THE CHAPEL – Two Hamilton College Chaplaincy Office employees, Interfaith Program Coordinator Saorsa Wissman and College Imam Tom Facchine, have resigned in protest of 27-year College Chaplain Jeff McArn’s dismissal, citing a lack of trust in the institution and their superiors. Separately, Dean of Students Chris Card affirmed he had made the “right leadership decision” in a meeting yesterday with Associate VP for Student Affairs Jeff Landry and a delegation of concerned faculty, attendees say. “We disagree,” faculty respond.
Dean Card reportedly cited a lack of “visionary leadership” inclusive of strategic planning and internal assessment and a need to improve “religious and spiritual competency” up to “standards of best practice” as reasons for the decision. He allegedly also hinted that fundraising concerns for the Chaplaincy’s work were related to the termination.
When shown strategic planning and assessment documents from recent years reportedly drafted by Chaplaincy staff, including McArn, which Monitor has obtained, attendees say Card said there is a distinction between constructing plans and actually implementing them.
A member of the faculty delegation shared meeting details on the faculty listserv this morning. Professors Jaime Kucinskas, Marianne Janack, Justin Clark, Steve Orvis, and Benj Widiss attended. Card “also agreed to consider, [sic] at least, inviting Jeff to help with launching the next phase in some capacity,” one member wrote. (Only faculty members who were not part of the delegation shared the email with Monitor. The faculty discussion listserv includes all of the College's faculty.)
The delegation has been careful to emphasize in the course of their work that they are seeking to work alongside Dean Card to address community concerns. The approach strikes a decidedly more collaborative tone than some in the community who have taken a route more focused on applying outside, public pressure.
Wissman claims that when Dean Card initially broke the news to Chaplaincy staff in an urgent June 29th meeting, he said McArn had “stepped down.” If Wissman is correct, Dean Card would have made this claim two days after he, Associate Dean of Students Maria Genao-Homs, and Director of Human Resources Stephen Stemkoski fired McArn effective immediately with a Campus Safety escort.
Dean Card was opposed to using Campus Safety but was required to do so by Hamilton College policy, several employee sources with knowledge of the situation and the policy report. The listserv told colleagues Card “did express genuine regret about the manner in which Jeff was escorted away by campus security” and that "to his credit" he would support faculty advocacy in changing the policy.
According to a source with firsthand knowledge of Dean Genao-Homs's views, she shared Dean Card's view that a Campus Safety escort of McArn was not necessary after his dismissal.
Card, Genao-Homs, and Stemkoski, who oversees personnel policy, did not respond or declined several requests for comment.
The College’s lack of official comment has caused some to speculate, without evidence, that McArn must have been responsible for egregious harm for the College to dismiss him so rapidly with an implied threat of force. High-ranking officials have repeatedly told concerned community members in private meetings that the College did not allege McArn to have caused harm to others, Card reportedly telling faculty McArn is a “most gracious” human being. Yet, the College’s Communications & Marketing Office has declined opportunities to confirm publicly that he did not pose a threat to others. They have not responded to any requests for comment since July 12th, and the College has not issued any public communication on the Chaplaincy changes to date.
One of the College’s marketing strategies in recent years, managed by the inaugural Vice President for Communications & Marketing Melissa Richards, has been to promote the concept of the “Hamily,” a play on words attempting to compare the College’s community to a large and loving family.
The Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition, an alumni organization dedicated to supporting movements on campus, issued a statement. “We are deeply disappointed in the administration's decision to dismiss Chaplain Jeff McArn. The justification provided by Dean Card is not sufficient to merit McArn's removal. We urge alumni to engage in this discourse by signing the petition, calling administrators, and withholding donations of their money and time from Hamilton College.”
A Broken Mirror
Wissman’s resignation email sent to Director of Human Resources Stephen Stemkoski and Deans Card and Genao-Homs read, “As even Dean Card pointed out in our conversation yesterday [July 17th], trust has been broken.” She continued, “For my part, I cannot effectively work as an employee under an administration I do not trust. I also cannot trust a Human Resources office that would terminate Jeff McArn in such a manner. There must be more humane procedures that could be in place so that such great harm is not inflicted upon students.”
Imam Facchine sent his email to Deans Card and Genao-Homs on July 24th.
“The shameful dismissal of Jeff McArn is an insult not only to him, but to all of us involved in chaplaincy work and to the Hamilton College community as a whole. It is neither possible nor desirable to work in such an environment, nor under an administration that so grossly undervalues its chaplaincy workers.”
While senior officials anticipated backlash to the firing, it has surpassed their expectations. Unprecedented in recent history at Hamilton, numerous sources within College administration have gone against superiors’ explicit orders and contacted Monitor to anonymously share information and criticize the institution’s handling of the situation, fearing retaliation were they to speak openly. Staff morale within Hamilton's administration is extremely low.
“This could just happen, and it also makes people afraid to talk about it,” one administrator close to the situation said. “We're always touting the ‘Hamily.’ But then to treat someone with such disrespect? Yeah, there's a lot of fear.”
In the backdrop, Hamilton began an unexpected presidential search in May. Despite repeated claims of following “past practice” by the chairs of the Board of Trustees, the search has been shrouded in unprecedented secrecy. It has included students on the search committee via an exclusive, botched process managed by trustees and Senior Staff that also violated precedent, and has cut the window for community input in half compared to the 2015 search. Of the 140 faculty members – an overwhelming majority – who signed a letter to senior College officials requesting McArn be reinstated, all three faculty on the Presidential Search Committee added their names.
This follows a consistent pattern by the Wippman administration of making major decisions that impact a wide variety of stakeholders toward the start of the summer with the effect of reducing opportunities for community dissent. The College has not held a dedicated town hall where any community member can ask questions of senior officials in public in years, and one event this past May expected to fill a similar purpose was inexplicably announced and canceled by the Student Assembly within 29 hours.
Dean of Faculty Ngoni Munemo, who serves as the faculty’s official representative and who also reports directly to President Wippman, declined to comment on ongoing faculty concerns. “I have corresponded with multiple faculty on this matter, met with some, and offered to meet with others. As is appropriate, I have shared my comments directly with the faculty who reached out to me.”
A Quantifiable “New Direction”
A month after terminating McArn, Hamilton College has not shared its claimed “new direction” for the Chaplaincy Office with the community and has repeatedly declined to comment. Dean Card told Monitor on July 10th, “We will communicate more about developments in the Chaplaincy in the near future.”
Wissman, Facchine, and several other administration and faculty sources close to the situation assert this is because the College had few to no ideas for a new direction in mind when they dismissed McArn. However, they say, Deans Card and Genao-Homs had been planning to dismiss McArn without accusation of misconduct for some time. President David Wippman did not respond to an email from Monitor asking whether he would generally be aware of such high-level hiring/firing decisions beforehand.
“I don't have any sort of delusions that Hamilton is going to reverse its decision, because as Dean Genao-Homs sort of, whether she wanted to or not, kind of spilled the beans that this was a decision that was made long ago,” Imam Facchine recalled from a July 20th Zoom meeting with her. “This was something that has been in the works for some time, even if it was never communicated to anybody else, let alone seeking our input.”
He continued, “I would hope that this act of solidarity at the very least is going to make the college introspective and think twice the next time they would try to pull something like this, and consider that the people working at Hamilton College are human beings. They have intangible value that is not only inherent to them, but they have intangible value in the human relationships that they've built.”
“In the June 29th meeting, Card said he didn’t take the decision lightly and has been considering it for a year,” Wissman told Monitor. Dean Card began at Hamilton in August 2022. The statement came later in the meeting, Wissman says, after she asked a question indicating she already knew McArn had been fired. This contradicted Card’s alleged claim at the beginning of the meeting that McArn “stepped down.”
“I encountered nothing in meetings with either Dean Card or Associate Dean Genao-Homs on which to rebuild the trust they have broken or to repair the enormous harm they have caused to the Hamilton College community,” Wissman said. “My understanding is that Card and Genao-Homs were not satisfied with the way Jeff carried out the administrative functions of his position. However, they have demonstrated that they had no understanding of the scope of Jeff’s work in Hamilton College or in the surrounding communities.”
A professor who has worked with McArn shared similar sentiments with Monitor under the condition of anonymity.
“I have questions about how much those involved in firing Jeff knew about how much he supported academic curricula on religion and spirituality, as well as how much he supported student community engagement,” she wrote. “Losses are now compounding, not only through his loss, but through the loss of those who loved him and worked alongside him who have quit in protest.”
It is possible the breadth of McArn’s work, rather than improving his standing with superiors seeking a clear long-term strategic plan for the department, harmed it. “He doesn't prioritize the assessment piece,” said one administrator close to the situation who spoke under the condition of anonymity out of fear for job security. “I feel like people didn't really know the worthwhileness of his unquantifiable spiritual care meetings with students, Recoup & Soup, the meditation group, having the Zen master come, the religious trauma group, etc.”
“I feel like sometimes there's a sense of, ‘Yeah, but where is your strategic plan? Where are the numbers? Where's all this administrative stuff? You're failing in that area.’ You know, he's only one person,” they shared. “I wish that somebody supervising him could see him in action. I don't think anyone has seen him in that capacity.”
Abigail Moone ‘23, who made the petition supporting McArn, criticized Hamilton’s prioritization of metrics over qualitative impact. “I think it shows how clearly institutional the problem is -- which I see as apathy and disconnect from students for the sake of ‘strategic planning’ -- an impersonal success marker that often cares more about how something looks on paper than its real life impact. If Hamilton begins removing everyone whose teaching and support style doesn't easily contain itself in institutional systems and success markers they will quickly lose the most valuable, generous, and knowledgeable members of their community, a process which has already begun.”
Hamilton has faced numerous resignations in recent years, both among faculty and staff. The College has long faced tremendous difficulty in retaining faculty of color.
In consideration of finding quantifiable aspects of McArn's impact at Hamilton, here are some metrics: 30 single-spaced pages of community member statements of support for McArn, shared with senior College officials. 50+ sources including students, faculty, alumni, donors, administrators, and Utica-Rome area non-profit leaders spoke with Monitor for its reporting – none of whom willing to defend Hamilton College on the record, including Hamilton College. 140 faculty members openly questioning the judgment of college leadership. 1,033 petition signatures in support of McArn, as of publishing. 4,301 views on Monitor’s first coverage, as of publishing date, more than double any prior article.
Asked for comment, McArn shared a statement. “I do want to express gratitude for the support of the faculty groups advocating on my behalf, and for the heartwarming student petition, and also for the many members of the faculty, staff, alums, student communities and also community partners and friends of the College who have reached out to me in support and concern. It is a beautiful demonstration of the vital importance of community connections that I have always felt that the chaplaincy was all about.”
This article has been updated (7/27) to more holistically reflect that the faculty delegation is looking to work in line with the College, and to anonymize a quote that was originally given on the record. It has also been updated (7/28) with new information received after publication from a firsthand source regarding Dean Genao-Homs's opinion on the use of Campus Safety.