December 6, 2023

Examining the Life of the Philosophy Department

David Aiken teaching The Examined Life. Photo by Micaiah Bushnell.

This is one article in a series explaining changes at Gordon College, called Define: Gordon

By: Taylor Bradford ‘19 and Shalom Maleachi ‘17

Editor-in-Chief and Opinions Editor

Philosophy grapples with tough life questions such as ‘Why?’ and ‘What is next?’

For Gordon College’s philosophers, those questions hold much significance as the future of the department is unknown.

Since the departure of Brian Glenney in 2015 and Lauren Barthold in 2016, Gordon College’s Philosophy Department has struggled to be more than just a basic major.

Mark Gedney, chair of the College’s Philosophy Department, said, “It has been a tumultuous time period and so we haven’t had a chance to review and get through things, to really sit down and think about what the next step is.”

When Gedney joined the philosophy department in 1998, the department was looking toward the future. Thirteen years prior to Gedney’s arrival, the College had undergone a huge shift in enrollment as Barrington College and Gordon College merged. The number of students rose significantly and the educational advancements that the college was going through allowed for the philosophy department to begin to dream big.

As Gedney came into the role as chair of the department, the philosophers on staff included Gedney, David Aiken and Malcolm Reid. With a growing community came a desire and need to expand what was taught within the philosophy department. The College’s philosophers began to create a 10-year plan, as do all departments, to evaluate the past and plan for the future, which aimed to “have four faculty members to cover core, but also to expand the interests that showed up in our last 10-year review,” said Gedney in an interview with a Tartan reporter.

In 2005 Barthold was hired full-time and Ian Deweese Boyd as permanent half-time. Shortly afterward, with the knowledge that Reid would be retiring soon, Glenney was hired full-time in 2007.

“I think that the biggest change in terms of the amplitude of our curricular offerings was our ability to give our majors a full service of an undergraduate introduction to philosophy so that they would have all the important bases covered when they went off to graduate school,” said Aiken.

Barthold was an important part of the development of the department, said Gedney, as she brought an expertise in the study of American philosophy, Gender Studies and Hermeneutics. She was also the first female philosopher in the department.

“[Barthold] brought an academic rigor and a knowledge of the social sciences. How the integration of Christian philosophy and social science could happen,” said Aiken.

Barthold founded the Gender Studies minor, which focuses on preparing students to understand and engage constructively with emerging issues surrounding sex and gender.

One of few remaining students enrolled in the Gender Studies Minor, Robert Martin ‘17, commented on the importance of Gender Studies Minor within a liberal arts education. He said, “It is extremely important for us to be able to wrestle with complex topics of sex and gender, as well as see how they relate to our faith as Christians.”

Similar to Barthold’s impact on student’s educational experience, Glenney brought an unorthodox approach to student engagement.

During his time as a professor at the college, Glenney’s passion for asking difficult questions, street activism and skateboarding made a deep impact on Gordon and Gordon’s neighboring communities.

Sia-Hua Chang ’16, Brian Glenney, and the Kromophone. Courtesy of Shalomita Maleachi.

Aiken commented on the impact Glenney had on him as a colleague and his philosophical understanding. “[Glenney] was a model for how you can’t have your head stuck in the sand of ignorance of what is going on in brain science or what is going on in art and science,” Aiken said.

In the classroom, Glenney’s teaching style was anything but stagnant and his classes were consistently over-enrolled.

Si-Hua Chang ‘16 said, “Brian was an excellent teacher, and he was great both at making the material interesting and accessible, as well as making his classroom experience engaging. I matured a great deal under his tutelage, both as a philosopher and as a person. He helped me to think through a lot of difficult questions, and to be more reflective about my faith.”

However, this philosopher’s teaching did not settle in the classroom. One example of the reach of Glenney’s ideas can be seen in the Accessible Icon Project.

In 2010, Glenney partnered with Cambridge-based artist Sara Hendren to “edit” the handicap symbol to reflect a truer image of disabled individuals. According to the official Accessible Icon website, the original handicap symbol’s “rectilinear geometry doesn’t show the organic body moving through space, like the rest of the standard isotype icons you see in public space.”

In response, the team, which included another now-former Gordon faculty member, Tim Ferguson Sauder, redesigned the icon to depict a more active and dynamic figure.

The icon, which started as a street campaign in the North Shore and Cambridge, eventually spread into Greater Boston area, other states and the global community.

Brian Glenney pointing at the Accessible Icon. Courtesy of Shalomita Maleachi.

The accessible icon can be found on signs all around campus and in the Museum of Modern Art.

The presence of five philosophers in the Gordon community allowed for dialogue regarding difficult and varied questions to permeate the campus. Each philosopher had a niche within the department that opened up space for conversations not only between classrooms, but throughout the entire campus.

Grace Carhart ‘17 said, “I love this department. Every philosophy professor has been open with me. They have challenged me to write better, think better, to be a better Christian. My peers, too, have proven themselves to be brilliant, creative, and loving.”

Glenney and Barthold Depart from the College

When the college’s budget prioritization occurred in the summer of 2015, Glenney was let go.

At the time of his employment, Glenney was not tenured and his termination was due to financial reasons, said Gedney. The philosophy department did not have a say in this process as it was, describes Gedney, a “last in, first out deal”.

“Brian has been the single most influential professor I have had to date. Sometimes, we need someone to challenge us in order for us to really see ourselves for who we are (and our faith for what it really is). Brian was that to me, and (I presume) to many others as well, and I am thankful I was able to learn from and spend time with him,” said Chang.

Glenney is currently employed at Norwich University where he is an assistant professor of philosophy, specializing in philosophical theories of perception in 17th and 18th centuries.

Unlike Glenney’s departure, which was quiet, Barthold’s made public rounds after two incidents occurred between the summer 2014 and spring of 2016.

On July 1, 2014, President D. Michael Lindsay signed a letter addressed to then-President Obama requesting religious exemption from  the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Ten days after this signed letter was leaked to the press, Barthold wrote a Letter to the editor of the Salem News voicing her dissatisfaction with the College’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights.

A part of it read, “I am sad that I work at an institution that believes that not talking about homosexuality and silencing stories of Christians dealing with their sexual identities is the way to bring healing and build community.”

After her public letter, Barthold was threatened with termination and discipline by the college’s administration.

While the college leaders dropped the threat to terminate her position after Barthold’s attorney contacted them with a letter of warning, further disciplinary actions were taken which included “demoting her from her position as director of the Gender Studies Minor, and denying her the vested opportunity to apply for promotion,” according to the lawsuit.

In Spring 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in Essex Superior Court against Gordon College on behalf of Barthold. This legal action against the College was “for allegedly violating [Barthold’s] right to free speech, as well as for retaliating against opposing discrimination and interfering with freedom of expression and association,” according to ACLU’s website.

During the Fall of 2016, Barthold agreed to settle the lawsuit with the College and resign from her position as a tenured faculty member at the end of that semester.

Barthold now holds the position as an adjunct professor at Endicott College.

An Unclear Future for Philosophy Department

The initial 10-year plan had been achieved and then demolished within a few months. With the departure of two full-time faculty members and the change in the new core, the philosophy department struggles to rebuild a department that had just lost two essential assets.

Since both professors’ departure, the philosophy department is left “in the mode of making sure our students are getting through and being well served. What the vision will be, we have some ideas. However, in terms of adjusting for what we need to do to move forward, it is not yet on the table. We have not had time,” said Gedney.

David Aiken teaching The Examined Life. Photo by Micaiah Bushnell.

While the future of the Philosophy Department is unclear to faculty and students alike, there is a desire for improvement and hope for a brighter future.

McKenna Allen ‘18 said, “I hope we can recover from these unexpected loses enough, in order that we do not lose momentum. With that, I think there is room for new ideas, updated teaching styles or a boost in class room style, to rekindle a love and perhaps even a larger department.”

Administration’s Response to “Define: Gordon”

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