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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Chaplaincy crisis escalates, puts President David Wippman at center

BUTTRICK HALL, Office of the President – Despite his resistance, President David Wippman’s role in the College’s ongoing public relations crisis following its decision to dismiss 27-year College Chaplain Jeff McArn without accusation of misconduct is reaching the public. Thus far, the departing college president appointed to be a campus-facing public communicator has a clear answer to growing community grievances: any discussions are to be isolated and held in private, if at all.

Hamilton College administrators’ choice to dismiss McArn toward the start of the summer, likely to reduce community backlash, is instead on a collision course with the first day of classes.

Hamilton College has dug in while facing mounting pressure from a petition now with 1,164 signatures, an open letter signed by 140 members of the faculty, widespread concerns from local non-profit College partners, two protest resignations from Chaplaincy employees, and another open letter from the Presbytery of Utica. Despite widespread anger over the administration’s secrecy, Hamilton College did not share copies of its allegedly relevant policies or details on the Chaplaincy’s work with Monitor.

The snapshot:

  • Under the authority of at least as high up as President David Wippman, Hamilton College has declined to share any information publicly about the Chaplaincy crisis or its alleged policies related to the matter. It is also unclear whether the full Board of Trustees has been briefed on the controversy. Hamilton’s Vice President for Advancement (who oversees the College’s fundraising and alumni relations arms), Lori Dennison ‘87, P’16, did not respond to Monitor’s request for reasons why alumni and prospective donors concerned with Hamilton's recent decision should continue contributing time and money to the College given community concerns and the Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition’s call to halt donations.

  • Though President Wippman and other senior officials have repeatedly said privately that former College Chaplain Jeff McArn was not alleged to pose a threat to others, and Wippman reportedly feels it is “too bad” some people have speculated that McArn hurt people, the College has not confirmed as much despite numerous requests from media and the community. Senior officials have been caught off guard by the community’s strong reaction.

  • Some senior College officials, including Wippman, have told concerned faculty members they are considering McArn returning to campus in a different capacity. However, McArn says no one has contacted him on behalf of the College. Wippman has stood by the decision to terminate McArn.

  • It is unclear what services the Chaplaincy will be offering this year, now having lost one employee to immediate termination without a set transition plan and two others who resigned in protest. Wippman has written to some concerned community members that he understands “the important role the chaplaincy plays in a campus community.”

  • Various groups, both on and off campus, are planning continued efforts to support McArn, alter College policies, and increase institutional transparency in the backdrop of an also-opaque presidential search for Wippman’s successor after retiring in June 2024.

The faculty delegation

A faculty delegation brought their concerns regarding the termination and its process to Wippman in an August 3rd meeting. Professor of Philosophy Marianne Janack distributed the meeting minutes, now published in full by Monitor, to the faculty listserv against Wippman’s wishes on the 4th. The delegation included Professors Janack, Justin Clark (Philosophy), Jaime Kucinskas (Sociology), Steve Orvis (Government), Brent Rodriguez-Plate (Religious Studies), and Benj Widiss (Literature and Creative Writing).

“Though the President worried that posting notes about the meeting on FACDISC [the listserv title] would undermine the prospects for a positive resolution to the situation,” Janack prefaced the minutes, “we have heard from a number of faculty and staff who are concerned about this decision, the way it was implemented, and what this means for other at-will employees. We thought that we owed them--and our faculty colleagues, who have expressed concern about this decision-- an account of the meeting.”

Janack told Monitor Wippman’s request not to share details on the faculty listserv and the administration’s unwillingness to share more information with the community contradicts the school’s stated values. “I think their attempt to hang on to this hierarchy is at odds with their hope for open discussion.”

While the Wippman administration has claimed College policy requires dismissal escorts (he reportedly prefers the term “accompany”) and their ongoing secrecy, Monitor was unable to obtain copies of these alleged policies despite numerous requests. Who created them, whether they are written down, and why they exist remains a mystery.

Janack’s meeting minutes recount that Wippman said McArn was “accompanied” by the Director of Campus Safety, Frank Coots, out of a hope that “Jeff would feel more comfortable being accompanied by someone from his own division (presumably the division of student life), rather than by [Director of Human Resources] Steve Stemkoski, who would normally accompany the separated employee. The President realizes now that this was probably a bad decision” and will “review” the policy.

(Coots did not make the decision to be present himself, according to administration sources with knowledge of the situation, and when asked for comment, told Monitor he believes “it is prudent that the administration make any comment that needs to be made.”)

The Division of Student Life, in fact, has a large number of department employees whose responsibilities do not carry an implied threat of force, among them the two superiors who fired him. Dean of Students Chris Card told the faculty delegation in a prior meeting that he would work with them to alter the policy, and a source with firsthand knowledge of Dean Maria Genao-Homs's views says she shared Dean Card's view that a Campus Safety escort of McArn was not necessary after his dismissal.

The College is reportedly noncommittally considering the possibility of McArn potentially returning as an employee in a different role than College Chaplain. Janack recalled that in a previous meeting between the delegation and VP for Academic Affairs & Dean of Faculty, titles that simultaneously require directly reporting to Wippman and representing the voice of the faculty, Ngoni Munemo, expressed openness to the possibility of McArn working under his office in some capacity. President Wippman reportedly told the delegation he would need to speak with McArn “about what happens next.”

“No one – in any official capacity – has contacted me about reconnecting with the College to date,” McArn told Monitor yesterday, a full week after the delegation met with Wippman.

“It was all these red herrings and false dichotomies. This is not about listening. This is just about covering your ass,” Janack recalled of the meeting. “And he did say he hoped that this decision would not reflect badly on Chris Card. You probably should have thought of that before, right? And that's really all David seemed interested in -- just, you know, refuting and lawyering, basically.”

Wippman has at times been criticized for his communication style on contentious issues. He was a lawyer by profession, and previously served as the Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.

What did he know, and when did he know it?

President Wippman didn’t respond to that line of inquiry from Monitor, or any other. It is also unclear whether the full Board of Trustees has been briefed on community protests, as Secretary and Chief of Staff Gill King has not responded to a request for comment.

After announcing his intent to retire in June 2024 at the start of the summer, the Board of Trustees formed a Presidential Search Committee claiming to be based on “past practices.” A Monitor investigation found that the PSC was created and has operated far more opaquely, exclusively, and with far less opportunity for community input than the previous one in 2015. Its announcement at the start of the summer, like McArn’s June 27th dismissal, limited opportunities for community discourse.

Though Wippman has been made aware of dozens of requests for comment by Monitor to him and colleagues, Hamilton College has continued to decline to comment. Several administrators and faculty members with knowledge of the Chaplaincy’s work, including two who resigned in protest, say McArn’s superiors were unaware of the totality of his work on campus and do not have a set plan for the Chaplaincy’s work this year, which begins in less than two weeks. Some student leaders of faith organizations say they have not been told by the College what support they will be receiving this year.

Culture Magazine, a campus publication led by and for students of color, released a statement to Monitor saying Interfaith Program Coordinator Saorsa Wissman and College Imam Tom Facchine’s protest resignations, “highlight a lack of trust within the Hamilton community.” They continued, “It appears that engaging in conversations with authority figures at Hamilton only leads to disappointment. As discussions about Jeff McArn’s quiet termination persist, Culture will strive to keep this conversation alive until the community’s concerns are addressed. We stand in support of Saorsa Wissman and Tom Facchine for their decision to resign, and we hope this serves as a wake-up call for everyone. The thriving Hamily we desire is being diminished by those who believe this was an appropriate course of action.”

Many concerned community members angered by the dismissal, its process, and the school’s opposition to open discourse on the issue have been contacting the College.

“I understand and appreciate your concerns and your support for Jeff, given the important role he has played in your Hamilton experience,” Wippman has replied to some emails from concerned community members, in what appears to be a slightly-varied form letter obtained by Monitor. “I also understand the important role the chaplaincy plays in a campus community. While I cannot comment on personnel matters, I can assure you that we appreciate the value of the chaplaincy and are committed to ensuring a strong and inclusive campus program for spiritual and religious life."

“McArn was the one who a number of people in Utica would trust even though they wouldn't trust the college,” Janack, who previously served as the faculty director of the community partnership-focused Levitt Center for Public Affairs, told Monitor. “And so we said to David, 'He's built all these relationships that have been really important for students and faculty in the college. There must be a better way to think about preserving those.’”

Most ideas being floated for a potential new role for McArn include a focus on community engagement and experiential learning; if he were to return, it is highly unlikely it would be within the Division of Student Life.

The dismissal and its aftermath have only deepened local narratives about the College, leaving many non-profit and faith leaders in the Utica-Rome area, whom the school relies on for student professional opportunities, shocked and dismayed. Just this week, eighteen reverends with the Presbytery of Utica sent a letter of support for McArn to Monitor and the regional Daily Sentinel.

“Rev. McArn’s character is sterling, his credibility beyond reproach. His faithfulness to the work and witness of the Presbytery of Utica has been exemplary. The social justice causes he has supported in the course of his ministry are innumerable, his energy for those causes boundless. Jeff is a much beloved friend and colleague. As minister members of the Presbytery of Utica, we stand by and with him, offering our full-throated support.”

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