Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is It About Gender? Ruth Tucker Loses Post at Calvin

Dr. Ruth Tucker, first woman to teach at Calvin Theological Seminary in its 130 year history, has apparently been the victim of a strange mix of gender bias and political intrigue resulting in her leaving the school as of August 31, 2006.

A very brief summary as I at present understand it: On track to become a fully-tenured professor at the school, Dr. Tucker suddenly in 2003 was shunted to a "terminal" track that meant her career was in jeopardy and would likely end as the word "terminal" indicates. Her response -- repeatedly attempting to discover upon what grounds she was being so treated -- led to the school's denomination forming an Ad Hoc committee to look into her case. Their recommendation in 2005 was that Ruth Tucker be given full tenure, and that she be paid retroactively as fully tenured from 2003 when her tenure was initially put in jeopardy. Instead, the administration chose to ignore those recommendations while simultaneously disallowing open examination of the slippery and ill-defined charges against her. Dr. Tucker found no other alternative open to her but to leave the school. It is important to realize that this process took place over three years, a time period which left Dr. Tucker feeling isolated and under suspicion.
But then, regarding hearts,
I guess I'd better look close to home.
This story in the Grand Rapids Press covers the basic points of the situation; Dr. Tucker's own website offers deeper insight (the godly, gentle, if forthright tone of which is quite moving from a faith point of view and in keeping with the Ruth Tucker I've always known). As someone who's been following the story for about a week now, I have only a few personal reflections to offer.

I do not come to this story without bias. Ruth Tucker to me is not only a scholar, author, and pioneering spokesperson for women's equality in the American evangelical Church. She is a friend who proved her friendship very publically when I and the ministry I am part of were unfairly treated some years ago. I cannot then pretend that what follows is without bias. Neither, however, do I think that my bias blinds me to fact.

Ruth at a happier time, her August 28, 2004 marriage
to fellow Calvin Seminary professor, John Worst.

Ruth Tucker has, until very recently, been part of the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary. Located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the school has 300 students (a bit under 20% female) and of 28 professors only one full-time female professor. When Ruth was hired, she was the first woman faculty member ever at the school, who's parent denomination (the Christian Reformed Church [CRC]) allowed women into the pulpit five years ago.

As illustrated by my own previous post here, I increasingly have come to realize how much of what we so-called egalitiarian white males within evangelicalism is still a kindergarten variety version of true equality. In short, like me, I think the leadership (almost all white males) at Calvin have a whole lot to learn about their own hidden bias and unwillingness to face the implications of what true egalitarian relationships within the church and its structures means. Ruth provides a virtual primer on this sort of thing in discussing her own case. Too often, white males think we've solved racism or classism or sexism simply by assenting to the sins of the past: "Okay, okay... let's move on." Instead, we haven't even started yet to deal with the sins of the present.

Ungodliness. Ruth's site deals somewhat with one of the oddest and most vexing issues, namely charges of "ungodliness" leveled against her. Of all the charges, she notes these were the most painful:
Accusations of unspecified ungodliness have been for me the most devastating aspect of this case. There was no way to respond, and colleagues naturally assumed that they related to some terrible scandal that I'd kept hidden. A former administrator answered such speculation succinctly by saying, "If it were 'ungodliness' you'd be out of the classroom in a heartbeat." But the speculation persisted, and the charge served its purpose by undercutting any support I would otherwise receive from my colleagues.
As Ruth and others have noted, "ungodliness" usually refers in Christian circles to immorality. Yet no such charge was being made against Professor Tucker. These charges were finally linked by Cornelius ("Neil") Plantinga, the school's president, to two alleged incidents. Ruth in response wrote to the denominational board investigating her case:
President Plantinga has alleged ‘ungodliness’ in reference to me—particularly to groups of individuals and colleagues who questioned why I was removed from tenure track. In an email to me (1-14-03), he refers to ‘distinct incidents’ with two different dates and individuals. Again in a letter (1-29-03) he states that I must ‘gain a reputation for godliness’ and he refers to ‘two incidents.’ I have no knowledge of any ungodliness on my part that could be associated with those individuals or dates. Yet those accusations have been a very significant aspect of my case. I believe that it is essential that he present in writing these accusations and how in his mind these ‘incidents’ relate to ungodliness. Such information is critical for the committee’s review, and it is only fair that all such accusations be in writing so that I can adequately respond.
So what were the alleged incidents? Dr. Tucker is said to have exhibited "incoherent rage" and "vulgarity" -- yet the exact phrases or words used are words no one else (except Plantinga himself, on notes Tucker successfully challenges in my opinion) recalls having been used. An investigating committee set up by the adminstration bluntly recommended the ungodliness charges be reversed: "The allegations of 'ungodly' behavior will be deleted and acknowledged by administration to be inflammatory." Unfortunately, the administration apparently ignored this recommendation. (Some may wonder why I am not including comments from the administration. They, in the above linked-to Grand Rapids Press article, made abundantly clear that they are not interested in discussing this matter publically. I'd love to hear from them, and if they do publically comment later, I'll attempt to represent those comments here.)

The "incoherent rage" Tucker was allegedly guilty of is highly dubious to me for a simple reason. I've known Ruth when she's emotionally very upset. And as she herself says on her site, her reaction in such emotionally extreme moments is sometimes to weep and feel a most intense sorrow. Many years ago, when Cornerstone magazine wrote an article uncomplementary to a fellow professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (where she was teaching), she did in fact weep while remonstrating with us. Two points are instructive about that encounter. One, anger would have been the more expected emotion in that situation (at least, to me). Yet she exhibited no anger at all. Two, that sharp disagreement between Dr. Tucker and our staff did nothing to rupture the friendship and co-laborers for Christ bond we had. And finally, the word "incoherent" lent to Ruth Tucker is simply a non-sequitor--whatever she is, she is not incoherent!

To me, the gender issue emerges again and again. For instance, a 2004 review of her appeal for tenure once again refused it, partially on the grounds that she was being a bad example for others on the faculty during lunch-room bull sessions. I didn't need to read Tucker's own take on this to be ticked off by what is one of the most obvious gender issues in the entirety of the sad case. Because she's a woman, she's expected to play mother, telling all the naughty (but unreproved and certainly not untenured!) male faculty members to watch their language. Sigh... must a woman be cast in the role of mother or of cursing whore? Read your feminist texts, boys.

Here's Ruth's own take from her website:
From the beginning, the new administration was very concerned about the “faculty room ethos”—concerned that faculty “went over the line” in conversation and jest during the noon-hour lunches. I was aware of such concerns, but did not take them personally. And no one had ever suggested I was responsible for the “faculty room ethos” until other charges against me fell apart. (One colleague said to me: "The 'faculty room ethos' was there long before you came and will be there long after you leave.") Indeed, I was shocked when blame was directed at me. I realized only later how significant gender was in my situation.

Because of subsequent demotions and threats against me by the new administration, I stopped going to the faculty room for lunch. I feared that anything I said could be taken out of context and held against me—aware that I was being held to a different standard. In a 2004 Reappointment Evaluation that kept me off tenure track for a second time, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs wrote: “I was hoping that [you] would say something like”: “I have avoided ‘going over the line’ and have encouraged others to do the same.”

Here was an administrator who eats regularly with the faculty telling the only woman that she is to be essentially the school marm among a bunch of rowdy boys. I responded that I did not wish to take on such a role, and for fear of further retaliation continued to stay away from the faculty room.

I have little more to add to this sad tale. I do sometimes stand in dumb amazement at just how long it is taking gender equality to filter into our institutions of learning, our churches, or our hearts.

But then, regarding hearts, I guess I'd better look close to home. I'll look inward even as I pray for my friend Dr. Tucker and the school which, I trust, will eventually learn just how blind to gender bias we male egalitarians often are...


Colin Lamm said...

I just wanted to drop you a line to say that your recent blogs on the issues of equality (egalitarianism) have stirred my thinking and become the catalyst for certain reflections I recorded on my site under the title "on being. . ." I'd be interested to read what you think.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I am a woman who attended Calvin Sem. I did take one class with Ruth. I just heard about this. I'm saddened by the whole situation. She's a great teacher.

Thanks for filling me in in this issue.