Chaplaincy crisis continues, begins year without director or clear plan
THE CHAPEL – Hamilton College’s Chaplaincy Office has begun the 2023 - 2024 academic year with no College Chaplain, about half the staff it had two months ago, and an oft-repeated-by-Hamilton “new direction” that so far mirrors the old one. The College fired and used Campus Safety to escort 27-year College Chaplain Rev. Jeff McArn on June 27th without an accusation of misconduct, and two Chaplaincy staff resigned in protest. Students, faculty, and staff who work with the Chaplaincy are scrambling to ensure the office’s work continues, particularly local community partnerships that the termination has significantly damaged.
President David Wippman has maintained a general policy of secrecy despite growing community concern, though the College has begun to release slightly more information (most of which was already reported). After entertaining the possibility in meetings with a faculty delegation, according to exchanges with faculty described on the faculty discussion listserv, Wippman has recently decided against rehiring McArn to a full-time position. McArn has expressed interest in returning to campus in conversations with community members.
“I think it’s a lot of secrecy,” one student faith leader told Monitor under the condition of anonymity. “Especially from Dean of Students Chris Card and Associate Dean of Students Maria Genao-Homs, I think they made a very short-sighted decision, and I think they didn’t have any real plan for what’s next.”
“I don’t think they realized how much of an impact he had; it was more like, ‘we’re gonna make a decision, but we’re not gonna defend it, but we’re also not gonna go forth with that new direction or tell anybody.’”
Though the College recently released a brief and non-descript statement on the Chaplaincy crisis and says they expect a message from the Dean of Students this week, Hamilton College and its senior leaders directly involved in the firing have not answered media questions about the issue despite dozens of opportunities to do so. An email to student Chaplaincy leaders outlining the next steps for the office was sent in confidential mode, though the sender says it was accidental.
Plans for a “new direction” first described by College leaders in June, reportedly one they said McArn was not the right person to lead, have not been explained in any detail either in public or private, and it is highly unlikely a clear plan is in place.
Many at-will College employees have been deeply demoralized by the immediate, inexplicable, escorted termination, questioning what it means for their own employment status; Hamilton has done little at an institutional level to address those concerns.
While College officials have often told department leaders there is not enough money to fund new full-time positions, that is false. Hamilton’s endowment, proportionate to the student population, is so large it is one of few private colleges taxed by the federal government. Moreover, as of its most recently available financial statement, Hamilton has approximately $350 million in assets “without donor restrictions” that “may be designated for specific purposes by the College’s Board of Trustees.”
Amidst community frustration over other summertime incidents of the College minimizing public knowledge of and influence over its decision-making, the return of thousands to campus is likely to increase pressure on senior leaders alongside the backdrop of a presidential search. The faculty in particular, an overwhelming majority of whom having already issued support for McArn to be reinstated, are openly considering a range of strong tactics to apply more pressure.
As pressure both on and off campus increases, including from an independently-reported article in the Utica Observer-Dispatch yesterday, Hamilton released a four-sentence statement that McArn “has been a valued and respected member of our community” for which they are appreciative and that “various student campus programs historically associated with the Chaplaincy are expected to continue.” They say an interim Chaplaincy leader is hoped to be announced in the coming weeks, with a permanent one to be announced in the spring.
The College has indeed begun efforts to continue similar programming as previous years, hosting the annual “Fire & Ice Cream” nighttime social event in front of the Chapel the night of August 22nd. Over its duration, a mix of a few dozen first-years, returning students, and some staff attended. Division of Student Life leaders had told Chaplaincy staff over the summer that they’d hoped to continue most of the same programming offered prior in addition to the new direction, according to resignees.
“The College's continued lack of transparency on the termination of Jeff is unsurprising but still shameful,” Stephen Socolow ‘25 responded to the College’s statement. Socolow co-organized a virtual gathering to support McArn (who attended) on August 15th, which had nearly 50 attendees crossing all campus constituencies by its conclusion. He told Monitor, “Additionally, it is a disgrace that the college will not have a permanent director until at least next semester. This just further shows that they did not actually have any plans for their ‘new direction.’”
Hamilton has not answered dozens of questions from Monitor since June, including ones as benign as how many faculty work at the institution or where policies it has cited to justify silence and the post-termination escort are written down. (They do not appear on the College’s Human Resources webpage or the Staff Handbook; it is unclear whether they exist in writing.)
According to Hamilton’s Communications & Marketing Office, Vice President & Dean of Students Chris Card is expected to issue his first public statement to the community this week “with updates to the Student Life Division, including chaplaincy resources.”
Not for public consumption
Card allegedly described the termination as McArn having “stepped down” to Chaplaincy staff on June 29th, according to Saorsa Wissman, an eventual resignee in attendance. The first notice that McArn was no longer an employee came to Student Life colleagues on July 11th, paired with a directive to send all media requests to official channels after Monitor had begun contacting the College for its investigation. Prior to reporting, many learned of McArn’s end of employment only through their emails to him bouncing.
“This feels like further evidence that we are so incredibly siloed on this campus,” one long-time administrator speaking anonymously out of fear for job security explained, “that the Division of Student Life didn't even think to inform anyone else that Jeff was working with, including the Dean of Faculty Office.”
Associate Dean Genao-Homs, who was McArn’s direct superior and in the absence of a replacement now de facto oversees the department, emailed the first official communication to some current and former student Chaplaincy leaders the night of August 21st outlining next steps, including to schedule a meeting “to talk about specifics and expectations for the upcoming academic year.”
She sent the email in Gmail’s ‘confidential mode,’ which includes a timed auto-delete function and prevents forwarding. Some recipients were frustrated by the choice, viewing it as another way the College has attempted to avoid open discussion.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Genao-Homs told Monitor. “I had not realized that it was sent confidentially. This was an oversight and not an intentional choice.”
Dean Genao-Homs’s reply marks the first time an individual overseeing the Chaplaincy or firing McArn has answered media questions. Many students and faculty who have brought concerns to her, Dean Card, and President Wippman have left feeling dissatisfied or even more angered.
Various groups both on and off campus are currently planning protest actions to support McArn and the Chaplaincy, strengthen labor protections for at-will employees, increase the community’s inclusion in College decision-making, influence the College’s presidential search, and more. This semester is likely to be one of Hamilton’s most contentious in decades.