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Cornerstone University New President Under Fire for Pattern of ‘Faculty Purges’

By Kathryn Post
Gerson Moreno-Riano Cornerstone University
Gerson Moreno-Riaño is the president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Source: Video screengrab)

In March 2012, Katy Attanasi, then an assistant professor of religion at Regent University in Virginia, was at home feeding her newborn son when she heard a knock at the door. On her stoop, she found a snow-dusted FedEx envelope from the university. Inside was a letter informing her that her faculty contract would not be renewed. 

Attanasi, now a Methodist pastor in Kentucky, was one of eight faculty to receive a Fed-Exed termination letter that semester. Hers was signed by Gerson Moreno-Riaño, dean of Regent’s School of Undergraduate Studies. No warning had been given and no explanation followed. 

“We didn’t have anything else lined up, and my husband had just had surgery,” said Attanasi. “We were looking at a future with a baby with a preexisting condition and no health insurance. It was a very frightening time.”

Scouring the faculty handbook, Attanasi found that as a tenure-track faculty member, she was guaranteed a terminal year contract, which she argued for and completed in 2013. Since then, former Regent employees claim, at least 39 others — administrators, faculty and staff — were also let go as Moreno-Riaño rose to executive vice president for academic affairs.

Those who were terminated were often seen as “going against the conservative evangelical grain of the university,” according to Walter Staggs, a former writing center director at Regent.

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“It was traumatic for everybody,” said another former Regent staffer. 

Regent spokesperson Chris Roslan said that “Regent has not had any ‘faculty purges,’” adding that the university had ended “underperforming programs” and as a result a “small number of faculty” were “not renewed at the end of their contracts.” 

Last May, Moreno-Riaño was appointed as the 12th president of Cornerstone University, a small, Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The day before his formal installation in October, Cornerstone’s faculty voted no confidence in his ability to lead as president, citing a culture of “fear and suspicion” and the last-minute departures of at least eight faculty and staff. 

Katy Attanasi faculty
The Rev. Dr. Katy Attanasi in 2018. ()Photo by Erica Faulkner)

Attanasi and some of her former colleagues at Regent called the pattern at Cornerstone eerily familiar.

The events at Cornerstone and Regent are bigger than any one administrator. Politics have exerted a strong influence on Christian schools in recent years, said Scot McKnight, a Cornerstone alumnus and now professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois.

“There is a polarization in Christian education today that lines up too neatly with partisan politics,” said McKnight. “Many of these schools are now making decisions about which partisan group they are going to align themselves with, which turns an institution away from critical thinking and toward partisan politics.”

Attanasi compared the targeting of certain Regent professors to dismissals at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, after the school’s then-president, Jerry Falwell Jr., championed Donald Trump’s White House run in 2016 and invited him to campus. (Trump also held a campaign rally at Regent and was later interviewed there by its founder, Christian media executive and star Pat Robertson.) Liberty also saw a dramatic drop in Black students under Falwell.

“I unfortunately see the reality of this institution becoming like the next Liberty University,” said one Cornerstone employee, “where students of color are slowly but surely eked out. Or they just know they are going to continue to face what Christians do, which is racism.” 

Cornerstone has not commented directly on its faculty’s no-confidence vote, but an email sent to faculty on Nov. 19 affirmed the board’s commitment to “Biblical diversity and inclusion” and promised both “mission-centric hiring and retention of diverse faculty and staff.” (All of the terminated Cornerstone employees were said to be involved in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.) 

In a Nov. 22 email, Carole Bos, chair of Cornerstone’s board of trustees, wrote, “Our board of trustees has been very appreciative of those who have raised concerns and offered ideas on how we may continue to best fulfill our mission. Moving forward with President Gerson Moreno-Riano, the board remains committed to our Cornerstone Identity, Mission and Vision.”

But the atmosphere at the school remains unsettled. Deja Terhune, a senior secondary English education major at Cornerstone, said she hadn’t received any information about the faculty and staff who have departed. “There is no transparency at all. No one is saying anything, everything is very secretive at the moment,” she said.

Some students of color have spoken out about what they view as the president’s distaste for diversity programs.  

“The gaslighting, spiritual abuse, racial microaggressions, removal of faculty and lack of safe spaces for people of color has been detrimental to my mental, emotional, and spiritual health and I am now seeing a therapist I hardly afford and have moved off campus to have space to breathe, rest, and recover from CU,” wrote Lamont Aldridge, a junior and intern in the school’s diversity department, in a letter shared with faculty on Oct. 21. “I do not trust the new administration or changes made to lead to the flourishing of our university, especially for marginalized students.” 

At Regent, Moreno-Riaño was successful in bolstering enrollment, which nearly doubled during his tenure, thanks in part to an increase in online degree offerings. But several former employees allege the restructuring was used as an excuse to remove employees who challenged the status quo, especially on matters of social justice. 

Kimberly Alexander faculty
Kimberly Alexander. (Courtesy photo)

“The cuts that I saw were where they used the budget to justify getting rid of people whose scholarship was not seen as being extreme-right enough, fundamentalist enough,” said Kimberly Alexander, a former associate professor of the history of Christianity at Regent’s School of Divinity who resigned last year.

Alexander said administrators questioned her about her scholarship, which she described as being “conservative” but involving some “feminist language.”

The Rev. Antoinette G. Alvarado, former adjunct professor at the School of Divinity, said that in 2016 she received an email from James Flynn, an associate dean, instructing her to stop assigning students a video of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — a dynamic Chicago pastor whose critiques of the United States made headlines in 2008 when it was reported that then-candidate Barack Obama had attended his church. 

Flynn “stated in the email that (the) new vice president of academic affairs, had reviewed my curriculum and the sermon preached by Dr. Jeremiah Wright that I had assigned for my class to review was not acceptable for Regent School of Divinity,” wrote Alvarado in an email. The new vice president was Moreno-Riaño. 

“I didn’t understand, because the part of the course was on Black preaching, and (Wright) is one of our hallmark preachers. And after I received that email, they never offered me another contract,”  said Alvarado. 

“Over and over, people were just disappearing,” said Staggs. “You realize, this is more like the Christian mafia. You can’t talk against the family or you’re gone.”

Staggs and Alexander said Moreno-Riaño acted in coordination with Corné Bekker, dean of the School of Divinity at Regent. As a member of the curriculum committee, “we were essentially just rubber-stamping curriculum,” Alexander said. “It was very much stated that this was a correction of the errors of the past, where the school had become too liberal or too diverse.”

The academic changes did not go unnoticed by students. “I felt like it was shifting away from a traditional, academic model with traditional, academic values, where inquiry, open exchange of ideas and scholarship are celebrated,” said Vincent Staggs, a former divinity student at Regent and now a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. (He is not related to Walter Staggs.) “I felt like it was shifting away from that to a more ideologically narrow, controlled model.”

Jermaine Marshall, who was in a Ph.D. program at Regent’s School of Divinity from 2012-2019, agreed. “When I entered the School of Divinity, it was a world-class institution,” said Marshall, now pastor of Williams Institutional CME Church in Harlem. “It was a phenomenal place to study, a place of academic rigor, critical inquiry and critical thinking. Unfortunately, that does not exist there any longer.”  

Students alarmed by the departure of School of Divinity faculty and the changing environment sent letters and petitions to Moreno-Riaño asking him to intervene. He did not. 

Marshall said he also witnessed a decrease in the ethnic and racial diversity of School of Divinity faculty. “When I entered the School of Divinity, we had good diversity on the faculty, but over time, and particularly when Gerson was VP of academic affairs … that diversity just dissipated,” said Marshall, referring to Moreno-Riaño by his first name.

“In many cases, people of color, they were either let go, or because of instances of either covert or overt instances of racial discrimination, they left.”

In a statement, Roslan said, “Regent University is deeply dedicated to advancing principles of academic freedom as is defined in its Faculty and Academic Policy Handbook. This policy allows for the fostering and free exchange of knowledge and a wide variety of ideas consistent with traditional Christian principles.”

Roslan said 40% of Regent’s administrators campuswide are women and people of color, and he rejects any claim that the school discriminates against any race or gender. 

“What’s going on at Cornerstone, it’s a playbook,” said Alexander. “It’s the same thing, except he’s gone in with this kind of license to do what he’s done.”



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35 Responses

  1. I have no problem with an institution defending its conservative evangelical roots. The idea the Rev. Wright is an exemplary black pastor is laughable.

      1. By publishing an article reporting Moreno-Riaño’s pattern of purging institutions of suspected centrists/liberals, I’m the one canceling people? Wow. Also, I am a conservative, so I guess I’d have to cancel myself.

        1. Hi Julie, I am a MBI ASP graduate class of 89, as I know some of your background at MBI. I need to know if you at this time in your life feel like your perspectives have shifted more to the left some. Are you in support of female ordination/pastoring and what do you believe about the interpretation of Scripture? It is hard for me to decipher, as the tone of some of your contributing reporters seem quite liberal? When I found your report I assumed that you were a conservative Christian speaking Truth to power (often corrupt power). After reading some of your posts today, I’m wondering if your worldview has changed. When you talk of inclusivity, are you were referring to racism, or does this also include the LGTBQ issue as well. I want to support you but I must know your take on this before I donate. Very Sincerely. Mary Ann Mahoney-Hoffman.

          1. My perspectives on the issues have not changed. In my 2017 book, “Redeeming the Feminine Soul,” I explain my view of gender, sexuality, and sex roles in detail. I stand by what I wrote. I believe God created men and women with gloriously different functions, which we should celebrate and encourage. I do not support female ordination. I am not LGBTQ affirming.

            That said, I believe there’s a brutal and false masculinity that’s crept into some conservative Christian circles. And sadly, there are far too many conservative Christians willing to overlook it in exchange for what they see as wins on the cultural battlefield. Where I differ with many of my conservative brothers and sisters is that I believe the means are equally important as the ends. And I will not endorse violating the Second Commandment to gain the upper hand. That is not the model Jesus gave us. And in the end, I think engaging in this manner only harms our witness.

    1. This seems to misunderstand the whole point of classroom instruction/learning. No one quoted in the article said Wright was exemplary, and whether he is or is not is beside the point. In an academic classroom, I teach my students about all sorts of influential people with whom I disagree, and expose them to ideas I think are bad. This is part of the learning process. For someone in the administration to review a video of a sermon and declare it’s not allowed suggests that they’re not committed to academic inquiry at all.

  2. I’d like to see some tangible facts. So many of the accusations here are based on suspicion and interpretation and vagueness. “Lack of safe spaces”. What does that even mean? “Covert racism” by definition is unproven. Getting rid of people because they’re not extreme enough—how is that even measured?

    1. The facts are the release of large numbers of faculty with little to no transparency, including in Attanasi’s case, violation of her contract. Read that part again: he signed the letter that terminated her employment, in violation of contract.

      That is not healthy leadership, especially not for a university.

  3. Cornerstone is a private school with a board that has the right to define its position on issues, and to choose leadership which promotes and defends its core values. Faculty who are no longer in synch with those values should perhaps choose to find other employment with a better fit before they are asked to do so. That principle is apolitical and should apply regardless of an institution’s position. However, having just retired after 35 years as a faculty member at a private Christian college I am alarmed at the scope of the leftward drift among the broader spectrum of Christian colleges and some colleagues. Too much of the secular liberal agenda runs counter to Scripture. We need to work for Bblical justice and righteousness which this current milieu often sets in opposition.

  4. “Extreme right” and “fundamentalist” are terms liberals tend to use to describe Christians who still hold to biblical innerancy, biblical authority, and historic biblical views of sexuality and gender.

    1. You clearly don’t know WHO you are talking about. You don’t get hired if you are “liberal” — a label used by extremists on the right to ignore legitimate critique. The FIRED were cinfessionally Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Conservative. You will not find turn on any list if card carrying “liberals” anywhere. This is authoritarian and diabolical leadership period!

  5. What is reported here (as testimony of affected parties), and what is being said in four out of five existing comments, justifies the perspective being journalistically offered.
    A polarisation in American Christianity and culture and politics, streams through the situation being reported on. It is then challenging to step back far enough to do justice to the full spectrum of views across this polarisation.
    This polarised circumstance is not resolvable unless we end able to so step back from how polarisation has got a grip of us. So what what would enable us to so step back?

    1. “This polarised circumstance is not resolvable unless we end able to so step back from how polarisation has got a grip of us. So what what would enable us to so step back?”

      Empathy, but I guess that’s a sin now.

  6. I sat next to the man at a prayer meeting, and he is broken, exhausted, and crushed. His family has been fiercely attacked and his character has been destroyed by people that don’t even know the full story. All I can say is that I wouldn’t want his job, especially in a world where everything is seen through the lens of politics instead of Biblically formed convictions.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Christopher. I think leading any Christian organization in times of deep unfaithfulness like ours has got to be an overwhelming and difficult task. I move in church circles that often lean towards the progressive side and I often find it exhausting dealing with the theological chaos and temptation many seem to entertain to move away from theological orthodoxy.

    2. He does not deserve character attacks, but if two thirds of the faculty voted no confidence, he may not be a good fit for the university. You cannot simply dismiss that as the result of a politically charged climate.

      1. Mark Gunderson,

        They voted no confidence *before he had even been seated*. If that’s not reflective of a predetermined agenda, please tell me what is.

          1. Julie,

            I hereby quote the article, “The day before his formal installation in October, Cornerstone’s faculty voted no confidence in his ability to lead as president…”

            I’m interested in hearing an explanation of how a *private business institution* is prohibited from disciplining/terminating employees that have not honored the code of conduct or statement of faith *that they signed*. If you or someone else can explain that, or it can be demonstrated that MI isn’t an at-will state, I’ll weigh the complaints against Moreno-Riaño… maybe.

            Until then–the left can’t have it both ways. They can’t say tech corporations can discriminate on the basis of politics all they want and that Christian institutions can’t.

            PS: I have to second Richard Stadter who made the very first comment–in what universe is Rev. Wright a reputable and respected pastor???

          2. Correct. The formal installation was in October, but he began serving at the institution five months earlier, in May. I don’t quite understand why the formal installation doesn’t precede service, but that’s apparently how it works.

            I wasn’t seeking to answer your other questions, which are more in the opinion category. I was just offering pertinent facts.

        1. Well, as Julie points out he was appointed in May and the inauguration and no confidence vote occurred in October. Between those times, according to the above linked article on the no confidence vote, he “allegedly opposed diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and created a culture of fear by firing staff and professors with little or no warning.” Re-read the article. It sounds like they had plenty of time to make up their minds.

          But to answer your question:
          “If that’s not reflective of a predetermined agenda, please tell me what is.”

          It appears he was brought in with an agenda and has been following through on it. Whether or not you agree with that agenda, the faculty largely do not. I suspect that while he is in the crosshairs, it is ultimately the board’s agenda (increase enrollment at all costs), and he is their man.

          1. Mark Gunderson,

            So… he doesn’t have a right to return the campus back to its evangelical mission statement and cut out the idolatrous and blasphemous garbage that apparently had overtaken it?

          2. Brian, ‘blasphemy’ is a very serious charge with a specific definition. Do you have some sources that you can provide?

          3. Mark Gunderson,

            Preaching a different gospel (while teaching at an evangelical university no less!) that completely redefines original sin and who the enemy and “salvation” are qualifies in my book.

          4. Brian,

            That is not what blasphemy means. Please look it up.

            However, preaching a different gospel is false teaching, and is also a serious charge. Do you have any evidence you can provide that is why these faculty were let go?

          5. Mark Gunderson,

            Do you have any reason that the faculty were let go of for any other reason than violations of the contract that they consensually signed with a private, at-will employer?

            Perhaps an even more important question, how do you feel when right-of-center college faculty/staff are fired from left-leaning institutions for not toeing the official line on gender identity or affirmative action?

          6. Brian,

            You have not given an account for your charge of blasphemy. Nobody in either article on Cornerstone U has made such a claim, or even implied it. It is not a word to lightly toss around.

            As a political conservative I would be just as upset by faculty apparently being fired for their conservative ideas, or their terminology being banned. I’m not sure how much persecution of political conservatives happens within American evangelicalism, though.

      2. I see both sides of the issue. I worked in Christian academia for six years, several of them under toxic leadership, but I also saw a lot of leftward lean and questionable commitment to orthodoxy among other staff, and sometimes faculty. I don’t know what the answer is to navigating these challenges, but I know I wouldn’t want to be a leader of one of these institutions in our current climate.

        1. I graduated from a small liberal arts college that was part of the university system of a large “southern” denomination . While ostensibly founded upon Christian principles, it had moved left of center decades ago. When I attended, it was really no different than a state institution with the exception of weekly chapel services. There were individual professors who were true to those founding ideals, but they were few in number.

          My guess is it’s only become worse with the passage of time. I haven’t kept up as it was never a place I would recommend to anyone else who was a Christian. I was still young in the faith at the time, and I had hoped the college would be a place to bolster my relationship with Christ. Reality was quite the opposite. Were it not for one particular professor, I would have called it a waste of time and money. I did learn that only parts of the Bible are inspired. Well, that’s what my Bible professor said. I paid a lot of money to hear that.

          1. I did my freshman year at a similar “Christian” university that now openly permits practicing homosexuals on staff. In hindsight, I’m glad for the limited exposure to liberal theology I did get, as it made me dig deeper in my faith. Recently, a friend of mine, who was raised fundamentalist, and taught in depth bible studies alongside me for a decade, renounced his faith after immersing himself in Bart Ehrman books. I guess at the end of the day, Jesus’ sheep recognize His voice and won’t follow another. But it’s still sad.

    3. Thanks for sharing, Christopher. I think this is a case of what you sow is what you will reap. I bet he thought what he did to that poor Methodist pastor and her family all those years ago was long forgotten but things have a way of rearing their ugly head (poor demonstration of ‘Biblically formed convictions’). His pattern of ‘leadership’ appears to have followed him to his new institution.

  7. Mark Gunderson,

    Preaching a different “gospel” (while at an evangelical university no less) that redefines original sin, the enemy, and salvation qualifies as blasphemy. The teachings Moreno-Riaño apparently took aim at are a mockery of the Gospel.

  8. Many of you are correct — YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE FACTS! You have witness accounts and first hand experiences of the mistreatment of people called by God who gave their lives to ministry. WHY DO YOU NOT HAVE ALL THE FACTS? Most of those WRONGLY TERMINATED are REQUIRED to sign NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS (NDAs) in order to get SEVERANCE PAY. So, what you do if you had to choose between feeding your family or telling your story? REGENT ADMINISTRATORS know the answer AND SO DO YOU!

  9. Sigh. An Hispanic Evangelical President is racist, non-inclusive, anti-diversity. White professors screaming Black racism to keep their jobs. All the buzzwords are there from the interviews of the people leaving right down to “micro-aggressions.” Typically, in Evangelical schools, you can be let go for departing from historic Christian beliefs. In the past, Evangelical and Catholic leaders did nothing as their schools were taken over by theological liberalism, and in short order by secularism. Former bustling Bible departments became small quiet Religion Departments. Today many of these schools are indistinguishable from secular schools with no Bible elective requirements, no chapel, no faith requirements for the school or even ministerial majors, atheist campus chaplains, etc. But some of the schools and particularly their denominational-led boards got wise. They realized that often poor and working class folks sacrificed to found and support these schools so that future generations could get a college education in a Christian World View environment. Let these folks find positions in the many diverse, inclusive schools that are out there. Keep the Christian institutional testimony intact.

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