Columbia Theological Seminary Students Object to Firing of Black Administrator

By Kathryn Post
columbia theological seminary
A group of students at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia are protesting the sudden firing of a beloved Black administrator, which they see as part of a pattern. (Photo via Facebook)

Black students at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in Decatur, Georgia, are protesting the surprise firing of a beloved admissions director, saying it’s the latest in a series of firings of faculty and administration of color since 2019.

On Tuesday, as most faculty, staff and students had left campus for the summer, the Columbia community received an email from President Leanne Van Dyk informing them that it was the Rev. Samuel White’s last day. The following day, the seminary’s African Heritage Student Association published a letter addressed to the president’s council and board of trustees expressing “deep sadness and tremendous frustration” over the incident and asserting that Van Dyk’s tenure “has been defined by racial injustice.”

The letter demands that the president, who is scheduled to leave her post in six weeks, resign immediately, that the board president resign, that White be reinstated and that a new advisory board be appointed to oversee personnel changes at the seminary.

White’s time as director of admissions, the students wrote, “resulted in the recruitment of one of the largest incoming classes in recent history, and the most diverse incoming class in the school’s history. Without fail, Rev. White is committed to ensuring that the seminary upholds the values and ethics it professes around justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

White did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

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In an email to media, Jennifer Cuthbertson, the seminary’s director of marketing and communications, declined to say why White had been let go.

“Columbia Theological Seminary is sensitive to students concerns over the departure of Rev. Samuel White,” Cuthbertson wrote. “However, it was a carefully considered decision and out of respect for the privacy of all current and former employees and consistent with our policies, we do not comment on personnel matters.”

The students also claim that the Rev. Brandon Maxwell, another Black administrator, was forced to resign as vice president for enrollment and student affairs and cited the 2019 firing of the Rev. Ruth-Aimée Belonni-Rosario Govens as the seminary’s chief enrollment officer, prompting outrage from the school’s Hispanic and Latinx association, as well as a lawsuit.

That same year, the school did not renew the contract of Kevin Park, dean for advanced professional studies who oversaw Korean American ministries, and John Azumah, a Ghanaian professor of world Christianity and Islam and director of international programs, left sooner than expected, according to the Presbyterian Mission, after the seminary announced that its office of international programs would be realigned.

“This is not an isolated incident, but it’s more of something that is systemic with Columbia,” the Rev. John DeLoney, president of the African Heritage Student Association, said in a virtual news conference Thursday morning, noting that 60% of the students at CTS are of color. “With that majority of people of color coming to the university, you should be adding more administration of color, but they seem to be ushering the people of color in the administration out.”

columbia theological seminary
Some African Heritage Student Association members gather at a 2021 Kwanzaa service on campus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. (Courtesy photo)

DeLoney added that the lack of transparency about the terminations only makes the matter more concerning.

In the fall, the seminary is expected to welcome its first president who is a person of color, the Rev. Victor Aloyo. DeLoney noted that the arrival of a nonwhite president does not disqualify concerns about racism on campus. 

Leo Seyij Allen, vice president of the seminary’s student government association, said in an email, “Several of us are wary that the hiring of Dr. Victor Aloyo is merely cover for the legacy of racism that the administration at CTS has sustained.”

Allen believes that the administration’s apparent hostility toward people of color could stall progress under Aloyo. 

“The key infrastructure that students need to be supported, particularly students of color, appears to be systematically and intentionally unraveling at Columbia,” Allen observed at the news conference. 

In June 2020, the seminary’s board of trustees announced a series of racial justice commitments, including fully covering tuition and student fees for Black students accepted into CTS master’s programs. According to a May 2021 admissions brochure, African Americans made up more than 64% of the student body at that time.

White has been an especially supportive figure for many members of the African Heritage Student Association, which currently has approximately 65 members. The Rev. Tisa Watkins, president of the seminary’s second-year class, said at the news conference that Smith was instrumental in her decision to come to CTS to pursue an additional degree.

“I had a lot of reservations about uprooting my life and coming to a place that I didn’t know,” said Watkins, “and Rev. White really took the time to talk to me. He wasn’t pushy, he really sat with me as I made that decision. … To find out that Rev. White has just been ousted, it really hurt my heart.”

Kathryn Post is a writer living in Washington D.C. She is a graduate of Calvin College and an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine. 

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11 thoughts on “Columbia Theological Seminary Students Object to Firing of Black Administrator”

  1. Brian Patrick

    I agree that the lack of transparency regarding these unexpected firings is fishy as heck. If these instructors and administrators are violating the contract, come out and say it and let the facts speak for themselves. The truth will set you free.

    That being said, Ms. Post (who works for the radically left-wing Sojourners Magazine) is hardly an impartial journalist if she uses the term “Latinx”. I am Hispanic and can tell you that none of us use that term. Something like 3% of Latinos use “Latinx” in daily life according to surveys. This is another buzzword promoted by progressive, postmodern whites to make themselves feel better.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      Lack of transparency will raise lots of questions every time.
      Not sure what using “Latinx” has to do with it – I do know that Latinos don’t use the term, as it goes against the very structure of their language. However, I also know Latinos who use Latinx when speaking publicly (e.g. at work, or to those outside of their community) to avoid any misconceptions on being gender exclusive.
      But that doesn’t take away the lack of transparency that will keep rumors swirling.
      I’d like to see Columbia resolve this, as the diversity and representation at their school is a breath of fresh air (seminary schools tend to be VERY white), and we will need to see more seminary graduates of all colors to impact our changing world.

      1. Brian Patrick

        Marin Heiskell,

        A spokesperson/commentator using “Latinx”, used by 3% of Hispanics, is like one going out of their way to specify what pronouns they use–the statement in and of itself says that they are taking a very firm and explicit side. So, yes, it really does matter in the case of Kathryn Post, who seems very likely to be pushing an agenda especially considering the publication she is employed at. It would have been interesting to see the assessments of a more neutral observer here.

        1. Marin Heiskell

          Is it, though? My firm requires us to specify our pronouns in email signatures, nametags, publications, LinkedIn profiles, and when we make introductions. My abiding by that is about abiding by the rules of my firm, which I don’t agree with on everything. (It woud be tiring – and likely impossible – to try to find an employer I agree with on each and every stance). I still get corrected when talking to coworkers and clients when I use “gendered language”, and that includes when I speak Spanish. Truth be told, I don’t know how to speak Spanish and use non-gendered language, as it is woven into the very fabric of the language. So I often end up using some sort of Spanglish, that feels awkward to me (and I’m not always sure is completely understood).
          Any assumptions about my beliefs (political, faith, or otherwise) based on my specificying my pronouns or trying to correct my use of gendered language would be just that…assumptions.
          Heck, I still prefer to be referred to as Black (and most of my colleagues and family members do too), but “African American” has become the “official” term. My introducing myself as such – or responding to being referred to as such – is not necessarily indicative of my beliefs as much as it is my using the terminology of the day.
          The point: it’s better to ask about someone’s beliefs than to assume. A simple “why do you use that term” will likely get you more clarity.

  2. Evangelicals who are sincerely Pro-Life should look carefully at the Evangelical-GOP alliance, now that the Supreme Court will either reverse Roe v. Wade, or sustain a 15-week limit.
    The GOP’s “conservatism”–particularly in the South–carries a lot of other baggage with it. Particularly about “race”, guns, sexual assault and former President Trump’s attack on the US Constitution..

    1. What about the the alliance between the Democrat party and Black churches? The Democrat party carries a lot of baggage such as support for abortion on demand and for promoting the LGBTQ lifestyle. There is a reason so many residents and companies are fleeing Democrat controlled states and moving to conservative southern states that you apparently dislike.

      1. Marin Heiskell

        Bill – as a Gen X Black woman, what I can say is that this “alliance” between the Democratic party and the Black church is NOT as tight as you think. The Black church is VERY socially conservative. Various polls reflect this, showing that Black Christians are less likely to support the LGBTQ community, attend church more consistently, are more likely to be pro-life, etc than white evangelicals.
        I have plenty of discussions about this with my parents, who are Black Christian Boomers – and VERY socially conservative (we have our share of debates, as I’m more socially liberal than they are), yet my parents do not even think of voting Republican.
        So what’s the issue? They do not feel welcome by nor do they trust the Republican party. As my parents grew up in the Jim Crow era, they hear the same “code language” out of today’s Republicans that they heard out of the Democrats of the 50s and 60s. (“Small government” and “states rights” meant “the feds can’t come and make us integrate!” And my parents remember it was the feds who came in and “forced them to let us vote and go to school”, so they cringe when conservatives rant bout the feds ) Today, it’s all this “replacement theory” that no one is condemning. To my parents, it means “they think there are too many of us.” That’s NOT welcoming.
        I have said it repeatedly – if the Republican party fixed its trust issue with the Black church – especially with Black Christian Boomers (who are more likely to vote) – they’d have the Black vote on lock. One start – actually show up in Black churches. Democratic candidates do it ALL the time.

    2. Brian Patrick

      John Fenner,

      Your postings paint the picture of you being a caricature, almost as though you’re someone having some fun presenting this ridiculous strawman of what you want the left to be. You’re throwing up all of what you see as the worst things about the right, hoping something will stick. I gather you are trying to say that anyone who supports the overturning of Roe vs. Wade is a racist who supports sexual assault?

  3. I’m wondering how many tall people are enrolled? I’ve noticed a trend that the school seems to disproportionately admitted people of smaller stature. And there are far too many right handed people as well!

  4. Rabindranath Ramcharan

    Can any black seminary administrator be fired for anything, or is the administration firing people for being black? We just can’t tell.

  5. I agree. Transparency is critical. Have you heard the alleged backstory to what happened with SEBTS Provost (former) and why he was demoted and then later fired? It was definitely hush hush. I just wonder why Akin didn’t tell anyone. Out of sight out of mind doesn’t work with leadership. It leads to more questions. But in most cases a cost assessment has been done—the possible questions can’t be worse than reality. Most of them anyways.

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