The Hidden Curriculum at General Theological Seminary: On authority, power, and how they aren’t the same thing

The Hidden Curriculum at General Theological Seminary: On authority, power, and how they aren’t the same thing October 20, 2014

gtsWhen the Board of Trustees at General Theological Seminary announced that a public statement would be made in the late afternoon on Friday, I was fairly sure whatever was about to be said was not going to be good news. There were telltale signs: Public announcements of the kind made on Friday are never a good idea.  It’s hard to be heard accurately.  Everyone goes home over the weekend to digest the decision made without recourse to further conversation.  Announcements of that kind don’t allow you to fine tune the nuance of your decision; and people tweet their reaction to it long before you are able to issue the printed version of your conclusion.

It was even harder to be hopeful when I realized that the board was not going to take time to talk to the faculty again before they made their decision public. Those are some of the reasons that I was fairly sure the message was going to be “our way or the highway” – with a complementary bit of scripture, evening prayer, and an offer to “bend the knee” in exchange for a contract to cover the rest of the year.

In that regard, Friday’s announcement had the virtue of consistency.  This dispute has been a bloody, public mess – worked out on-line and on Facebook, with pubic pronouncements and 140 characters at a time on Twitter.

The result isn’t at all surprising.  The faculty has no attractive options.  A dissenting board member has come forward, hoping to work out a compromise, and another member of the board has resigned.  But the hands of those working to modify the decision will be tied by the board’s action and the agreement of the larger board to make the decision unanimous.  Classes are being taught by a quickly assembled collection of adjunct teachers.  Reports are already sifting through that students are beginning to look for alternatives and recruiting new students will be all but impossible. The seminary’s closure can’t be far behind.

I have served on a number of boards and I have spent more of my life as an administrator, than I have on the faculty side of academic life.  So, my instincts are not reflexively pro-faculty.  I also know that faculty can dictate curriculum and pursue narrow research interests without regard for the challenges involved in keeping an institution afloat.  I can even imagine circumstances under which an administrator or board members might ask themselves — “Who do these people think they are?” – which is, according to sources that know, more or less the mindset that dominated on the board when the faculty was fired.

On the other hand, it’s not at all clear to me that the faculty was that utterly clueless.  The handful of them I know are not given to that kind of behavior; and it is hard to believe that eight of them could have so completely misread the situation around them.

How did a theologically progressive institution with a like-minded board and ecclesiastical constituency of the same kind give itself to this kind of reactive behavior?  Is it because of that perennial bogeyman, hierarchy?  I doubt it.  The dissenting bishops on and off the board who have raised objections to the decisions made at GTS are getting kudos for using their high office to express their disapproval.  Is it because the membership of the board included closeted conservatives who were acting just the way conservatives act – according to progressives, that is?  I doubt that too.  New York institutions – especially those in The Episcopal Church — don’t roll that way, by and large, and there have been conservatives who have publicly expressed their sympathy for the faculty at General.

The problem is the way in which we Americans think about authority and – on that score – progressives and conservatives are often influenced by our culture’s assumptions about it.  Provoke a conservative or a liberal in this country and you are more likely than not to get the behavior we’ve seen over the last two weeks.  The only difference will be the reasons offered in its defense.

What, exactly, is the American notion of authority?  Some years ago, Sara Charles and Eugene Kennedy wrote a book the thesis of which has stuck with me for years: authority is the most misunderstood concept in America.  I won’t claim that my summation is any longer completely true to their argument, but my own take on their work is this:  Americans tend to think of authority as a matter of power.  So, the only relationship that we can have with authority is either to wield power or be subjugated by it.

As a result, our attitudes toward authority are conflicted.  If we favor the decisions made, we are likely to applaud its use.  If not, we excoriate those in charge. When in power, we tend to be reactive – because, of course, the struggle for power is a zero-sum game with winners and losers.  And in that struggle the institutions that we lead often suffer as result.  To put it another way: We become so preoccupied with winning that we don’t realize that the fight itself is destroying the one thing we are all trying to control.

Sound familiar?

A better way to think about authority, as Charles and Kennedy suggest, is to emphasize the root of the word itself: “to author.”  Authority, used effectively, is not about the acquisition or maintenance of power.  It is about the conservation and enhancement of a creative space.  Seen in this way, the leader’s attention should not be focused on the zero-sum game over power.  It should be focused on the maintenance of boundaries, practices, and conduct of an institution that make for creative flourishing.

That approach to authority need not be flaccid or weak.  Nor is it without direction.  To the contrary, it is less likely to be narrow, reactive, and self-serving.  But that kind of authority is obliged to offer explanations for its conduct that account for the preservation of creative space.  It demands attention to the fabric of the institution, it recruits others in the strengthening of that institutional fabric, and, most importantly, it eschews a preoccupation with personal power and privilege.  Responsibility and self-transcendence are its hallmarks. Relationship, trust, and enhanced creativity are its gifts. There is no room for “who do they think they are,” “we know better,” let alone “my way or the highway.”  Those feelings may come and go, but they are reptilian distractions to anyone who cares about the creative work entrusted to them.

A number of decisions could be made that might reverse the trajectory at GTS.  It is hard to be hopeful at the moment. But without a fundamentally different approach to the exercise of authority, it is unlikely that the changes will last or the trajectory will change.  In that case, the last lesson taught to seminarians at the church’s oldest school will be part of a hidden curriculum on the exercise of power.  Let’s hope they are taking note.  They could end up behind our altars.

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