News & Insights

Recently, views opined on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led to the resignation of the Rev. Bruce M. Shipman, the head of the Episcopal Church at Yale University, and the withdrawal of an offer of tenure for Steven G. Salaita, who was to teach with the American Indian studies program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Offering an opinion can be a dangerous thing in the world of higher education. In some seminaries, where right thinking is prized, a dissenting opinion can be fatal -- especially if the school's president regularly takes to the air and declares how to think about every controversial issue that comes down the pike. (This happens on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide.) These proclamations are meant to rally the faithful, attract new students, and even pry open a few purse strings. When someone goes off script, that's not freedom of expression -- it's a spiritual and financial threat to the seminary. Right?

The dissent may be about theology, but it may also be wholly unrelated to theological education. Perhaps a professor takes to Twitter to support a local celebrity accused of domestic violence. Or a school VP vocally supports a political candidate from the "wrong" side of the aisle. What are board members to do when administrators, staff, or faculty express an unpopular opinion?

I am not sure I have the answer, though I do think boards should have conversations about this before they start getting calls from angry donors demanding so-and-so be replaced. If your school doesn't have a social media policy by now, you would do well to make this a priority -- this year, not next.

Who should craft the social media policy? This is a good chance to practice shared governance. Faculty should have a say, as they have expertise in the theological discussions that can quickly go viral on Twitter or Facebook. Students should take part too -- as representatives of the seminary, future leaders of the church, and the most avid users of new technologies, it would be foolish to ignore their knowledge of social media. But the administration and board should be part of the discussion, too -- thinking about the good of the institution as a whole.

Two examples of social media policies:  Puritan Reformed Seminary and  Luther Seminary.

What do you think? We've heard many stories, and I am sure many go unnoticed beyond the seminary community. Does your seminary have a policy? Do you have an unspoken response plan that has evolved over the years? I'd love to hear about it.


Image: The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778. Oil on canvas by Sidney King, 1990. An historic example how churchmen responded to unpopular theology in the early years of the republic.

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