The Dialogue Process: Case Study of Eastern University

Leading Questions: How has Eastern University engaged LGBT issues? How were LGBT students involved in your conversations and what were the results of their involvement? What lessons have you learned as to ways for Christians to talk respectfully to one another about their disagreements? What worked well? What didn’t work at all?

     As we turn our attention this month to case studies, our questions center around community engagement with conversation regarding LGBT issues, and lessons learned on how to talk respectfully to one another when it comes to deep disagreements. Those same questions, and the bigger issue: can Christians find a way to dialogue about significant controversial issues, motivated me to participate in and reflect on the dialogue at Eastern University. I’ll start this essay with a description of Eastern and the spark that started the dialogue. Then, I’ll dive right into the questions at hand. One note as I begin. I am richly blessed with wonderful colleagues. While this case study is an informed description of the process at Eastern, it represents my observations and opinions.

     In June of 2014, the President of Eastern University, Robert Duffett, signed a petition (along with about 150 other key leaders of faith-based organizations) asking President Obama for exemption to the proposed executive order concerning federal contractors and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Specifically, the religious leaders wanted explicit language providing for religious freedom, which would allow faith-based organizations to use their understanding of their doctrine as the basis for their policies and treatment of those identifying as homosexual.

     Perhaps unanticipated, many in the Eastern community reacted strongly to President Duffett’s support of the petition. While some agreed with Duffett, others felt that his support stood in contrast to the University’s mission of “faith, reason, and justice.” Around 1,000 Eastern community members signed a petition asking President Duffett to rescind his support of the letter to President Obama. Some of the opposition is expressed in the following comments:

I am an LGBT alumna of Eastern. When I was at Eastern, I knew several students who were LGBT and I can name a hundred ways in which knowing them enriched my experience. I did not come out while at Eastern and I was unsure at the time of what I believed about Christianity and homosexuality, but there can be no mistake that going to Eastern saved me. What I mean is this: at some point, if I had not received the rich Christian education, steeped in the classics of the faith, that Eastern provided, I would have reached a point where I had to choose between faith and the church on one hand and the realization that who I was fell outside of traditionally-accepted norms for Christians on the other. The education I received enabled me to see that Christianity is no simple thing and God has used all kinds, warts and all. It gave me the foundation I needed to continue to wrestle with my faith, rather than abandoning it.

Another Eastern community member wrote the following.

I call upon Dr. Duffet not only to rescind his name on the letter to President Obama, but that he use this incident (and the reaction to it) as an opportunity to open up an important dialogue in the Eastern University on the rights and experiences of LGBT individuals on Christian campuses such as our own. We should not use the separation of church and state as the grounds for discriminating against an entire segment of the population and do close off dialogue.

Comments from the community, letters and calls directly to the President, all reflect the difficult and potentially divisive nature of the topic. By the end of the summer, President Duffett was ready to address faculty, staff, and administration in his state-of-the-university of address.

     In his address, he faced the crisis head on. He explained that his motivation had been to protect religious freedom but admitted that the impact caused many in the community pain. He apologized for causing the pain, and explained that he was setting up a task force to engage the community on human sexuality.  In setting up the task force, Duffett tried to balance the membership with equal representation from conservative and progressive faculty, administration, and students.

How were LGBT students involved in your conversations and what were the results of their involvement?

     The President charged the Human Sexuality Task Force (HSTF) to complete a three-step process.

1) planning a dialogue process/conversation on human sexuality, 2) implementing the process/conversation, and 3) drawing implications about what EU should be and become as a Christian university based on the process/conversation.

In the first stage, a call was sent to the entire Eastern community, asking for groups (academic departments, groups, and so forth) to propose speakers for the spring, with the HSTF providing financial support to bring invited speakers to campus. In all, about 20 different departments and student groups proposed events.

     Perhaps the most meaningful for LGBT students was an event sponsored by Refuge, a student-led group supporting those who are LGBT. The event focused on, “Stories of Courage and Healing: Experiences of LGBTQ Eastern Alumni.” The keynote alum who spoke said that he was impressed with the lineup of speakers. But he also noted that he only saw one other LGBT person as an invited speaker – and that person presented a celibate lifestyle approach.

     During the question/answer time, one current student asked the speaker, “I have a friend who is gay. What do I tell him when he struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts?” I happened to know this current student (he had self-identified to me as gay, but not to his peers). I knew that through the tears of his question, he was asking the question for himself, not for “a friend.” The personal stories from alumni, and their patient and gentle answers to questions provided an opportunity for healing for students in the LGBT community.

     From the first event, we learned that students perceive “feedback” differently than faculty. A well-known evangelical speaker presented the traditional perspective of marriage, adding that homosexuality was a moral distortion, not unlike the propensity for pedophilia. During the question/answer session, the conversation was lively. Some faculty were questioning the speaker’s interpretation of scripture, asking about the acceptance of divorce, and so forth. From a faculty perspective, the event was an academic event and deserved truth-seeking critique. In survey responses after the event, the students were astonished at the “bad behavior” of faculty. They felt that faculty did not show kindness/respect toward the speaker. They felt that faculty usurped all the question/answer time, without an opportunity for students to participate.

     Based on that feedback, we adjusted the question/answer sessions. In all subsequent events, we asked for students to participate first (at least three students first), before a faculty member could chime in. This provided some balance to the power difference of student vs faculty.

     I don’t think we could have been as successful at engaging LGBT students if it had not been for Refuge. Their tireless involvement opened a better channel of communication with LGBT students, and with the HSTF.

What lessons have you learned as to ways for Christians to talk respectfully to one another about their disagreements?

     At Eastern, there is a strong emphasis on our missional tagline, “faith, reason, and justice.” According to the most recent Self-Report study, 76% of students, 93% of employees, and 100% of trustees report familiarity with the mission. “More strikingly, 665 of students have reported that Eastern’s missional tagline of “faith, reason, and justice” directly or indirectly affects their day-to-day lives” (MSACS Self-Report, 2012). Thus, the majority of the Eastern University community report that the missional tagline affects day-to-day life at Eastern.

     At the same time, Eastern is a diverse community of Christian denominations, from Quakers to Catholics, Baptists to Presbyterians, Episcopalians to Non-denominationals, all employed full-time. The diversity of faith traditions (within Christendom) is considered a strength in some ways, and a weakness in others. According to the previous president, the diversity makes it hard to find donors. Perceived as too conservative for the progressive donors, and too progressive for the conservative donors, Eastern has had to find a way to maintain a balance of ideologies.

     Learning to talk about differences in a community of diversity should be simple, right? It was anything but simple. Perhaps if the topic was less culturally relevant, it would have been easier. But in this case, fear seemed to be a common thread.

     Those who are more conservative in their perspective expressed fear. They were afraid to appear on the wrong side of human rights, and felt that the more progressive voices would  shame them. Those who were more progressive also expressed fear. They worried that expressing a progressive opinion in an evangelical organization could cost them their jobs. Students said they were afraid to speak out of fear that if their opinions were different than their professors’, their grades would suffer.

     It did not seem to matter if a person was conservative, progressive, student, faculty – all expressed fear that their perspective would cost them in some way. Of course, those who are LGBT were the most afraid to participate since the current policies at Eastern are not inclusive. The current policy is that one may identify as LGBT, but they cannot be in a romantic relationship and cannot be married. In one survey, an LGBT faculty/staff member said the following:

The worst part? For ten years, this has been an unsafe place for me to be who I am. People’s commitment to conservative doctrine often comes at the expense of people. So my perpetual fear of repercussions should I be truly myself has alienated me from people who would find me disposable should they know who I am.

How does one have a conversation when fear is a common thread? How do we engage in a conversation that is so deeply personal and divisive?

     Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons of this process is the need to build relationships. Two of the most outspoken members of our community (one progressive, one conservative), and both of whom served on the HSTF, have modeled a relationship of friendship and engagement. At a bi-annual faculty workshop, the HSTF showed a videotaped segment of the two, modelling listening, and allowing each to arrive at his or her own conclusion. While they deeply disagree with each other, they listen well and build on a relationship of trust.

What worked well? What didn’t work at all?

     In reviewing the past almost-two years of meetings, events, conversations, survey data, there are some highlights to this process. For the purposes of this essay, I will limit my focus to three, the leadership of the HSTF, the variety of events, and providing extra credit for students to attend. For the parts that did not work, I’ll also focus on three, the lack of inclusion of LGBT faculty/staff, the timing of the events, and the timing of the dialogue.

     First, the highlights of the process. Without a doubt, one of the chief reasons the dialogue process was such a success was due to the leadership of the HSTF. Faculty were selected to serve on this task force because they represented diversity of opinion, and because they were held in high regard in the community. Two students (one representing a conservative opinion, the other a progressive) also served as equal members of the Task Force. Faculty and Administration members of the Task Force specifically asked for their input at every turn.    

     The leadership provided by the HSTF to the community was greatly influenced by one of the co-chairs, a retired faculty member, well-respected by all. Her emphasis on an inclusive process and modeling it during every meeting (typical meetings lasted more than 2 hours) set the tone for the HSTF, and the community. Trickle down leadership at its best.

     Another highlight of the process was both the number and variety of events offered in just two semesters. With about three months to host events during a semester (not scheduling events during the first few and last few weeks of each semester), about 10 events were held each semester. Again, the events were sponsored and moderated by a wide variety of departments and groups. For a group to say that their opinion was not included, actually meant that they did not propose a speaker or panel during either semester. A critical motivator of the HSTF was to provide variety from the community. No one wanted it to appear that “one side” was favored over another.

     Finally, some faculty offered incentives for their students to attend events. Truthfully, I was not a proponent of offering extra credit to get students to participate. I just wanted them to come because they wanted to be involved. But like the company that offers a drawing at a company picnic, the incentives worked. We saw record student attendance at almost every event. At the forum for student discernment, one student said,

I was homeschooled my whole life. I lived in a bubble. Last semester, one of my friends dragged me to one of the events for extra credit. It changed my whole outlook. I learned so much and my perspective was changed.

Providing incentives for students to engage in the discussion was valuable. Becoming better informed, about all perspectives, fits with the mission of Christian higher education.

     Moving from the highlights, it is worth mentioning some aspects that were not as successful. What lessons did we learn from our process?

     First, because of current policies at Eastern, no faculty, staff, or administrators on the HSTF were LGBT. In one of the discernment forums, a number of students raised issues of justice. If the process is to dialogue about human sexuality, the absence of the LGBT voice cannot go unnoticed. As a result of the feedback, the HSTF surveyed current and former employees about their experiences at Eastern. While the stories gathered matter, they do not begin to substitute for actual representation and inclusion.

     Another lesson learned was the timing of events. While a few events were held during normal work hours, most were held at night. Unfortunately, that meant that many faculty were unable to participate. And when they did, it was often picking events that already represented their perspective. Holding the events at night worked best for students, for the speakers, and for reserving precious large room space. Trying to schedule the events during the day would mean competing for space, competing against other classes, and/or competing against athletic events; thus, this was not a solution either. We taped every event and uploaded the videos to the HSTF website. Not an ideal solution, but it was an effort to allow all community members to hear the speakers.

     Finally, the last lesson. At various points, each group felt that their perspective did not matter. It seemed that some believed that it was useless to share their opinions. For some, they feared that no minds would be changed. Was “changing minds” the point of the dialogue? If the rhetoric of the process turned into war rhetoric, with one side winning, the other side losing. If the process turned into counting the number of “soldiers” on each team, then the point of the dialogue was lost. Entering into conversation, with genuine care, has the possibility to change an individual. The dialogue was not about “winning souls,” it was about defining who we are as a community.

     This month, the HSTF turns its attention from the third-stage, drawing implications about what Eastern University should be and become as a Christian university based on the process/conversation, to planning the closing panel to inform the community of key ideas and perspectives that will ultimately constitute the report to the president. I look forward to adding updates later in the month that show how we completed our process.

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