June 7, 2023

The Four Years That Changed Gordon College

Office of the President. Photo by Micaiah Bushnell.

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

By: Madeline Linnell ‘17

Managing Editor

“Old Gordon,” “new Gordon”–these phrases are commonly used to describe two different administrations: R. Jud Carlberg’s and D. Michael Lindsay’s. Carlberg, the last president of the “old Gordon” era, had been part of the Gordon community for 16 years before his presidency. Lindsay entered his position new to the Gordon campus with a set of faculty and staff accustomed to the prior mode of leadership.

Lindsay was mandated to bolster the college’s finances by the Board of Trustees, which meant setting ambitious enrollment goals, according to statements former Board Chairman Kurt Keilhacker made to faculty. The Board also hired Lindsay believing Gordon would thrive with a sharpened conservative identity, despite the college’s employment of a faculty and staff that rendered a diverse array of ideological, theological views, as faculty members who spoke to the Tartan came to believe.

Lindsay’s “mission seems to be to get Gordon students to think big,” said Paul Crookston ‘16. “Dr. Lindsay has had the attitude of advancing, not just maintaining, Gordon’s position, and I respect that. It’s easy for a Christian college to be complacent, and I would urge him to take an attitude of constant improvement, even where it might not please everyone.”

Numerous opportunities have opened up for students since Lindsay’s inauguration.

The Center for Entrepreneurial Learning began 2012. The Social Venture Challenge challenges students to create start-ups, business or nonprofit, offering a $10,000 prize to the top three pitches. The Forrester Venture Fellows, as it states on the website, “fosters the imagination and ambitions of students wanting to know more about start-up culture.”

But for some faculty and students, the cultural changes have been difficult.

Cultural signs of a “new Gordon” began to emerge during Lindsay’s second year. One example is when the president distributed personal cash to students during a chapel service Sept. 12, 2012. The service focused on Matthew 25’s “Parable of the Talents.” As recorded by a Tartan reporter at the time, Mallory Moench ‘14, Lindsay said, “I want you to take the gift that you’ve been given and to invest it in such a way that it will bless the lives of other people, and tell us within seven days how you’ve used that gift to bless others.”

Office of the President. Photo by Micaiah Bushnell.

Many students found this challenge inspiring, reports the Tartan article. However, other students found the challenge demeaning. The Tartan quoted Maria Bauder ‘13, who said, “I have no problem with the idea itself, just the way he presented it made it feel cheapened and inauthentic. He repeated, ‘I want to see results.’ Putting guilt into it…made me feel like I was being used. I think it’s a creative way to show donors we’re good people.”

Lindsay signed a letter addressed to President Obama July 1, 2014, requesting a religious exemption to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) among 14 other Christian leaders nationwide. ENDA protects the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. The president’s signature received backlash from the city of Salem, which severed ties with the college on July 9. 14 Lynn partners followed suit, causing many student service projects to be suspended. Lindsay initiated legal action against the Lynn School Committee, following talk of breaking ties; after his presumptuous move, the Lynn School Committee voted to detach itself from the college.

Office of Community Engagement’s then-Director Val Buchanan emailed Lindsay, writing, “Rather than strong-arming communities we say we want to have relationships with, we ought to gracefully accept and move through this painful time in the same spirit that has caused our voluntary partnerships to flourish in the past.”

Buchanan resigned Oct. 2014.

On-campus, a group of students routinely protested outside of chapel services, drawing attention to the lack of unity on the subject of sexuality within the college. A number of faculty and staff members also felt the policy did not reflect the entire institution’s belief on the subject nor its ethic of discussing sexuality in a healthy, constructive, supportive way. Tenured Philosophy Professor Lauren Barthold wrote a “Letter to the Editor” in The Salem News, saying, “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.”

In a March 17, 2015 faculty meeting held amid growing criticism of Lindsay from some quarters, Keilhacker said the administration was disappointed that a group of people was trying to undermine the college, according to a faculty member who was present. Keilhacker provided a long dissertation on financial problems that he said Lindsay inherited upon becoming president. Lindsay, Keilhacker said, had exceeded the trustees’ expectations.

Yet, the “Back to Egypt” movement–a reference to the group of people who allegedly attempted to “undermine the college”–was driven by a nostalgia for a college that never existed, said Keilhacker. The college’s creditors are waiting to pick Gordon’s bones, he said. In the past, Gordon was more of a family clan than a liberal arts college, and the Board supports Lindsay’s vision.

Regarding the college’s LGBT stance, the Board was pleased with the Life and Conduct Statement. Keilhacker said it matters more than other task issues, as sexuality affects life together. He demanded faculty to stop speaking to the media; to stop posting on social media; to stop meeting at the Black Cow Tap & Grill in South Hamilton. Faculty needs to act like the Christians “we are.” Keilhacker then said, support Gordon or leave.

In April 2016, Barthold filed a lawsuit against Provost Janel Curry and President Lindsay alleging employment discrimination. Barthold left the College when the case was settled outside of court. Professor Margaret DeWeese-Boyd accused Curry and Lindsay for administrative issues last week, similar to Barthold.

The budgeted target for fall 2015 admissions was 525 incoming students. 474 students came, causing Gordon’s net-tuition and fee revenue to decrease by 3.68 percent.

In an email to the Tartan, Rick Sweeney wrote, “At that point, we had to re-evaluate assumptions about student recruitment which we had built into long-term budget planning, which included an annual new student class of 525 (which at the time, given our strong past recruiting years, we thought was on staying on the conservative side of planning).”

Six percent of the college’s operating budget was cut, and 4 percent of that was faculty and staff positions. Lindsay wrote in an email addressed to the student body June 2015, “In a small community like ours, it doesn’t matter what the number is; each cut affects someone we care about.”

A.J. Gordon Chapel. Photo by Micaiah Bushnell.

14 positions were cut. James Trent, Emmanuelle Vanborre, Rini Cobbey, and Judith Oleson accepted “buy-outs” and signed Non-Disparagement Agreements (NDA). The NDA is a contract staff members sign to agree not to make disparaging comments about the college after their position is terminated. Katie Knudsen, LeQuez Spearmen, Brian Glenney, Greg Carmer, and Martha Crain were laid off. This group of people also signed NDAs and were given severance checks. Agnes Howard, Tal Howard, Ryan Groff, Justin Edwards, and Keith Krass left for other employment opportunities; they did not sign NDAs and did not receive sabbatical pay.

Summer 2016 also faced major staffage losses: Gregor Thuswaldner, Pamela Thuswaldner, Moises Park, Rita Dove Smith, Stephen Smith, Roger Green, Liesl Smith, and Tim Ferguson-Sauder all left.

Certain departments affected are caught short-staffed, such as Languages, Philosophy, Communication Arts, and Social Work. Programs like the Elijah Project and student service projects in Lynn ended. The articles in this edition showcase faculty, staff, alumni, and students dissatisfied with the ramifications the budget prioritization process sparked and the ways in which senior administrators allegedly dealt with employees and students who would vocally disagree with policy decisions.

Other articles highlight people who doubt the senior administration’s ability to maintain healthy dialogue on campus about sexuality.

Lindsay’s administration has had to face a tension revalent to most evangelical institutions nationwide. Part of this tension is the conservative interpretations of Biblical text on the subject of same-sex attraction as held by donors, and the less conservative views held by some employees and students. This dynamic tests Lindsay’s “elastic orthodoxy,” as described in his book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. What makes evangelicalism strong, says Lindsay, is its individualism, which creates “significant room for disagreement within the movement.”

Another part of the tension is the implementation of policies regarding sexual behavior amid legal scrutiny. The third part of the tension is the need to increase enrollment because the college’s financial health depends on tuition dollars.

Unique to Gordon, employees who participated in and were accustomed to the “old Gordon” and yet remain in the “new” also factor into the tension.

This “new Gordon” stresses leadership and success. The recent $25M donation to the college’s endowment will assist in creating “The Center for Leadership and the Arts.” The building and the Global Honors Institute it will house aspires to enable the Mission Statement further by preparing students “for leadership worldwide.”  The donation is a historic show of generosity and faith in the college.

The 20/20 Plan: The Vision for Gordon’s Future also emphasizes leadership and success, as it states the following objectives: “Expand leadership development programs”; “Create a faculty leadership-development program to build up the next generation of academic leaders for Gordon College or other Christian institutions”; “Athletics as a leadership training program”; and “Launch three entrepreneurial ventures involving current students, faculty and staff that positively reflect Gordon’s values.”

The administration elected not to address specific criticisms included in this article.

Speaking on behalf of the administration, Rick Sweeney, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, said to this entire edition: “Over the last few years, Gordon has experienced several significant and often complex challenges. With each, the College leadership has endeavored to make the best decisions for both the short and longer term well-being of the institution. Many of these were covered in detail by the Tartan as they occurred. We have also attempted to be as transparent as possible with issues that often had personal and legal implications which could not always be shared.

“I am sure this may leave some student’s questions unanswered as we have sought to move the community forward as constructively as possible. At the same time, there have been many positive developments in student recruitment, campus life, and philanthropic support which will ultimately benefit everyone at Gordon,” he continued. “As both an alumnus and a parent of current students, I can speak personally to the daily dedication the leadership team brings to the task of ensuring Gordon College remains on strong financial footing and is able to focus on delivering on its mission while providing the best student experience possible. This may not always be a perfect process, but it will be sincere and well-intentioned.”

“The conscience of the future,” however, “is indebted to an understanding of the past, and place,” said Curry’s predecessor, then-Provost Mark Sargent, in a 2012 Stillpoint issue. In this article, Sargent listed qualities he believed made Gordon, Gordon. These include:

-intentional engagement in the college’s surroundings, “the urban and the wild”

-having a “creative, innovative” culture

-purporting a hospitable atmosphere

-valuing international education

Finally, Sargent writes, Gordon is distinguished by its understanding of “intramural squabbles that set Christian colleges or churches against one another” as being “foolish”–“distractions to our core mission rather than defining identities.”

Administration’s Response to “Define: Gordon”

5 Comments on The Four Years That Changed Gordon College

  1. As a Gordon alum, and previous editor-in-chief of The Tartan (99-00) I wanted to comment and say that I was very encouraged by this recent issue. My time at Gordon was formations to my life and I should say professors like Borgman, Aiken, Stevick, George, and staff such as the Rev. Dr. J. Anthony Lloyd and Donna Loy made the experience of studying at this Liberal Christian college a true intellectual pursuit to understanding how better to live in a secular world. Today I live in the south of France, (I own my business renting bicylces) a very secular place, but I am never far away from the teachings and lessons I learned from that awesome place where I earned my degree. Gordon saddens me now. I am not quite ready to be ashamed of my alma mater, but I am not that far away either. As a student, and as the former editor of the Tartan, I just wanted to say to you who are continuing the old Gordon tradition of understanding and really loving the world as christ’s messengers, Gordon once was a place that could help you. If that continues is to be seen, but by no small part of your efforts.
    Michael Blunk

  2. Another Gordon alum here…I graduated in 2013 just before everything REALLY began to shift at Gordon, and I just want the Tartan staff to know how refreshing and encouraging it is to read this issue dedicated to all that happened and is still happening. For a long time the changes felt pushed under the rug, like Gordon was becoming a totally new place with no acknowledgement of what happened prior to the Lindsay presidency, or even acknowledging the detrimental changes that have taken place and the incredible professors that are now gone. Thank you, Tartan staff, for representing the Gordon that so many of us know and love – one that does not shy away from hard questions, difficult circumstances, one that seeks the truth relentlessly even if it means criticism, one that is courageous and kind and well spoken even in controversial situations. Thank you for giving a voice to those who have been without one, it means so incredibly much. Very Gratefully, Ashley Miller

  3. As a future parent of a Gordon student, I am very pleased with the new administration. Your article is based on a set of principles that you’ve wanted Gordon to hold, thus you are disappointed to know where the school has always stood. Gordon was never a liberal Christian school.

    • As a current Gordon student, I just want to say, the Gordon I’ve been attending the past three years is not the Gordon I signed up for. It is not the Gordon my brother or my church friends went to. Gordon has changed. It is not the Gordon it was. Gordon used to be a place that celebrated all forms of diversity, yes even ideological diversity. Now, if you speak out against injustice on campus, even if it’s not related to liberal v. conservative or in any way related to ideology and all you are publicly standing up for a fellow student, you get called into a closed office to “be heard”. In this case being heard is being questioned on your integrity as a student and you end up with a black mark in your file. You are asked to ever speak on the subject again.
      Gordon was a place once well know for caring for it’s students as individuals, even at the level of the administration. Now more than ever Gordon’s focus is on appearances rather than diverse education that prepares us for the world.
      You are right, Gordon was never liberal, and you can hold whatever opinion you want about the effectiveness about the current administration. You can’t argue that administrations priorities have changed, and the campus culture has changed, which over all has had a negative effect on campus life and education.

    • No offense Simeon, but I am a graduate of Gordon, and I chose it because it is or was the most free spirited of all the American Christian colleges. When I attended some ten years ago, it boasted an excellent faculty. Many have now left. The current president will not succeed in his top down approach. If he refuses to further listen to the needs of the faculty, alumnae and students, I would not be surprised to see its accreditation revoked and the college formally closed. Good leaders listen and model humility. Lindsey is driven by ego. As a prospective parent, you hold very little knowledge of this debate.

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