications this release might have for the new incoming president, or for the school. I am not the person who sent out the email. It was not my idea to share the information outside our school. The information had been previously sent to several students, I was far from the first, and the original leaker is unknown to me. What I can say is that Julie and Suzi did not send that email, either.
I have held my silence up to this moment, because others close to the situation have asked me to, and because I was very scared. As has previously been stated, there are long-standing issues of mistrust and fear at Starr King, between the student body and the administration. I was extremely frightened of the potential for retaliation.
In the board’s response to the Strapped Student email, I had hoped for an examination of what went wrong. As the days have gone by, and the situation has escalated, each time my heart has sunk further. I wish there could be a chance at genuine dialogue. Rather than examining what might have led us to this point, the school hired private investigators and a law firm. Sadly, my fears of retaliation were not unfounded. All three professors who signed a letter of support for the students have left the school. All of the original faculty except Dr. Lettini and Dr. Farajajae were placed on adjunct rather than core faculty status. Julie and Suzi were denied their degrees, months after everyone else has graduated.
Even putting out this statement, I am taking a huge risk. My spouse is concerned that speaking out will give the school an opportunity to come after me with a lawsuit. They have a lot of money and power for a sustained legal fight. I do not have much money, and could not defend myself as well, should they decide to take that course. I only had an attorney for a few weeks last fall before the money allocated for me in the student’s legal aid fund ran out.
Though I have been immobilized by fear, I shall be afraid no longer. I am now choosing to come forward publicly in hopes for engaging the leadership of our school in a constructive way. I will not allow the dread of consequences to myself or others prevent me from speaking my truth. I have been grieving heavily since I was compelled to leave this school that I love. In September, I approached school leadership, wanting to tell my part of the story. But they were unwilling to engage in dialogue, unless I agreed to disclose all the participants I knew of involved in the “Strapped Student” email. I was not, and am not, willing to share the identities of other people. I will speak for myself, not about what anyone else did or did not do. On September 5, an email from my academic advisor said the school is giving me these choices: I could withdraw, or wait to be expelled from Starr King, or else I could come forth, take responsibility, and begin the process of self-reflection toward making amends. I was willing then, as well as now, to take responsibility, and to work toward making amends. But, in Starr King’s eyes, taking responsibility meant naming names, nothing less. So, my heart breaking, I withdrew from the school.
I did not want to leave. I love this school with all my heart.
Since then, I have continued to reach out to the school for resolution, but to no avail. I was not successful when I spoke directly to the head of the Ad Hoc Committee in October, nor when my UUMA Good Offices colleague approached the Ad Hoc Committee in December, what they wanted was for me to name others. As long as they could not move from their position, nor I from mine, we have been at an impasse. Recently, I spoke directly to Rev. McNatt and Rev. Betancourt, and we were unable to find common ground. What I took away from that conversation is that the only path forward for me with Starr King is full disclosure for every person I know who may be involved. I am not willing to do that. If there were assurances given to the community that no litigation would result, maybe other involved people will feel safe enough to speak up.
When all this began, I considered the release of the information as whistle-blowing. In hindsight, while I maintain a healthy critique of the process and my school, I can see how we could have made other choices. I wish I had been braver, and spoken out publicly about my concerns then, as I am doing today.
I very deeply regret any harm that may have resulted from my participation in the release of information as well as my fear of coming forward to acknowledge what I did. Suzi and Julie have suffered greatly, Julie lost an internship, and both of them have been denied their degrees. I’m sure this situation has had a severe impact on their careers and their finances. Other students have been deeply hurt, and many have left the school entirely. Dr. Ritchie, Dr. Kuhwald, and Dr. Blake, and Mr. Packenham have all made individual decisions to resign, at what I can only imagine is great personal cost.
I understand that these actions brought pain to people I had admired: Dr. Parker, Dr. Ritchie, Dr. Lettini, Dr. Farajajae, and others. For that pain, I am deeply sorry.
Additionally, the release of the email hobbled the first chapter of Rev. McNatt’s presidency at Starr King. I would like to apologize to her. Coming into such a situation cannot have been easy for the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt. I humbly beg her forgiveness for my part in any harm that has come to her, for which I am truly and profoundly sorry.
Since 2001, when I feel that God called me, I have worked very hard toward the dream of ordained Unitarian Universalist ministry. First, this meant working, for years, toward my undergraduate degree in social and racial justice. Then, it meant more hard work at a local seminary, and then these past two years at Starr King. I still believe God is calling me to ministry. I realize that, in light of my actions last spring, some may believe this mistake disqualifies me from ministry entirely. I can see that part of my professional development will be reflection and growth around institutional ethics—how to uphold a prophetic vision of justice-making while working within systems of power. I’m a student. I’m still learning. I know I have a lot to learn in this area. I had hoped for a community-wide conversation about the dynamics of secrecy and power at Starr King. Instead, our actions sparked conflict that has consumed thousands of precious dollars by Starr King, and a lot of attention and energy at our school and throughout the UUA that could have otherwise been directed outward, at pursuing our mission in the world. One of my worries now is that others will judge me poorly, based on my actions of last spring, and that my long path to ministry will be cut short, as my participation in that email last April might overshadow all else I have done in pursuit of my dream. But, regardless of my concerns, it is time to speak out. I can’t stay silent any longer. I care about this school, and it has felt like my heart being ripped open, as this has dragged on and on.
To those I have hurt, I ask your forgiveness. This includes Rev. McNatt, Suzi Spangenberg, and Julie Brock, as well as others who have suffered in the wake of this crisis. To everyone who has been hurt by my part in this situation, I am deeply sorry. My zeal for exposing what I perceived to be injustice does not excuse my part in what transpired, and I offer my deepest apology and profound regret. If a conversation would help, please reach out to me, so I can understand how my actions impacted you, and we can talk with each other, so that I can find out what I amends I could make.
To the board of Starr King School for the Ministry, I am asking if we could engage in some process of reconciliation. I had hoped that Starr King would live up to its potential and the fullest expression of its values, as an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, multi-religious institution. I think we have a real opportunity here for each of us to confess to any wrongdoing, and humbly work on our faults. If we try to move forward without examining how we got here, I’m afraid it will only be a band-aid over a bleeding wound.Even though I am now enrolled at another seminary, my heart will always be with Starr King. It is my hope that in making this statement, others will also be able to speak up. I know some have called for a truly independent mediator to be brought in by the UUA. Perhaps if we did that, an atmosphere of safety and trust could begin to form, where once there was fear.
To the wider Unitarian Universalist community, to the extent that my actions have broken trust with you, I ask for the opportunity to re-build it. I deeply desire to serve as a minister in the name of our faith, and know that a lot will be asked of me toward that dream. If you know how I could gain your trust, over time, please let me know.
While I no longer have the idealism I began with at Starr King, my ever-present intention has been to act out of love for our school. Because I am determined to the path of self-reflection and growth, I feel certain that at some point in the future, I will look back on these events, having learned how better to handle conflict, and how to navigate difficult conversations. Is seems ironic that I began this past fall semester enrolled in a family systems course. I have now learned the benefit of direct address, no matter how intimidated I may feel. Knowing that this is a very painful moment in the history of our school, it is my prayer that the coming days will also be a time of reflection and growth, both for myself and for my school, so that we may all continue to serve the same vision of a place that lives up to the ideals of Unitarian Universalism.
When I began this journey, being accepted as a student at Starr King was a dream come true for me, I felt it was my spiritual home. I share all of this with faith that, even though I came to it slowly, the spirit of courage and love is the path that leads to healing and justice. I extend sincere appreciation for all who labor long hours in the name of our faith. My hope is that with this confession and apology, maybe, just possibly, we can have conversations about what happened last spring, as well as about the underlying issues that contributed, and healing can finally begin. Lifting up words by Starr King graduate, Rob Eller-Isaacs. “we forgive ourselves, and each other, we begin again in love.” Can we please try, for the future of our school?
With all the love in my heart,