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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Chaplain Jeff McArn Quietly Terminated For “New Direction”

Community shows support for 27-year chaplain, questions termination motives and implications for at-will employees; organized protests likely

THE CHAPEL – On June 27th, Hamilton College’s decorated College Chaplain of 27 years, Jeff McArn, walked into a meeting with high-ranking college officials from the Division of Student Life (DoSL) and Human Resources (HR) expecting to discuss how to expand support for Jewish students. Instead, McArn was fired on the spot, told to clean out his things, had his keys and laptop confiscated, and escorted to his office to do so by a member of Campus Safety, sources say. Administration did not accuse McArn of any misconduct, instead claiming it was so the Chaplaincy could go in a “new direction” that he was not the best person to lead. The College shut down his email account soon after. Hamilton officials claim they will be releasing a statement on this “new direction” in the near future, and confirmed McArn is no longer an employee.

McArn speaking at a May 2022 event hosted by the Center for Intersectional Feminism, wearing a CIF shirt. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

Since faculty members seeking to gather statements of support for McArn announced his termination on the faculty discussion listserv on Sunday, July 9th, Monitor has spoken with about two dozen community members — including several administrators with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for job security. No sources were willing to defend the College’s decision; all who spoke with Monitor questioned it and expressed appreciation for McArn as a uniquely positive figure on campus.

At-will employees like McArn can be fired by their employer for essentially any non-discriminatory reason. Most non-faculty and non-union staff at Hamilton are at-will. Hamilton’s termination of a figure as well-regarded and known as McArn has significantly deflated staff morale. Echoing colleagues, one at-will administrator told the Monitor, “this could just happen, and it also makes people afraid to talk about it. We're always touting the ‘Hamily.’ But then to treat someone with such disrespect? Yeah, there's a lot of fear.”

The decision has also drawn concern for its timing, likely to reduce community backlash.

Hamilton College and all administrators known to have direct involvement in the termination process (Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs Chris Card, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Maria Genao-Homs, Director of Human Resources Stephen Stemkoski) declined to comment, citing confidentiality on personnel matters. However, they all also declined or did not respond to requests to discuss non-personnel matters related to the investigation.

McArn also declined Monitor’s comment request, adding he has no intent to disparage the College and encouraged the community not to disparage it either. McArn's only interest has been to answer the numerous “What happened?” messages he has been receiving.

Dean Genao-Homs emailed the DoSL employee listserv at 4:09 PM Tuesday, July 11th, the first formal notice of McArn's dismissal to his colleagues: “We thank Jeff for his years of service at Hamilton. The College will continue to support the mission of the Chaplaincy Office, and I will be communicating soon about resources for the coming semester and a strategy going forward.”

First obtained by Monitor six minutes later, the email told staff that if they are contacted by the media they should direct all inquiries to Stemkoski or VP for Communications & Marketing Melissa Richards. (Hamilton College reserves the right to review emails on its services; if you wish to share information, either obtain the author’s non-Hamilton contact or message Monitor via Instagram before doing anything else to ensure safe transfer.)

The firing has drawn immediate widespread backlash and an outpouring of support for McArn since becoming public.

“Jeff is a pillar of the Hamilton community,” Sam Schwab ‘26 shared. “He devotes so much of himself and his time to create safe spaces for any Hamilton student/adult of such diverse backgrounds. He is someone that pulls out the most honest and honorable versions of everyone around him because he makes them feel safe, loved, cared for, trusted, and appreciated.”

Over 60 emails have been exchanged on the matter via the faculty listserv (not including private correspondences), a delegation of faculty members has been formed to set up a meeting with the Dean of Students Office (inclusive of DoSL, and as of publishing yet to respond), and faculty are drafting a sign-on letter in opposition to the termination. Among some proposals being floated: moving the Chaplaincy from DoSL’s control to the Dean of Faculty Office and implementing stronger employment protections for at-will and untenured employees.

Abigail Moone '23, a recent graduate, has created a petition already approaching 700 signatures and implying the termination was because of McArn’s social justice activism, the Center for Intersectional Feminism has issued a cutting statement connecting the termination to escalating community concerns about administrative transparency and bigotry on campus, and whispers of protest actions in the coming days and months are traveling quickly.

Moone, who interned in the Chaplaincy, told Monitor, “He was definitely a person within Hamilton as an institution that I was closest to, and he gave me a lot of hope and reassurance for so many of the critiques that I had at the school.”

“His dedication to creating safe spaces for community members and valor in speaking out against any injustice are unparalleled,” said Nathalie Martinez ‘23. “Please let him know that I would take a bullet for him,” she wrote to Moone.

What Happened?

In June of 2022, McArn’s direct superior, Dean Genao-Homs, decided to place him on a Performance Improvement Plan with a specific focus on bureaucratic tasks and strategic plans. Chris Card was about two months away from taking office as Dean of Students on August 15th. McArn complied with the plan with limited feedback from his superiors, and it ended in January 2023, administration sources close to the situation at the time say.

During this period, Hamilton contracted the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Advisory Services (NASPA) to conduct an external review of the Chaplaincy. A January meeting between Dean Card, Dean Genao-Homs, and McArn discussed the future of the Chaplaincy. Administration sources close to the situation say the deans expressed McArn’s leadership would likely be dependent on the results of the external review.

The review included focus groups for individuals who have participated in the office’s activities. “I was invited along with probably three or four other faculty and then three or four other staff,” said Professor of Religious Studies and frequent Chaplaincy partner Brent Rodriguez-Plate. “It was nothing but praise for how Jeff has worked with us for teaching help, how Jeff has worked with people on staff, and really just nothing but non-stop praise for the work Jeff has done.”

“We all sang Jeff’s praises,” explained Vivian Miller ‘26, who participated in a student session.

All other participants whose experiences were shared with Monitor corroborated these claims.

In March, the reviewers completed their report and submitted it to Hamilton. Dean Genao-Homs shared it with McArn under strict instructions not to distribute it, sources close to the situation said. A version of the executive summary of the report obtained by Monitor included no mention of personnel problems. Under the section “Leadership, Management, and Supervision,” it said:

“Clarify role and scope of College Chaplain position: A ‘generalist’ position as described in the External Report, focusing primarily on student needs for individual and community development, as well as engaging faculty/staff, alums, especially to know more about the work of the chaplaincy and develop relationships which can enrich the work and mission of the chaplaincy.”

Numerous associates describe McArn’s work as fitting such a description. He oversees eight programs, like Recoup & Soup and the Spiritual Leadership Council, occurring on a nearly weekly basis. He spearheaded seven annual events, like the Gerrit Smith Birthday Lunch and Haudenosaunee Dance Event. He speaks at a wide range of ceremonial College events, teaches two credit-bearing courses (one called “Hamilton College & Social Justice”), and has collaborated with many adjacent programs. His office oversees several religious student organizations of varied faiths, too. McArn has been the most prominent and consistent voice for Hamilton to honor its commitments to the Oneida Nation and has deep ties to off-campus community groups likely to be distressed by his termination.

Unlike many high-ranking supervisory administrators, sources within administration say, Dean Genao-Homs rarely attended her subordinate’s (McArn) programming or expressed interest in engaging with students involved with the Chaplaincy. Frequent student attendees confirmed her absence, and she declined to comment on the claims.

McArn’s unexpected, undisclosed, and unwanted-by-colleagues firing has thrown all the Chaplaincy’s work into a lurch, placing the obligation for contingency planning on his colleagues. Many faculty said they only learned he was gone when their emails to him bounced.

“All of a sudden, we've got to scramble and try to get somebody to teach his class,” said Rodriguez-Plate. “We got Scott MacDonald in Cinema and Media Studies, who was working on a project with him and all of a sudden, he's got to change everything around. He was going to lead an orientation program, as he's done many times, and now they've got students signed up for all these things, and now all of a sudden they have to find somebody else to do that.”

“He's just embedded in so many different things,” he concluded.

A May meeting between Dean Card, Dean Genao-Homs, and McArn felt positive, administration sources say. It appears McArn was no longer, or at least far less, worried about the possibility of termination. It wouldn’t stay that way.

An email sent by Prof. Rodriguez-Plate to colleagues, sharing an exchange he had with McArn, said, “The simple fact is that VP/Dean Chris Card with the full support of Maria Genao-Homs called me into a meeting on June 27 where I thought we were discussing the expansion of our Jewish Chaplaincy position but it quickly became clear that HR’s role in that meeting was not for that purpose but to terminate my employment on the spot. The reason given was that the chaplaincy is moving in a new direction and that I was not to be the leadership to move us there.”

Anger, Love, and Crickets

Rumors began to spread, and they broke out on the listserv. Faculty from all corners of the campus reacted (and continue to do so): “shocking,” “unbelievable,” “appalling,” “maddeningly inexplicable,” “horrifying,” “devastated,” “travesty,” and “unfathomable” were just a few of the terms used – each of these from a different professor’s email. Answering the call for memories and appreciation, professors described McArn as “cherished,” “the soul of campus,” “effective,” “inspiring,” “pillar of solidarity,” and “an integral part of the social and intellectual fabric at Hamilton.”

Jumpstarted by the specific personnel issue and what to do to reinstate McArn or otherwise receive a clear explanation, conversations have evolved to include Hamilton College and New York State’s employment policies and their implications for all employees, potentially moving the Chaplaincy under the Dean of Faculty, calls for transparency and democratic process to be centered in Hamilton’s ongoing presidential search, and more. Dean of Faculty Ngoni Munemo, whose responsibilities include “Reporting directly to the president” and serving “as the chief academic officer and the primary voice of the faculty,” is on vacation and has not commented.

Moone said that while they were drafting the petition, because they were unsure whether McArn would even wish to return to Hamilton, “in the moment, what felt most important was a demonstration of support for Jeff and of anger at Hamilton, which felt like the most attainable things in the short term.”

The Kirkland College Center for Intersectional Feminism soon released a statement condemning the termination and tying it to broader issues at Hamilton.

“We believe that the secrecy surrounding the process of his dismissal reflects a continued pattern of the Hamilton College administration’s lack of basic respect for its students and our needs,” they wrote. “CIF sees the administration’s decision as the latest in a series of events which have silenced faculty who are dedicated to furthering intersectionality and anti-colonialism on campus.” They added, “CIF condemns the administration’s decision to dismiss Jeff secretly after the end of final exams without giving students a chance to voice our opinions, say goodbye, and honor his 25+ years of service.”

The statement specifically highlighted Professor Mariam Durrani’s high-profile resignation in response to targeted harassment from College-affiliated white supremacists, wherein the College made no attempt to halt the abuse. Durrani was one of at least ten professors who resigned that year, most of whom were members of marginalized groups.

Others on the listserv drew attention to the pattern of major summertime decisions, like the recent presidential search launch and Hamilton’s decision to terminate the Posse Boston scholarship program in 2018. Dean Genao-Homs also oversees the remaining Posse Miami cohorts.

“I am deeply saddened by this decision to have Jeff fired as Jeff became a very friendly and familiar face on campus,” said Daphne Cerrato ‘26. “Removing such an important person from campus without reason, warning or explanation is truly disgusting. As a person of color, Jeff was one of the very first staff members who made me genuinely feel welcome and supported while on campus. His door was always open and he was always willing to have a meaningful conversation. Posse scholars, including myself, are deeply upset at this choice and will fight for the respect that Jeff deserves."

Unlike the overwhelming majority of his peers in administration, McArn has repeatedly expressed candid on-record criticisms of decisions from his superiors. Alongside consistent advocacy to do more to connect with the Oneida Nation, he has been vocal about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues on campus. Likely to the ire of his superiors and until now protected by his special moral position, he has at times thanked campus activists by name for their advocacy and protest at College-organized events. He also publicly and privately criticized a College decision to refurbish the Chapel rather than address longstanding physical accessibility concerns.

In spring 2022, not long before he was placed on the Performance Improvement Plan, he participated in CIF’s events promoting reproductive health care rights and opposing the looming overturning of Roe v. Wade.

At the time, the unofficial, yet email-endowed-against-College-policy Rosary Club was a major point of contention on campus, and prior to the Politico SCOTUS leak, was a major target of their protest. The account, not overseen by any recognized student organization and likely representative of only one student, sent out numerous offensive emails to the entire student body.

McArn, at the conclusion of a CIF event, expressed regret on-the-record for advocating for Rosary Club to have their account despite not being a real club, saying he was unaware and disappointed by its intentions. The statement broke ranks with the rest of involved administrators, who until Student Assembly members threatened in the following weeks to make a public issue over circumvention of their student organizational approval authority and email regulations by College authorities, defended Rosary Club under the pretext of “free speech.”

Simultaneously, Dean Genao-Homs had responded to a lesbian student’s bias incident complaint saying the Bias Incident Response Team, which she chaired, determined the Rosary Club president’s repeated, privately-directed assertions that her sexuality was “disordered” did not constitute harassment.

While no sources with direct knowledge of his termination process claimed a causal connection with his activism, they also did not rule it out. One administrator told Monitor on background, “I think that probably doesn't win you certain friends that might be helpful, right? But, maybe there's no love lost.”

Contact the Monitor if you have additional information for this story.

Story updated for minor copy clarity edits.

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