Columbia Theological Seminary accused of racism amid influx of Black students

A beloved admissions director was terminated. He claims it’s part of a cycle of discrimination and retaliation.

Participants in a “Blacklash March

(RNS) — In 2018, the incoming class at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in the tree-lined suburbs of Atlanta, was 47% white and 16% Black. Just three years later, a 2021 admissions brochure advertised an incoming class that was more than 64% Black and 32% white.

Many of the Black students at CTS credit the Rev. Sam White, a beloved admissions director, who is Black, with the surge in diversity, and when White was terminated on June 21, it set off a week of recriminations and protest.

The day after the Juneteenth holiday, White was called into a meeting with President Leanne Van Dyk and informed he was no longer an employee at the school, according to White’s lawyer, Grace Starling with Barrett & Farahany. Starling said her client was told the firing, which the attorney says came without warning, was for “insubordination” — which White disputes. Instead, Starling said White’s termination constituted discrimination and retaliation. 

“In the middle of recruitment season, they’re pulling their director of admissions,” said Leo Seyij Allen, vice president of the seminary’s student government association. “I used to work in admissions at Candler (School of Theology, at nearby Emory University) so I know from experience, this is not what you do. And you don’t do it lightly.”   

A seminary spokesperson said the school could not comment on legal matters, including “responses to unadjudicated statements or allegations from complainant’s attorneys.” The spokesperson added, “As a general statement, we regret that these limitations often hamper balanced narrative in public reporting.”

White arrived at the school in March 2020, two months before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off nationwide protests. In the aftermath, the new admissions director played a critical role in forming the seminary’s Repairing the Breach scholarship, according to students.

Launched in June 2020 as part of a series of racial justice commitments, the scholarship covers tuition and student fees for all Black students admitted into master’s degree programs. Many Black students said it was White and the Rev. Brandon Maxwell — a Black administrator who resigned in November — who made them aware of the scholarship and welcomed them to the seminary.  

“Dean Maxwell was very adamant that this was the place I needed to be,” said Allen. “He told me, you want a place where you’ll be heard, you’ll be seen, and that there are faculty and staff and other students who have a similar mindset that’s oriented toward justice.”

Maxwell declined to speak with Religion News Service for this story.

Relations between White and the administration soured in September of 2021, according to a charge White later filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. White said in the filing that he informed Van Dyk that he had been interviewed by an attorney investigating racial and sexual-orientation discrimination against a colleague. After informing Van Dyk that he opposed how his colleague had been treated, White alleges that the administration retaliated.

“(M)y supervisors who are privy to my opposition have degraded my work product and work ethic to others at CTS, including the Board of Trustees, resources I need to do my job have been delayed, and duties have been removed from my purview,” White wrote in the EEOC charge.

The charge also claims Van Dyk denied White seminary-owned housing, though the benefit had been granted to other senior administrators, including White’s predecessors who were white.

“I believe that I was denied this benefit because of my race/color and in retaliation for opposing discriminatory conduct,” White wrote in the EEOC filing.

White, who filed his initial charge with the EEOC in February, amended the charge last week to include his termination. 

“At every turn, he reported discrimination or retaliation, and did not receive any kind of institutional support, which ultimately is what necessitated him to reach out to an attorney,” Starling said. 

In response to questions from RNS, the school’s communications director shared a document highlighting the school’s social justice efforts and demographics, including that 44% of faculty, 37% of staff and 31% of the board are people of color. In a statement, the school said, “We are confident we’ve stayed true to our mission to nurture faithful and effective leaders as well as conduct school business in a carefully considered, forthright, and equitable manner.”

In the fall, the school will welcome its first nonwhite president.  

RELATED: Columbia Theological Seminary students object to firing of Black administrator

On Tuesday (June 28), a week after White was let go, roughly a dozen students gathered at the seminary’s streetside sign in what flyers called a “Blacklash March.”

“This protest is bigger than Pastor Sam. This ‘Blacklash’ is systemic,” said the Rev. John DeLoney, president of the African Heritage Student Association, at the protest. DeLoney decried Maxwell’s resignation, which the students maintain was forced, despite his being the main architect of the Repairing the Breach scholarship. DeLoney also noted the 2019 firing of the Rev. Ruth-Aimée Belonni-Rosario Govens, who is Hispanic, as the seminary’s chief enrollment officer.

Other students shared concerns about whether they were truly welcome at the seminary in light of these departures.

DeLoney and Allen told RNS the protest was in lieu of a meeting with Van Dyk, who they said had ignored their requests to meet. “We have no commitment that there will even be a meeting,” said Allen. “I’m floored and astonished by that alone. It tells me that you are not taking us seriously.”

Both Maxwell and Smith’s interim replacements are white men, and DeLoney and Allen said they are concerned that the Black leaders who provided key support to the Black students they recruited are disappearing.

“We’re feeling like all of the people in administration who had power to bring Black people in are now gone, and we’re now worried about the sustainability of this scholarship going forward,” said DeLoney.

RELATED: Black seminary grads, with debt higher than others, cope with money and ministry

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