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Northern Seminary Fires Whistleblower, Prompting More Unrest & Possible Student Protest

By Rebecca Hopkins
northern whistleblower
On Thursday, Northern Seminary fired chief development officer Jennifer Boysen. (Courtesy Photos)

When Jennifer Boysen started as a student at Lisle, Illinois-based Northern Seminary, she loved it so much that she volunteered to raise money for the university’s Center for Women in Leadership.

The university hired her to be the chief development officer. But then last week, after Boysen spent months trying to blow the whistle on former president William Shiell’s bullying behavior toward women, the university fired her.

Boysen’s surprise firing is the latest in the growing unrest at Northern Seminary, which led to Shiell’s pressured resignation in March. Northern’s popular Provost Lynn Cohick also reportedly resigned but has not issued any public statement explaining why.

Despite 17 former and current employees—some of them top female leaders—complaining of Shiell’s alleged bullying of women, Northern Seminary’s board praised Shiell’s leadership on his way out. Shortly afterwards, Northern Seminary Trustee Fay Quanstrom resigned, alleging that male board members mistreat female board members.

Then, one-third of the student body sent a letter to trustees, expressing “no confidence” in their leadership and calling for the board to apologize for its treatment of whistleblowers or to resign. They called out Board Chair Wyatt Hoch by name.

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Now, students are preparing to file complaints with the Association of Theological Schools, which accredits Northern. And they’re considering plans for protests.

Boyson’s surprise firing

In a Zoom meeting last Thursday, newly-appointed Acting President John Bowling told Boysen that Chairman Hoch had instructed him to fire her effective immediately, Boysen told The Roys Report (TRR).

She said her alternative was to resign and sign a non-disparagement agreement (NDA) in exchange for four months of severance. Boyson said she told Bowling she needed to consult with her attorney. She added that when she got off the call, her university email account was already shut down.

Boysen didn’t sign an NDA. She said her attorney advised that she send an email to Bowling suggesting some other severance options to resolve the matter. But she said neither Bowling nor the board have given her any counter offers, and she has not resigned.

wyatt hoch northern
Northern Seminary Board Chair Wyatt Hoch (Courtesy Photo)

Bowling did not respond to a phone call from TRR requesting comment. Hoch said he would respond if Boysen gave him written permission to discuss the matter.

Boysen referred Hoch to her attorney but has not heard back.

TRR emailed or called all of Northern’s board members regarding Boysen’s termination. Board Member Evelyn Kurtz said she wishes she could speak on the matter but can’t. Board Member Harriet Harrel said she can’t speak on personnel matters. And Board Member John Kujawa said he’d speak if Boysen gave him written permission to discuss Boysen’s termination.

Boysen said her firing came as a surprise. Earlier last week, Bowling told her she had been doing her job well and that he has confidence in her to continue to do so, Boysen said.  She added that Northern Seminary had not sent her any communication expressing concerns about her job performance prior to the termination.

“This came completely out of left field,” she said. “There was no leading up to it. Nothing. I can’t imagine what it would be other than retaliation.”

Students plan protest

So far, the board has not directly responded to the students’ call for board apologies or resignations, said student leader Justin Charles, who spoke with TRR.

However, after a March 27 board meeting, Hoch sent the student leaders a list of decisions the board made, Charles said. These reportedly included hiring a counselor for the students, reviewing bylaws regarding the board’s recent investigation into Shiell, and facilitating day-to-day operations of the university. The board has not corresponded further with the students, Charles said.

Some students are considering unenrolling from the university, according to a letter one-third of the students signed and sent to the board in late March. Student leaders are advising them to copy the board members in on those decisions so the board can see the impact on the student body, Charles told TRR.

northern students board
Graduates of Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois, pictured at 2019 commencement. (Courtesy Photo)

One master’s student, Christine Calareso Bleecker, also a litigation attorney, wrote a letter to the board, which was recently posted at Patheos. She accused the board of “propping and protecting” Shiell, resulting in Northern having an “ugly underside.”

“With each tone-deaf communication or silence from the board, my grief has only grown,” she wrote. “I DO NOT AND CANNOT ACCEPT a board that creates a system where abuse can occur without oversight. . . I DO NOT AND CANNOT ACCEPT behavior that is unethical, immoral, and illegal.”

Boysen, who previously had been enrolled as a Women and Theology master’s student at Northern, withdrew in January, after losing confidence in the board’s response to concerns. She said she hoped that an independent investigation the board had agreed to would eventually resolve the matters.

Boysen said Northern had been a place “where no question was off limits.”

She added, “A lot of women came from church abuse situations and they were trying to explore what does the Bible actually say about women in ministry. The professors were completely equipped to handle any question that came their way. But they also created an atmosphere where it was really safe for people to deconstruct what they had been taught to believe, then also reconstruct with a really solid foundation. And it’s just incredibly sad to see a board do this not just to me but to the institution.

Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.

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23 Responses

  1. Just want to point out that a new National Labor Relations Board decision (as of February 22) means that employers can no longer offer severance on condition of an NDA–in fact it’s illegal to even OFFER it. I’d assume that this would apply to Northern Seminary, and so they have already violated the law.

    1. Indeed! part of my letter to the board was noting that it was completely illegal on top of being immoral. The board’s actions make me feel like I’m in the Matrix.

  2. So far, no word on what “bullying behavior” actually occurred. Does anybody know? Another article states Jennifer Boysen didn’t like the President’s style and didn’t like working with him. Specific allegations would be useful rather than empty comments about “bullying behavior.”

    1. If you read the first article that was posted on this site about the situation at Northern, along with it’s supporting documentation, you can see plenty of specifics; some of them are awful.

    2. it will be interesting to see if Boysen allows Hoch and Kujawa to speak on this for full transparency

    3. Please ‘carefully’ read the prior coverage on this story before making assumptions. Trying to force this situation onto your Procrustean bed will not do.

  3. I have no unreported information to go on but it looks like a ‘Blame the messenger’ situation and almost as if the board feels like she forced or shamed them into doing what they should have done in the first place. Very painful.

  4. “This previous article has very specific allegations and examples from the 17 women who have come forward….”

    I must be missing something. I read through the entire article and found no specific examples except a tendency of the women involved to feel belittled and put down by the President. Also, there seemed to be a disconnect between what the women were required to do and what they actually did. It is not clear this was the President’s fault.

    Further, the article ended with the statement the Board could not corroborate nor support the allegations of the former employees and those who had come forward against the President.

    So, again, the man may have had an abrasive and condescending style. Did that warrant his firing?

    No, it did not. GROW UP WOMEN! Or, better yet, go establish your own college that treats everyone with kid gloves and “justice” and harmony. Stop destroying the careers of men who don’t fit your definition of masculinity.

    This was done to another man at Wheaton College. One of their former female employees now teaches at Northern Seminary.

    Could there be a connection?

    1. I’m sorry Cynthia, but you really don’t know what you are talking about. I was there, and witnessed the events unfolding in real time. Many good people were abused, mistreated, fired, pushed out, or resigned in protest over the thing that were going on, and it wasn’t just women. There were men who were mistreated too.

      I’m doubtful that you read the supporting documents to the article, many of which go into great detail about the ways that the President mistreated people. If that’s not enough, this article about the way Bill Shiell treated the employees at a former church where he was pastor offer further confirmation of exactly the things many of us witnessed or experienced at Northern: https://baptistnews.com/article/former-staff-at-knoxville-church-see-a-familiar-pattern-in-northern-seminarys-complaints-about-shiells-leadership/

      While I understand the impulse towards skepticism about these claims, I find your response here to be overly ungracious and mean-spirited. Simply saying “GROW UP WOMEN!” when you weren’t there is completely uncalled for.

  5. Gordon:

    You’re right: I was not there. I cannot speak to the experiences of people who WERE there, like you. Instead, I will have to trust your word that the former president of Northern deserved to be fired and defamed for his remaining days.

    However, I can most definitely comment on what I see as a corrosive and mean-spirited attitude toward mostly white men in positions of power over the last four to five years. It is a nasty, uncalled for trend, powered mostly by women and people of color who seem bent on airing the grievances they have stored up for years. It would not surprise me if many of these accusers have had very negative experiences with the men in their lives and feel the need to express their anger by tearing others down every chance they get.

    Shame on them. Destroying the careers of men in positions of leadership seems to be their goal. I can only pray that God shows them the error of their ways.

    Further, I honestly believe that most conflicts of this nature need to be addressed directly with the people involved. Did the women accusing the former president of Northern sit down with him and talk to him about his style? His attitudes? His need to be more sensitive to his female employees?

    You should know: You were there.

    1. Yes. I know that at least some of the women did in fact try to meet with and discuss the issues.

      I share your concerns about the mean spirited attitude towards white men and the more generally mean spirited attitude towards the evangelical church and Christian orthodoxy that is running rampant in our times. I spent 20 years in church environments that leaned to the progressive side, where I witnessed these things and I got really tired of them, as my comments on other articles on this site reveal.

      The bottom line in this case, however, is that Northern’s former president is guilty of the things he is accused of in these articles and more. Some of the people who were mistreated were highly competent, conscientious, and among the hardest working employees I’ve ever worked with. I was blessed to escape relatively unscathed, probably due to the fact that I was a low level employee who generally did not work directly with the president.

      I don’t fault your skepticism, but I feel like you went far beyond skepticism into outright dismissal and lack of charity. That’s where I take exception with you.

      1. Gordon,

        I apologize if my tone was overly dismissive and lacked charity. I care about people being hurt by others in the church. However, I am also certain that this world will never measure up to what God has in store for his people, so trying to pretend it will is simply wishful thinking. We cannot create God’s Kingdom here on earth, no matter how hard we try. Our job is to spread the gospel, not create diversity and perfect work environments.

        1. Thanks Cynthia. I think there’s a fine line to walk between naively accepting every accusation made about church leaders and cynically rejecting them all.

        2. I would add that this is not about creating a perfect work environment, which in any case, is probably impossible. It’s about creating a humane, respectful, functional workplace, and, in this case, one that genuinely reflects the truths the seminary claims to teach and believe.

          1. What a good example of wise and kind engagement you have shown here, Mr. Hackman. This is what we should be able to expect from mature believers; and your words and tone were both gracious and “seasoned with salt.”

        3. I would further add that the success of our attempts to spread the gospel will depend substantially on the assessment by the listener/observer of our integrity relative to how we treat others inside and outside our own constituency network. The standard they employ in that assessment will be theirs, not ours.Just because we mouth it does not mean it will be received or even given a tacit hearing. I’ll hasten to clarify that does not mean we stoop to each and every new iteration of behavior and relationship. It does mean people should be able to be in our environs without experiencing a silent, yet palpable, sense that they are part of our “out” or “other” group, that is to say, excluded, rejected, not of us, not like us. As it is, based on evidence available on this blog and others, even slightly different variants of believe can get you frozen out, judged, or worse. It is that influence by which many young people in my life have said “If that’s Christianity, I don’t want any.” I take some comfort in understanding they are not rejecting Jesus, but rather rejecting those who have self appointed to apply some sort of remediation to make them acceptable. Acceptable, that is, to them and their group. Thankfully Jesus’ standards are different.

          1. Frederic and Gordon:

            Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree, Gordon, that we need to be careful when it comes to claims against church leaders. Accepting them all is not wise, but neither is rejecting them all. Instead, we should prayerfully consider the evidence in each individual case.

            Frederic, the gospel is powerful and ultimately depends on the power of the Holy Spirit. We are just the messengers spreading the word. As Jesus once mentioned in a parable, all kinds of different soils receive the seeds of the word. Sometimes, it hits rocky soil and doesn’t grow. Sometimes it springs up quickly but then dries out when it gets too hot. And, sometimes, it grows in good soil and produces a fantastic crop.

            We cannot determine the outcome of our attempts to spread the Gospel. All we can do is tell people about Jesus and show them that we love each other. That’s about it.

            By the way, being in the “out” group is where we are supposed to be. Jesus was always in the “out” group, as were the prophets. If people go to church to feel “in,” they should probably examine their reason for going at all. We go to worship Jesus. It is not supposed to be a club but a family, a body made up of individual parts with different talents and abilities. Although somewhat trite, Eleanor Roosevelt once said that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

            I believe she was right.

          2. I would say that being in the out group where the unbelieving world is concerned should be the expected norm for a Christian. In the church, however, there shouldn’t even be in and out groups. We are one body and called to love one another.

    2. “It is a nasty, uncalled for trend, powered mostly by women and people of color who seem bent on airing the grievances they have stored up for years.”

      Yeah, I’m just going to say it: this is sexist and racist (and made up anyway), and it makes me angry and sad.

      Not okay, Cynthia Norbeck.

  6. Some observations from Reinhold Niebhuhr that seem germane these days:
    …Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.
    …Self-righteousness is the inevitable fruit of simple moral judgments.
    …There was a time when I had all the answers. My real growth began when I discovered that the questions to which I had the answers were not the important questions
    …There is no social evil, no form of injustice whether of the feudal or the capitalist order which has not been sanctified in some way or other by religious sentiment and thereby rendered more impervious to change.
    …The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.
    …If you equate God’s judgment with your judgment, you have a wrong religion.

  7. “I DO NOT AND CANNOT ACCEPT a board that creates a system where abuse can occur without oversight. . . I DO NOT AND CANNOT ACCEPT behavior that is unethical, immoral, and illegal.”
    I agree with this statement in the article from a student.
    This whole situation is so sad and needs our Lord’s intervention and intervention from leadership, administration and board.

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