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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

College rebrands Chaplaincy “Spiritual and Religious Life,” faculty to vote on McArn motion

ELIHU ROOT HOUSE, Division of Student Life, and KIRNER-JOHNSON, Bradford Auditorium Faculty Assembly – After two months of suspense, the Division of Student Life has broken its public silence to announce the Chaplaincy has changed in what was previously described as a “new direction.” It is now called the “Spiritual and Religious Life” department, expected by Hamilton College to have an interim director in the coming weeks.

The shift is, according to Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life Chris Card’s all-campus email Monday afternoon, “Consistent with best practices and our goals to expand our competencies around interfaith literacy and dialogue in inclusive ways, spiritual and religious inquiry, exploration, and formation, as well as pastoral care for the campus community.” Many in the community, including organizers and advocates, say the message did not assuage their concerns, or even worsened them.

Separately, the faculty will be voting on a motion recognizing 27-year College Chaplain Rev. Jeff McArn, the man whose firing by Card and others has caused widespread anger on and off campus. They are pushing for the College to rehire McArn in some capacity. President David Wippman, who has attempted to prevent information about the crisis from reaching the public, is likely to face difficult questions from professors at next Tuesday’s faculty meeting.

The Chapel, which for nearly 200 years has played a central role in Hamilton College's community and is part of the school's iconography, now houses the newly-reorganized Spiritual and Religious Life Department. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

Dean Card’s message received poorly by most

At a moment when a large portion of the community is enraged by the College’s yet-explained-publicly firing and Campus Safety escort of 27-year College Chaplain Rev. Jeff McArn, many view the rebrand as an effort to sweep the issue away, or let it die out. The potential implications of Card’s message as to what he and others in senior administration likely felt were the Chaplaincy’s shortcomings under McArn also ring hollow to many in the community. Further, the subject line and structure of the email have drawn criticism for not clearly identifying the message as a response to growing community anger.

“The Dean of Students’ office dismissed Jeff in late June with some nebulous language about how they were heading in 'new directions,'” said Professor of Religious Studies Brent Rodriguez-Plate. “Now, two months later, we’ve heard nothing about any new directions, just some empty language about “competencies,” “best practices,” and all those phrases that are straight out of some video on assessment. It’s all frosting and no cake, just some sickly sweet words that do nothing to come close to comparing the actual on-the-ground work that Jeff did for almost 3 decades.”

One administrator, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for job security, echoed those sentiments, saying faculty, staff, student, and local area support for McArn’s work indicated that the Chaplaincy is important to the whole community. “This unilateral decision to reorganize the Chaplaincy as the 'Spiritual and Religious Life' department feels incredibly tone deaf in the wake of the outcry and support for Jeff.” They asked, “Who are we really serving?”

Card’s message did include new, tangible commitments: an investment into growing part-time Jewish Chaplain Jen Ferman into full-time for the year and giving her interfaith responsibilities; the addition of Professor Kira Jumet to advise the Muslim Students Association; and upgrades to the Azel Backus House as the Center for Jewish Life. Card also repeated an earlier College statement that they expect to announce an interim director in the coming weeks and begin a national search for a permanent director, adding without sharing details that “Traditional programs will continue.”

The email was “an explanation that doesn't seem to explain much,” according to Professor Marianne Janack.

Not mentioned in Card’s email were any of the events of the last two months that produced this moment. Or, that many of these items are addressing crises caused in large part by the institution’s own decisions over the summer. The email subject line read “Office of the Dean of Students” and spiritual updates were presented at the end, prefaced by unrelated updates in the Division of Student Life.

A professor not involved in advocacy but watching the situation closely told Monitor Card’s message “was a bunch of words, practically meaningless except all the important things are buried and made opaque.”

A full-time Jewish Chaplain was something McArn had long advocated for, and even thought he was walking into a meeting to discuss when he was unceremoniously fired by Card, Associate Dean of Students Maria Genao-Homs, and Director of Human Resources Steve Stemkoski. The aim of growing support for Jewish students, for both McArn and Card it would appear, is to cultivate a stronger, inclusive on-campus Jewish community. But, the proposed faculty motion acknowledges, "the support that McArn provided to the Jewish community by seeking and advocating for funding for Jewish leadership, facilitating observance and the building of community in the absence of institutional backing for expanded leadership."

The community continues to express appreciation for McArn. Eva Jo McIlraith ‘26, who is a Social Justice Fellow with the now-Spiritual and Religious Life Department, shared a statement on behalf of the Hamilton Young Democratic Socialists of America, one of many student groups organizing efforts to support McArn and bring more democratic accountability to institutional governance.

“YDSA has worked with Jeff on multiple occasions, with each moment having a tremendously positive impact on both our chapter members and the broader Hamilton community,” they said. “Our first campus action, “Candles for Ukraine,” in response to Russia’s invasion, was only possible thanks to Jeff’s contribution in providing the Chapel as a space for gathering and support, actions even President Wippman commended.”

Many who worked with him feel that while he also held the title of “Protestant Chaplain,” McArn served the interests of a wide variety of students regardless of faith or identity background.

“As an international student from Botswana, a first-generation college black woman, I came to Hamilton as an other,” Tumelano Chapman ‘08, who is involved in alumni organizing efforts, reacted to Card’s announcement. Recounting her participation in several of McArn’s volunteering programs and his Sunday services, she added “Jeff inspired me to be of service on and off campus. He was about ministering and not pinned down to one label. He was a multifaceted chaplain appealing to many religions and the non-religious as well. That was his appeal.”

McArn declined to comment on the department shift, saying he wishes the best for spiritual and religious life at Hamilton. Dean Card told Monitor he was busy today and will consider answering Monitor’s questions in writing for an article next week. His consideration is a notable potential move toward increased transparency.

Faculty turn up the heat

Twelve professors, most of whom having significant institutional and campus political influence via seniority and leadership roles, have introduced a motion detailing the value of McArn’s work and imploring the administration to bring him back as an employee. Signatories include Vivyan C. Adair (Women’s and Gender Studies), Frank Anechiarico (Government), Mark Bailey (Computer Science), Rhea Datta (Biology), Chris Georges (Economics), Gordon Jones (Physics), Naomi Guttman (Literature & Creative Writing), Robert Knight (Art), Jaime Kucinskas (Sociology), Sharon Rivera (Government), Lisa Trivedi (History), and Stephen Wu (Economics).

The faculty will be able to discuss, amend, and vote on the motion at the Tuesday, September 5th first faculty meeting of the year beginning at 4:10 pm in Kirner-Johnson’s Bradford Auditorium (KJ 125). According to the Faculty Handbook, “Any member of the Hamilton College community is welcome as an observer” and “may address the Faculty only if recognized by the Chair.” President Wippman and Dean of Faculty Ngoni Munemo, as is almost always the case at faculty meetings, are scheduled to deliver remarks and take questions.

The motion begins by stating solidarity with the Presbytery of Utica, Black and Latinx Student Union, Center for Intersectional Feminism, and Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition, who have all issued statements supporting McArn. After listing many of McArn’s achievements as College Chaplain, the signatories explain their rationale for submitting the motion.

“The Faculty are deeply saddened by the loss of McArn. This motion is intended to create a record of Rev. Jeff McArn’s extraordinary record as a community liaison and College Chaplain, and as an invaluable resource for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging–stated goals of Hamilton’s educational mission. It is the hope of the Faculty that our perspective on the issue may enable college leadership to find a way forward for our community which includes Jeff McArn.”

Professor Kucinskas, who has been part of the faculty delegation to Wippman and others and has worked with McArn on spirituality-related education for nearly a decade, told Monitor McArn was highly effective in all of the areas Card listed for the Spiritual and Religious Life Department's new direction. "Why Jeff was fired continues to baffle me. I see a new name for a department but nothing else new here. It remains unclear why Jeff could not be part of this "new direction," when it includes work he has long been devoted to and done with me and others for years."

She continued, "Instead, what I see is a gaping loss in our community that remains unaddressed. I personally miss the wonderful and inspiring spaces Jeff created on campus. His loss is our loss. He was truly at the heart of what is good in our community."

An overwhelming majority of faculty had already signed a July letter calling for McArn to be reinstated as College Chaplain, a request President Wippman has since denied. Any potential new role would likely fall outside the Division of Student Life. Dean Munemo previously reportedly expressed to some faculty that he is open to McArn working under his office in some capacity.

The firing of Rev. Jeff McArn and the manner in which it was done, regardless of motivation, has poked decades' worth of campus activists in the eyes. Geoffrey Forrest Hicks ‘09, a Posse Scholar who worked for Alumni Relations and Residential Life when a student, shared his reaction to Dean Card’s campus email. “The firing of Rev. Jeff McArn is an outrage and a gut punch to the work of progress, equity, inclusion, truth, and justice.”

Hicks added, “I served on a variety of student coalitions, most notably the Social Justice Initiative, that sought to integrate the marginalized outer layer of the Hamilton College community into its more hegemonic and affluent constituency… I believed that it was my duty to serve the Hamilton student body and countless alumni, and found an ally in Rev. McArn who taught me to have faith even when the mountains of institutionalized racism and the valleys of racial injustice at Hamilton College felt both insurmountable and normalized. Many alumni, student leaders, and student organizations openly challenge the ethical turbidity of the president and dean’s handling of this injustice. We stand in solidarity with Rev. Jeffrey McArn.”

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