Chaplaincy in Disarray when Soul Searching is Most Needed
Imam Tom Facchine served as Hamilton College’s part-time College Imam from 2021 to 2023. He resigned in July to protest the College’s dismissal of College Chaplain Jeff McArn without accusation of misconduct, followed by a Campus Safety escort to retrieve personal items from his office. Imam Facchine is an active leader in the Utica area’s Muslim community.
My first experience with the neoliberal takeover of higher education was as an undergrad at Vassar College in 2007. The outgoing President, an art history professor turned administrator, made way for a former World Bank executive, and despite the latter’s achievements there was a palpable shift away from education and toward profitability, something that was quickly becoming a nationwide trend.
At that time I worked a campus job in the dining hall, so I had a front-row seat to the subsequent erosion of both livelihoods and community. Full-time campus workers with decades of service were reduced to part-time and therefore stripped of benefits. Staffing was reduced wherever possible. Adjuncts increased as tenure appointments decreased. All this while the President took home north of $300k per year and fundraising reached new heights.
The numbers tell a clear story, but then again numbers are also part of the problem. Looking at people as numbers, looking at every salary as potential cuts to swell the bottom line, particularly at an institution as wealthy as Hamilton where austerity is rarely warranted, enables the erosion of individual livelihoods and community stability, despite the ubiquitous lip-service paid to “family” and “community” on college campuses.
We tried to fight the cuts but the administration shrewdly timed them to occur shortly before summer break. The momentum and leverage generated by several rallies, petitions, and even a hunger strike evaporated into thin air as the campus became deserted for summer, just as the administration had planned and hoped it would. September rolled around and things went back to business as usual.
Fast forward to earlier this summer, when Chaplain Jeff McArn was abruptly dismissed without cause. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen this movie before.
Jeff personally recruited me to Hamilton and took a giddy pride in the fact that with me Hamilton had the first official “Imam” in its history. On my first day, he led me on a walking tour across campus. Rather than remembering the landmarks or names of buildings, what left the biggest impression was how we weren’t able to walk more than 30 feet without someone stopping Jeff to say hello and chat. It was like being with a celebrity, minus the selfies.
The smiles, camaraderie, and warmth I witnessed on that walk perfectly encapsulate Jeff’s approach to his craft. His way was, to use an Elisabeth Anker quote, “[a] more intuitive, qualitative way unbeholden to statistical measurements created by corporate boards or private companies unaccountable to students or educators.”
Jeff’s impact was simultaneously enormous and incalculable.
If President Wippman, Dean Card, or Dean Genao-Homs wanted to assess Jeff’s work, they would have done well to accompany Jeff on one such cross-campus walk. Instead, they opted for a more bureaucratic method, including an external review of the Chaplaincy conducted by NASPA. If Jeff’s job was dependent upon the outcome of that review, you would never have known it. Rather than coach us on responses and talking points that would save his own job, Jeff strategized with us how to emphasize our greatest collective needs, such as increasing the chapel’s accessibility and creating more full-time Chaplaincy positions.
With such a selfless approach to the external review, to be axed ostensibly as a result of its findings places Jeff into the not unfamiliar role of sacrificial lamb and the Hamilton College administrators into the role of Judas.
In firing Jeff McArn, Hamilton College administrators are guilty on multiple accounts of cowardice, incompetence, and downright foolishness. Entrusting NASPA, or whatever metrics Hamilton administrators wanted to impose, to assess the efficacy of the Chaplaincy as a whole or Jeff in particular is the needless numericalization of a craft and sets the dangerous precedent that a job can only be kept through obeisance to arbitrary numbers. The Chaplaincy exists to support students’ religious and spiritual life, yet measurements of the Chaplaincy’s performance can actually thwart the realization of the Chaplaincy’s main goal, especially if the numbers, or the reluctance to use them, contribute to removing the Chaplaincy’s single greatest asset. It is akin to attempting to grow crops by removing the soil because the numbers indicated that the soil was taking up too much space.
The responses of Hamilton administrators during the fallout have ranged from nonsensical to infuriating. To tell us, as President Wippman has done in his few, curated statements, that he “values” the chaplaincy as he simultaneously rubber stamps its very demolition is ridiculous. He does not understand the Chaplaincy’s work and sure as hell doesn’t value it. Furthermore, to allow slander related to Jeff’s potential misconduct to circulate by not explicitly stating that his removal was without cause is nothing short of cowardice.
To tell me to my face, as Dean Genao-Homs did, that firing Jeff is going to “amplify” chaplaincy work is nothing short of Orwellian doublespeak and an insult to my intelligence. I believe in loyalty, and so I am disturbed by the suggestion that I should be content to cannibalize the resources that would have otherwise gone to Jeff.
How many times were any of these administrators in the Chapel? How many Chaplaincy programs did they attend? Take the name placards off the office doors and let them identify whose office is whose, if they can. In reality, there is no “new direction.” There are only cold, irrelevant metrics and tone-deaf PR moves.
Jeff and I used to have long conversations about the soul of liberal arts education and how the Chaplaincy Office could serve as a much-needed moral voice extending beyond the confines of Chapel programming. What an irony. Hamilton College has some soul-searching to do. Unfortunately, by ruthlessly firing Jeff McArn it has disposed of the most able and trustworthy person that could assist in that search.