July 23, 2021

Interview: New Gordon College President Dr. Michael Hammond Talks Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+, Unity and Entering into Gordon Life

April 24, 2021

by Collin Hall ’21, Brianna Quinn ’24

Photo Credit: Mark Spooner / Dr. Michael D Hammond and his wife, Jennifer Hammond.

Collin: So, just to start, what are some of the big cultural differences you see or anticipate between the Midwest and New England? Do you see that playing a role in your leadership?

Dr. Hammond: I made the comment yesterday at the introductory chapel that people up here are really failing at living up to the cold New England heartless reputation because everyone has been so kind and warm in welcoming us! But seriously, our family has moved around to different reasons – we haven’t lived in New England – but we’ve lived on the East Coast, we’ve lived in Florida, Chicagoland, and everywhere we’ve moved we have loved embracing the culture of that place. So it’s just the United States, it’s not global. But the reality is that those regional differences are really important and key to understanding a culture. We love absorbing that. That said, I do recognize that part of the story for Gordon is its location in New England, and it shapes the culture of Gordon College, and it shapes some of the challenges that Gordon has been dealing with and will continue to deal with in ways that will be different than the South or the Midwest, or even the West. So I’m very aware of that. I told the student leaders that some of the ways that we think of New England as a place that’s more secularized, a place where Christianity is sometimes challenged more, those are real factors to consider. And yet if our Christian faith can’t stand up against some level of duress or some level of pressure, then is it really authentic faith?  I don’t want to be naive about things, but I’m actually really excited to get to know the culture and to take it in. 

Collin: You mention New England being secularized, and that changes the way that we interact at Gordon with the outside world. Do you anticipate any challenges with that, with New England and Gordon interfacing? 

Dr. Hammond: I don’t know if the challenges are different here, but they may be more common. These are the same challenges that Evangelicalism would face anywhere in the United States. It just may be more prevalent here. In response to that I would say, Evangelical Christianity needs to be a Global Christianity. Period. And the degree to which we fail to see our Evangelical faith as joined to the church worldwide, and even the church across time, we really sell short what the Christian church should be. So yes, New England brings different challenges. But I think all of us in the United States make a mistake if we only think of our faith as lived out in a regional area; it really needs to be lived out across time and across the globe. 

Collin: Yeah, and I think you being a historian is a good background for a college president, especially as you focus on America’s Civil Rights movements. Obviously, this is happening everywhere, but Gordon has had to deal with race in a big way especially this past year. We had several hate crimes occur last semester alone that spurred protests, discussions… There was an overnight sit-in in this very building in response to a hate crime. So those tensions have certainly been palpable here. How do you think your background will help you deal with these issues? And the other part of the question is: how did you deal with those things at Taylor? 

“I have a record wherever I’ve served of really entering into difficult situations, entering into difficult conversations. Not that I go looking for trouble…”

Incoming gordon college president dr. michael hammond

Dr. Hammond: I have a record wherever I’ve served of really entering into difficult situations, entering into difficult conversations. Not that I go looking for trouble, but I really believe that places like Gordon which are non-denominational -I use the word Evangelical because I still think that word applies even though some debate on what that word means today – are going to find that navigating differences of opinion is going to get pretty messy.

When you’re at a denominational college, oftentimes someone just tells you: this is what our church believes. Take it or leave it. But I’ve always preferred the messiness of a non-denominational Evangelical culture because I actually think that’s a formational learning experience for not just students, but for faculty and staff colleagues to wrestle through differences of opinion and a variety of different perspectives to come to terms with each other. And we are in a culture that is biased, and discriminatory, and intolerant. The church has to stand against that, to show something different. That doesn’t mean that we abandon our beliefs, it doesn’t mean that we abandon the core pillars of our faith, but it does mean that we have to be willing to engage with conversations that sometimes are gonna be messy. That’s part of it; that messiness is something that we are called to as believers out in the world. 

In a learning environment, where we do have differences in opinion and we should have distinctions in investigating new ideas, we have to model that. Because frankly, I mentioned secularization of New England and the world and certainly in higher education, secularization is a long-time trend. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that a faith-driven approach to whole-person learning wasn’t the best way to do this. I really do. I’ve committed my life to that. And not because I think that means we can think less about difficult issues, but because we think more about difficult issues. 

Collin: So at Taylor, I don’t know if you were having those same kinds of difficulties that we have here, but were there any very potent racial tensions at Taylor, and if so, how did you deal with those specifically? 

Dr. Hammond: We dealt with a lot of issues on campus, some of which became national stories around different political and cultural issues, and not to get too specific, but I’ll say that in general, what I’ve always tried to do is arrange for conversations that can happen incarnationally, face-to-face, in front of each other, with not just myself at the table but other leadership (students, faculty, other leaders). We went through a controversy a couple years ago and I spent many, many late nights with student leaders. I say student leaders, but also just students in general. I told everyone to bring their friends, and we had something like 30 students in a room who were really hurt and outraged over some things. I developed out of that some really deep friendships with students because we worked through very difficult issues together.

There’s something cathartic about coming to terms with things. And not that everyone in the room agreed, but we started to understand each other better. What makes solving difficult issues so hard oftentimes today is that our preferred medium is often virtual or at a distance; now we’re forced to be at a distance because of Coronavirus. Even then, we all can complain about social media. One of the challenges with social media is that it isn’t incarnational, it isn’t in front of each other, it is just throwing an idea out to whoever catches it. And that doesn’t show concern and care. Doesn’t mean it’s all bad, but the degree to which we can try to be in proximity, looking each other in the eye. Wearing a mask, but breathing the same air. That tends to be a better recipe for reconciliation. 

Collin: I think in the past couple of years, there has been an attempt to define Gordon by the things that divide it. And a lot of these things are true; Gordon has been very painfully divided in a lot of terrible ways. I don’t know if you read this, but there was a Boston Globe article a few years ago, I think it was 2013, that dove into the racism on campus when a new black worship leader was hired and the reactions to his new style of worship. A lot of people see Gordon only like that, in those terms, as a place of terrible division.

And in a lot of ways, that division has been tangible on campus. I think our disagreements (not the racism, of course) can be a strength, because it forces us to really think about what we believe and why we believe it. It also forces us to interface with people within the Christian faith who we really don’t agree with. But because we’re a nondenominational college in New England, we aren’t like a local secular school where most people are super liberal, and we’re not like a Liberty or Bob Jones where everyone is insanely conservative. We actually have to interface with these tensions on a day-to-day basis. So with that, one of the big things we have to talk about, and this is going to be obvious to you, is the LGBTQ+ issue. And I don’t mean that those people are an issue, but you know what I mean.

The Tartan actually conducted a comprehensive survey of over 500 students last semester that found 55% of Gordon students are theologically affirming, so it’s a majority. And then you have the 45% who aren’t. But the 55% who are affirming, well that doesn’t match with the school’s policy that condemns “homosexual practice.” That has created a lot of very difficult conversations, and a lot of pain for those people in the LGBT community. So how do you generally go about engaging with the LGBT community, and how do you think about these issues in a place where the student body tends to be more liberal on this issue than most Christian schools?

Dr. Hammond: Just to be really clear, I understand Gordon’s position on sexual ethics, and I agree with that and support that 100%. And I don’t think you would find that surprising. To be president of Gordon, you need to support Gordon’s positions. Just to be really clear about that. But that said, I think within the bounds of what is expected of students coming here to study, to complete their degree, within the bounds of what is expected of behavior, we have to learn to live with each other. I’m talking about how we sit and talk and understand each other on any number of issues. I think it’s really important that Gordon is really clear about what it believes, but I don’t think that means there isn’t reason to hear each other, to hear different voices on these issues. 

Collin: Yeah, that’s going to be a big thing to deal with in the coming years. Just a bit of a warning!  I know you know that, but it has been a very potent rift here and especially in the area we live in. That has caused serious rifts between Gordon and the local communities.

Brianna: So, moving to another topic. How do you engage with media? … Think of your favorite books, music, TV shows. How do you engage with those things? 

Dr. Hammond: Yeah, so movie night is a big deal at our house. We have a family of eight, two away at college. But right now that means they’re just a mile away at college. Sometimes they’re home. We do like to take in movies, but because of the age range of our kids, it always is something we all agree on. Honestly, my time is at such a premium that we just watch sports together on DVR. I’ve been getting into English Premier League Soccer, that’s been a big thing. We all have these new hobbies because of COVID-19, another one for me is birdwatching. I love to watch baseball, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about teaching baseball history.

Brianna: So, favorite baseball team? 

Dr. Hammond: Cincinnati Reds! But I’ll appreciate the Red Sox because I’ve always hated the Yankees. The enemy of my enemy is my friend! So, you asked about media, do you mean social media? Can you clarify that a bit. 

Collin: Yeah! What’s your ethos when dealing with secular media? I know a lot of Christians vary on that. How do you feel about watching explicit movies, non-Christian movies? Non-Christian music? And the whole variety of media that’s out there. Especially since college students, me included, are bathed in this stuff. 

Dr. Hammond: I think it’s a mistake, for instance, to say that the motion picture rating system somehow dictates the spiritual content of a particular film. Films can be rated whatever they’re rated, but there are some PG films that are less aimed towards truth than movies rated R or PG-13. In terms of music, we’re a very musical household. About half of our household can sing on key, and the others do their best. We’re often competing: who gets to play music louder, who gets the big speaker at the time. So we really enjoy music, I love live music. Jazz or orchestra or rock shows, whatever it is. 

Brianna: So one student on social media asked us to ask you what you think about Lane food.

Dr. Hammond: I’ve only had two meals! And they both have been very fast. They’ve been great, it has been really good. What do students think about the food? 

Collin: *laughs* Well… That’s a contentious question! I think people are frustrated with some of the changes two years ago, where we got rid of dining points for the most part in favor of “all you can eat” which didn’t work as well for light eaters. They pay the same for way less food. I honestly think the food is pretty good, but people like to complain a lot. You know how it is!

Collin: So, one thing that has been a point of major discussion surrounds the board of trustees and Critical Race Theory. A bunch of parents, well this is a complicated thing to summarize, but they wrote a letter to the board of trustees basically condemning Gordon’s use of Critical Race Theory in certain classes as well of the time and energy the student body and the institution have spent on social and racial justice… Some parents were mad about the BLM signs all over campus, that kind of thing. They were very upset that these things were allegedly pulling us away from the gospel, I think was their argument. So as a historian on civil rights, how do you feel about Critical Race Theory as a tool in understanding systems? 

Dr. Hammond: Yeah, I think it’s one interpretive theory. But it has become this litmus test people use to try and divide. And most people that I have talked to who try to weigh in on it, haven’t read anything about it. So people are basing their beliefs on what their friends say it means. I’m a historian of religion and I’m a historian on the Civil Rights movement; you can’t understand the Civil Rights movement without understanding the role of the church in that story. I would argue you can’t understand American religion if you don’t understand the role of race in American religion. And yet, there are a number of different ways from a historian’s point of view that you can interpret these stories of race, of faith and religion. I think it is really foolish for someone to latch onto any one theory and try to explain everything. That never works. It doesn’t work in science, it doesn’t work in any discipline. You have to balance these things to best understand the world. And so, what I would say is this is the mistake we are making again and again and again in our culture, of buying into “team A” or “team B” and we’re all going to war.

Collin: Yeah, I think that is how the letter was presented and received. Like a war, almost. 

Dr. Hammond: And I can understand people getting upset about it, but what we need to do is say: we will read this together, that we won’t agree on everything but we can learn something about the other through the process. I think there is opportunity there for growth, to give each other grace and understanding. What I believe about learning and free inquiry is that we do best when adding context, adding understanding. You don’t have to adopt Critical Race Theory, that’s fine. But you also can’t then entrap other people into saying “yes or no.” 

Collin: Thanks, I agree about the division; I hate the binaries that we so often force ourselves into. I think that’s where our country is, that’s where so many places are. 

Dr. Hammond: And again, we sometimes fall into the mentality of good guys versus bad guys, but usually that just ends up with everyone fighting. 

Collin: I guess, we’ve talked about this a lot, but the division on campus is really tough. I don’t think anyone would deny that. I think there is a lot of room for growth here. I love Gordon, and a lot of those divisions have challenged me as a person, to really think about what I believe and why I believe it. But on campus, that often plays out in some really nasty ways. You coming in during this time of strife gives you a unique opportunity. So my question is: what are some of the ways that you can see yourself uniting the campus? I know that’s a bit vague. 

Dr. Hammond: Let me say it this way: it would be presumptuous of anyone coming in from outside, because I’m not an insider, I haven’t been here. I haven’t lived things out incarnationally in this space. So at some level, as an academic leader, I come here with my track record of how I lead, how I listen, and the strategies I choose to deploy. But it would be incredibly presumptuous of me to say, Collin, let me tell you what needs to be done. That’s just arrogance. So I will really value, and I said this to student leaders earlier today, that I really value hearing unfiltered stories and opinions from those on campus. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, to get a sense of where we are and what our needs are. In doing so, I can’t assume that everyone is going to have the same story, or the same proposed solution. That’s where the leadership comes in, trying to navigate those different opinions and coming up with the best strategy to move things forward. So you talk about unity: sometimes that happens because there’s a brilliant idea, but oftentimes what I’ve found is that unifying people comes when we, one, reinforce the mission, and two, build trust in communication. Reinforce the mission because that’s what drew everyone here. You as students, me as an academic leader, and those who serve here. We also build trust in one another by communicating openly and clearly. And that’s not a world class strategy, but I actually think it is pretty effective. And I actually think it works. 

Collin: Well, thanks so much. I really appreciate your answers, and I’m excited to see what happens here in the next couple of years when I’m long gone. I’m very optimistic, and I think others are too. 

Brianna: Yeah, thanks so much. I hope we can do this again.

(The Tartan approached Dr. Hammond for one last question after the interview ended) 

Collin: So at Taylor a couple years ago, there was a big kerfuffle about the student newspaper not being allowed to publish something online because it made the college look bad. There were allegations of censorship at Taylor, and I just have friends who were involved with that. What’s your stance on that, and what does censorship look like in the future here? 

Dr. Hammond: There’s a lot to that story. I don’t want to get into it here. 

Collin: But my question isn’t so much about Taylor, but about what those kinds of things look like going forward at Gordon. 

Dr. Hammond: I can read up about that event because it has been a while, but it had to do with… Well, it had to do with the mechanism of a story that was then published online, and there was an interview… I didn’t design the interview. But again, I don’t want to get into it. 

Collin: But again, about censorship, that’s been a worry here in the past and I want to know if that’s something we should worry about going forward. I assume that’s not your go-to. 

Dr. Hammond: No, of course not. You talked about publishing online, everyone can publish online today. So it’s funny to look back at this issue, because anyone can post on their blog. I don’t see any reason to anticipate censorship. 

–END–

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