ARPTalk 136 – Don’t Waste a Good Crisis!

 

The August 25th board meeting was contentious, exposing divisions over the president, finances, and direction regarding the seminary. Everyone drove away from Due West discouraged. However, from Thursday afternoon to Monday afternoon, new events cascaded in the wake of the board meeting, eclipsing the pedestrian and wishy-washy news from the board meeting and propelling Erskine into a wonderful and exciting state of crisis — a God-given crisis which may open the door for a new beginning.

Supposedly, reporting the goings-on at the the board meeting, the cryptic press release on the afternoon of August 25th to the ARPNews (https://arpnews.org/author/arpmagazine/) from the Erskine office of communications was shamelessly misleading, revealed little more than bandages covering bleeding wounds, but also whispered a soupçon of change-coming-quickly.

Most certainly, the weekend of the 26th through the 28th was filled with long, passionate, and confusing phone calls among Kooistra, Vigus, and others as they sought a way forward off a oneway street leading to a dead end and an empty lot. The announcement of the resignations of both the president (Paul Kooistra) and the board chairman (Ron Vigus) on Monday afternoon brings an end to a tragic story of what-might-have-been-but-is-lost.

Paradoxically, the end result for Erskine is wonderful. Erskine is in a full-blown crisis. Both Erskine College and Erskine Seminary are in good places. Like a hundred acre field of good Fescue at summer’s end and ripe for harvesting, opportunities for change and a bright future cover the landscape of Due West in rich shades of green. Let us pray the folks on the board are ready to make hay and fill the barn. Let us hope the folks in charge are crisis-lovers like Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/717228-never-let-a-good-crisis-go-to-waste).

Fiduciary Responsibility

Now is the time to re-assess how fiduciary responsibility is presented to board members. Before I was elected to the board, fiduciary responsibility was presented to board members in terms of Erskine only, as though General Synod did not exist. When I was on the board, fiduciary responsibly was presented in terms of Erskine only by the institutional attorney (and without the presence of a voice for Synod), and this is how fiduciary responsibility continues to be presented to board members in their orientation by the institutional attorney. That is, there is intentional disregard for Synod. This needs changing. Remember, the institutional attorney represents Erskine only — not General Synod.

The fundamental question is this: how many board members are chosen by Erskine? Obviously, the answer is none. Board members are chosen by General Synod. Who presents the interests of General Synod? No one!

The primary responsibility of a board member is to General Synod which appoints all board members. No board member serves on the Erskine board apart from the pleasure of General Synod. Board members do not serve at the pleasure of the Erskine board or administration or Alumni Association (which exists only in the netherworld of Belk Hall). According to the Erskine bylaws, General Synod is the sole owner of Erskine, and any discussion of other stakeholders is irrelevant. As the the owner, General Synod appoints board members to oversee the interest of General Synod in the operation of its educational AGENCY. Therefore, the first and primary fiduciary responsibility of a board member is to honor and advance the vision General Synod defines for Erskine. This is obvious and primary. How have so many missed it?

If board members understand and embrace their fiduciary responsibility to General Synod as primary and directive, Erskine is safe. If, as has been taught and practiced for at least 40 years, fiduciary responsibility is viewed as primary to Erskine in contradistinction to and conflict with General Synod, General Synod is portrayed as a hinderance and a threat, and the inevitable result is bitter and unrelenting conflicts — as the past clearly demonstrates.

Of course, a board member has fiduciary responsibility to Erskine, but it is not primary or determinative. That is, the fiduciary responsibility to General Synod defines and sets the boundaries for the board member’s fiduciary responsibility to Erskine.

Thankfully, the present crisis highlights the matter of fiduciary responsibilities; hopefully, the folks in charge are wise enough to attend to this and make hay and fill the barn for the future.

Transparency

Now is the time to revisit issues of transparency — again!

The wonderful crisis which presently engulfs Erskine College, Erskine Seminary, and the Erskine administration and board is a grand opportunity to remind ourselves of the words of Erskine’s Biblical motto, Psalm 136. 9, “In Thy light shall we see light.” Certainly, the metaphor “light” has multiple usages, and one of those usages is the transparency of truth.

Light reveals actions by individuals. In the past, the MO of Erskine boards and administrations was manage the light, or “What happens in Due West stays in Due West.” That is, “Thank God for darkness which covers the embarrassing, the sinful, and the stupid.” In the days of 5 cent stamps, fountain pens, envelops, and the US Mail, information was slow; however, information nowadays moves at the speed of light. It is almost like Luke 12.2 is being lived out in front of us: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed.” Hence, transparency and full-disclosure are not just Christian virtues, they are paramount to building trust and confidence with constituencies who are information savvy.

From the perspective of more than 40 years, confidentiality on the board has been an irritant to board and administrative leaders as they attempted to control and curtail information coming out of Due West. Why? Well, what does one expect when the board is run like a Privy Council or a Star Chamber. Board meetings are closed. Executive sessions are simply closed meetings on steroids. The answer: open the board meetings, and only use the executive session to deal with serious matters of personnel.

Well, the eyes of the elite educrats and powerbroker are rolling. They usually resist openness. Transparency demands accountability. Well, what is wrong with accountability? Well, transparency might be embarrassing. GOOD! Transparency and accountability are preventatives for dishonesty, corruption, and deception.

Permit me to use a bit of humor. One, how do you keep a secret between two Associate Reformed Presbyterians? Answer: one dies and the other is mute and cannot write. Two, what is confidentially between two Associate Reformed Presbyterians? Answer: it means each tells only one person at a time.

City and county councils are open to the public. I serve on a state board and our proceedings are open to the public we serve. Openness clears the air. It is impertinence to all constituencies to operate in secrecy. Secrecy destroys trust and confidence. If anything, the present crisis teaches us one incontrovertible thing: secrecy does not work.

All of us who love Erskine are passionate in our concerns. Trust and confidence are not achieved when communications are managed and distorted.

For example, trust and confidence are not built when news releases are tools of misrepresentation. An example is the latest press release detailing events at the August board meeting to the ARPNews (https://arpnews.org/author/arpmagazine/).

Specifically, the news release reads, “Seminary classes began Wednesday as an ad hoc committee of the board formed in May met to consider a request from the ARP General Synod and some seminary faculty [emphasis added] to evaluate dividing the college and seminary into two separate institutions.” Why does the author attempt to deceive and/or confuse? A copy of the unanimous petition is easily obtained. It was presented to General Synod, and, since March 15, it has been posted on ARPTalk at http://www.arptalk.org/2016/03/15/three-amigos-of-due-west-part-one/ (paragraph 18). This press release does not reflect transparency or build trust or confidence. Actually, a press release such as this is an act of a dumb lie!

Now, read the email from Mark Ross to Bill Evans which has been circulated and is posted below. Does the email give the impression the unanimously signed petition is from “some seminary faculty”?

Bill [Evans],

Attached is a draft of our motion, incorporated into a letter.  Our motion needs to be sent somewhere, and in addition to the president should either go to the chairman of the seminary committee or to the chairman of the board of trustees.  If it goes to the board it will be referred to the seminary committee, but it is a request for the board to act so I though perhaps it should be addressed to the chairman. Since the motion is likely to show up elsewhere, we ought to make sure its proper context is identified.

I sent R J a copy of what I had sent to you, and he has suggested that we include mention of the Greenville area as the target location.  So I have put that in.

I have not included a closing to the letter.  Terry has been our spokesman at the seminary committee, so perhaps his signature and a statement about the unanimous support of the faculty [emphasis added] be added at the end.

Mark [Ross]

As was pointed out above, we live in the day of information moving at the speed of light.

Why did the author of the Erskine news release misrepresent the action of the seminary faculty? Reading the news release is painful. It is easier to tell the truth than strangle the truth.

Well, hopefully, now in the midst of a wonderful, God-given crisis, a conversation on disclosure and transparency can be engaged amongst the Erskine luminaries. On this matter, it is time to make hay and fill the barn.

Conjoined Twins in Conflict

Overdue for years and now in the midst of this wonderful crisis, is the time for the separation of the conjoined twins of Erskine College and Erskine Seminary before the end comes for both.

Chang and Eng Bunker were the original “Siamese Twins.” Conjoined at the chest, they were determined to live a normal life as North Carolina farmers who married sisters, fathered children, and lived productive lives. Suffering from heart disease, Chang died in his sleep on the morning of January 17, 1874. Eng, who was healthy, died three hours later from an undetermined cause — perhaps shock.

Erskine College and Erskine Seminary are also conjoined twins — joined at the board of trustees. As Chang and Eng were in crisis just before their deaths, Erskine College and Erskine Seminary are locked together in a sickbed. Both are and have been suffering from their conjoined relationship — sucking the life out of each other. Existing in a perpetual state of conflict, the death of one kills the other. If surgery to separate them from one board is not performed, their future is bleak.

An item not reported in the Erskine press release is the motion for the immediate separation of the seminary from the college. The vote was 12 to 12, then Vigus cast the deciding vote not to separate. A number of trustees who voted not to separate did so based on (1) timing and the fact the ad hoc committee on separation, after 90 days, has no report. Well, maybe the task of the ad hoc committee can be completed in the next 30 days now that Kooistra and Vigus are gone and are not obfuscating and roadblocking.

Similarly, (2) they were also concerned about the distribution of assets. CFO Haselden asserts the assets are not divided between the college and seminary — not distinguishable. That is, all assets belong to Erskine, Inc. and cannot be separated. Really? Really? Well, the distrust level on the board for the CFO’s pronouncements is high. An outside hand is needed to unravel this knot.

Well, I have sympathy for the concerns of those who voted against separation at this time, but, like many of you, I am ready to see something done for a new start to save our seminary. Conjoined with the college, the future portents ill for the seminary.

The present crisis spotlights the need to address the issue of separation instead of doing business by KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD. That is, the Miss Scarlett O’Hara School of Business: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Over the years, it seems most trustees are honor graduates of Miss Scarlett’s school.

Since 1996 (my first year on the board), I can tell you the members of the board have been doing a Miss Scarlett dance and kicking the thorny can of the seminary down the road for another day. This tactic does not ameliorate the issue but compounds it to the level of high crisis at the end of the road. When one finally gets down the road to the can, instead of a can, there is a mountain of trash impeding the roadway. There is a full-blown crisis — an existential threat to the existence of the institution. A bulldozer is needed to open the way and create a new road.

Returning to the matter of the distribution of assets, if (God forbid!) a division of assets resulted in the seminary losing what is thought to be “seminary assets,” would it not be a wonderful crisis — a glorious challenge? Can you imagine Associate Reformed Presbyterians doing something Biblical? Can you imagine Associate Reformed Presbyterians answering the challenge to walk by faith and trust the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Listen, if God is not in the seminary, the seminary is not going to happen. Have we forgotten that the laborers build in vain if God is not in it? (Psalm 127.1)

Some were concerned there is no business plan for a new seminary. Well, there is no business plan for the present seminary, and there has been no business plan for some time (https://www.arptalk.org/2012/07/09/erskine-theological-seminary-r-i-p/). The seminary is and has been drifting, drifting, drifting, drifting! The members of the faculty are disillusioned. They have been treated dreadfully. They have been denied wages they earned when colleagues at the college are paid. No one speaks for them on either the administrative team or the board. There is no institutional leadership at the seminary.

It is simple. Concerns for future plans will come to light and be addressed when a motion is passed and intent for separation is embraced. Then, and then only, will the appropriate mechanisms become apparent. Until then, the only thing taking place is a protracted discussion on the treatment of the ailment which just may kill the patient. A motion to separate brings to light the additional motions needed for a business plan. That is, a vote to separate brings into play other motions. A motion to separate also demonstrates the board takes the will of General Synod and the seminary faculty seriously.

If the last 40 years has demonstrated anything conclusively, it has revealed the configuration of the Erskine board is not adequate to properly care for both a college program and a seminary program. Inevitably, one is neglected over the other — and the seminary is the neglected child. The programs are too diverse. The result is neither the college nor the seminary is healthy.

As a matter of fact, the seminary has been the neglected child for as long as I can remember. In the mid-70, Stan Bell was the president. In a conversation which left an indelible memory, he said his work as president would be made easier if he could send in a crane-with-a-wrecking-ball to deal with the seminary. Thankfully, his tenure was short.

The present crisis is wonderful — a God-given crisis. I have mentioned three items which need remediation. There are, of course, others, and in the second part of my article I will address the college.

In the past, so many opportunities have been missed. I pray we do not waste this good crisis. As I began this article, I close it: like a hundred acre field of good Fescue at summer’s end and ripe for harvesting, opportunities for change and a bright future cover the landscape of Due West in rich shades of green. Let us pray the folks on the board are ready to make hay and fill the barn.

These are my thoughts,

signature

Charles W. Wilson


Photo Credit: Samuele Ghilardi

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