Category Archives: Cross-Generational Conversation: YAFS & OFFs

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #3: “I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. . . .”

Helena Cobban

I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.

Helena Cobban

I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .

In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)

Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .

I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.

What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.

My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.

I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.

By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.

The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.

In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)

Beirut, during the civil war.

So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.

I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.

So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.

I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .

When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .

All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.

Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.

I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .

And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?

The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

“Passing The Torch” – “Pray for Segregation!” The Authors Speak (First in a series)

Barbara Berntsen, left, with her siblings.

I went looking for interesting Quakers with interesting lives and stories for the new book Passing the Torch, which is now out.

Barbara Bernsten certainly qualifies. She has lived in Norway for many years. But she’s American born, and I first heard of and from her more than ten years ago, in an email to Quaker House, where I was then Director:

Subject: Quaker House alumni checking in

I was only 18 years old when I married a young GI stationed at Fort Bragg and we spent a lot of time at Quaker House back in the day! Quaker House changed the course of both of our lives. . . .

. . . In about May of 1972 we were living at Quaker House. I think Kenn and Ellen [Arning], a young Quaker couple from New Jersey, were running the place then. I was about as sick as I ever have been in my life with genuine influensa, in bed in the back bedroom.

In the middle of the night, there were literally rifle butts thumping at the front door. My husband answered the door and there were armed, masked men there, asking questions about me. I had heard about the bodies [of dead U.S. soldiers in Vietnam] being stuffed with heroin [before being shipped back to Bragg] from a GI and had said so right in the middle of my on-base Psychology Class at Bragg only days before. The masked men told my husband to get control over his wife’s mouth.

Denzel Washington starring as Harlem crime boss and Vietnam-based heroin smuggler Frank Lucas.

(NOTE: Although disputed and unproven, the heroin-smuggled-in-dead-solders’ bodies story has had a long life around Fayetteville, and even figured in the plot of the 2007 feature film, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. What is beyond doubt is that the illicit drug trade thrived in those years and has not disappeared since.)

Barbara: I am now 55 years old, with streaks of white in my hair and my three kids are all grown ups. I have lived in Norway for more than 30 years. I am a historian at The National Archives of Norway and have taught archival science at the University of Oslo .

I was in Palestine during the 2006 war, and returned from Cairo 10 days ago, where people are being murdered in bread lines and most of the candidates and their lawyers were in jail for the recent elections.

No doubt about it, Quaker House alumni most definitely had the course of their lives changed! If the garage is still there, you will find my PX ID tucked under one of the shingles. My name back then was Barbara Black. Bet I look a LOT younger on the picture!

(NOTE alas, no such ID has turned up.)

But as soon as I read this email, I wanted to know more. Passing the Torch was finally the chance.

In the book, Barbara added: I had never been inside homes like those Quakers lived in. Bookcases full, grandfather clocks, four-post beds, inherited furniture, hardwood floors and Chinese rugs seemed like out of this world — desirable, but unattainable, unless there was some secret to it. I decided I ought to look into that.

She got to Fort Bragg (and then eventually to Norway) from Montana, where she was raised in, to put it mildly, spartan conditions:

When I was eight months old my parents sold all their furniture and bought an eight-by-ten camping trailer. I don’t think they thought they’d live in trailers for the next twenty years. In 1953 not many people lived with a baby in a camping trailer with no running water and no bathroom.

My father got sent to the Korean war, and Mom and I tried to live by ourselves in that trailer, across the alley from newly widowed grandpa Ben and the not yet grown uncles. Nobody told her she could shop at the base PX or go to the doctor at the nearest military base, even if that was forty miles away. It wasn’t like she could legally drive or anything like that, of course.

My first memories are of moving out of that trailer into a bigger one after my father came home from Korea in August of 1955, when I was almost three. Until that khaki-dressed stranger that smelled like cinnamon bears turned up, I had ruled the roost. I could hold my breath until I fainted and Mom, Grandpa and the uncles all fell in line. My father was not impressed and told Mom she had a brat. The next time I held my breath I got whacked good. When I recovered my dignity, I told him to go back to Korea.

My mother’s people were of the religious sort, having come to Puritan America in 1632. The Puritan streak — or at least the tendency to go for the extreme — seemed to have survived right up to my Grandmother’s generation. From my observation post under the kitchen table I would hear stories of how Grandma’s Christian Science sisters — who wouldn’t take medicines — had died horrible screaming deaths, firmly believing their faith would eventually alleviate the pains and heal them.

I was pretty sure that kind of faith had died with them, but in 2013 I learned from the then grown grandchildren themselves that there had been several children in the extended family that were denied antibiotics when they had rheumatic fever, due to the religious convictions of their mothers.

In the 1950s Mom was of a mind to find a suitable church to attend, so the little family went church-shopping. It didn’t go well at the Lutheran Sunday school when I cussed like my father always did and got sent to the naughty corner. I did much better at the Baptist Sunday school, and we were settling in nicely, when one Sunday the Baptist preacher yelled out loud, “Pray for segregation!”

I was napping nicely on the floor under Mom’s chair when she just got up, told me to get out from under that chair right now and then with baby David in her arms, grabbed my little sister Nancy by the hand and walked out right in the middle of services.

Strange as it may seem, little kids in Montana might never have actually seen a Black person in those days. Grandpa Ben had a TV but that was only for watching ‘Fight of the Week’ on Friday night. I knew very well what Indians and Hutterites were, but wondered to myself ‘What is this segregation?’

When we got home the shit hit the fan. Something really serious was obviously happening. Mom called Dad a hillbilly, and she didn’t mean it nice. They both grew up in Montana, but in different worlds. After the mines stopped paying their workers during the great depression, Mom’s family had to survive as best they could, and Grandpa took work with The Bureau of Indian Affairs. So, Mom had actually sat in the back seat of her Dad’s car with an Elder with braids and stuff that had calmly reassured her by saying, ‘Little girl, don’t be afraid. I am not going to hurt you. We don’t scalp people anymore.’

She had visited many homes out on “the Res”, and she had eaten puppy stew, so I figured Mom was the one to trust on these issues . . . .

How did Barbara Berntsen get from a trailer in Montana, through Fort Bragg, to Norway and Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion

Yale University plans to move a controversial stone carving from a pillar by the entrance to a renovated library to a museum setting for study. The carving shows an Indian with a bow facing a musket-carrying Puritan.

(Below, two views of the carving:  on top is the original, with musket; below, today’s version, musket covered. In its future home, the covering will come off.)

Penn, under review also.

Such campus “cleansing” is also occurring on other campuses, and in different settings, particularly religious. And it is controversial.

For instance, recent efforts to marginalize  or “cancel” William Penn by some Pennsylvania Quakers seem to me short-sighted. Yes, Penn once owned some slaves. That was a blot, but on an otherwise remarkable record, which I consider well worth remembering, grappling with, and yes, in many respects celebrating.

But back to Yale. A law professor there decried the move in today’s Washington Post. The move, and its motivation, in his view, have serious drawbacks. As he put it:

Anthony Kronman, Washington Post: 

This kind of ethical cleansing is bad for many reasons. One is that it discounts the importance of discomfort in the process of learning. Discovering what your conscience demands is the reward for confronting ideas that shock it, and maturity is the prize of learning to live with ambiguity.

Another is that it confirms the wish to have one’s field of vision seamlessly fit one’s system of values. It invites the smug belief that a real problem has been met simply by removing an irritant from view.

A third is that it reinforces the belief that those who lived before us were blinded by prejudices we have thankfully overcome. But that itself is a prejudice — one that powerfully shapes campus life in an age otherwise devoted to the eradication of prejudice in all its forms.

Anthony Kronman

This trend places moral self-confidence ahead of the life of the mind, which is always more than a little dangerous, because that adventure should put even our firmest convictions at risk. . . .”

All these points, made about college-level education, in my view apply to religious/spiritual life too. As Kronman also argues, 

“Our students must of course be free from physical harm. But they must also be free from the spirit of moral conformity that today represents a danger of a more insidious kind.. . .” 

Besides “students,” this hazard also faces many religious seekers and their faith  communities.

But let’s also hear the other side. The university released the following statement on August 22 about moving a historical piece:

Yale University is moving a decorative piece of stonework from the main entrance of its Center for Teaching and Learning. The decorative piece will be made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.

A carving, created during the construction of the building in 1929, depicts a Puritan settler holding a musket pointed toward the head of a Native American. During renovation of the building to accommodate the Center for Teaching and Learning, the project team in consultation with Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces determined that leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve. The university consulted faculty and other scholarly experts, who concluded that the image depicts a scene of warfare and colonial violence toward local Native American inhabitants.

The decision to move this carving, contextualize it, and make it available for study is consistent with principles articulated by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (CEPR) and adopted by the Yale Corporation in December 2016.  The university has an obligation not to hide from or destroy reminders of unpleasant history; at the same time, the university chooses the symbols and depictions that stand in places of honor. The prominence of this carving changed when its location became a main entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
When the carving was originally discussed in the spring of 2016, the CEPR had not yet been formed and articulated principles. A team in charge of planning for the construction project decided to cover the depiction of the musket with removable stonework. Covering over the problematic aspect of this carving is not consistent with the principles subsequently adopted by the university in the CEPR report; and therefore, when the carving is relocated, the covering stonework will be removed.

In explaining the decision to move the decorative corbel and restore the covered part of it, President Peter Salovey said, “We cannot make alterations to works of art on our campus. Such alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them. In carrying out this obligation, we also have a responsibility to provide information that helps all viewers understand the meaning of the image.  We do so in a setting that clearly communicates that the content of the image is not being honored or even taken lightly but, rather, is deserving of thoughtful consideration and reflection.”

What do you think? And as the Puritan goes, so goes Penn? And which other worthies?

The library entrance. The carving is at the bottom of the pillar to the viewer’s right.

“Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Intro:

Here’s a report written in 1977 (on a typewriter; imagine!), just after the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in late June 1977. The gathering included all the branches, and it was when the issue of LG Friends (BT&Qs weren’t listed yet) burst onto the national Quaker agenda, where it has stayed ever since.

I didn’t go there to cover the event.  As a rookie attending his first ever national Quaker event, I wanted more to socialize than do journalistic work. I had saved up to pay the fees and busfare, to avoid work-related distractions.

I should have known better.

Anita Bryant with posters from her successful effort to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The repeal was a big success, passing by a large margin just days before the Wichita conference began. But despite the national notoriety it brought her, Bryant’s career soon went into a terminal decline.

1977 was the year for articles on gay rights controversies:  Miami-Dade County, Florida adopted a pioneering gay rights ordinance, which sparked a widely reported repeal crusade led by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.

None of this was on the official agenda at Wichita when I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the gymnasium at Friends University, where we low-budget attenders did our best to sleep. (That’s  also where I got kicked in the head a couple times in the dark, presumably by accident.)

But the conference agenda was soon rewritten, and so was mine. Continue reading “Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?

In the Northwest, the new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF) is deep into its first round of recording ministers.

Five Friends have asked to be recorded. Their names & descriptions are being republished in the YM’s weekly news bulletin, for a  60-day period of  “Public Comment” on their candidacies, to be followed by further discernment.

I won’t speak here of any of these individuals; I’m not really familiar with them, and this post is about policy, not personalities.

As for the policy, I wish SCYMF was considering in depth not only whether some individuals ought to be recorded as ministers, but first the wisdom of having such a category in their yearly meeting at all.

Sierra Cascades began taking shape in early 2017, after several meetings in Northwest YM were deemed “liberal” (or insufficiently evangelical), particularly on LGBT and related issues, and were abruptly booted out. (Steve Angell and I reported on the buildup to these expulsions in Quaker Theology –  Issues #24, #27, #28, #30-31 & #33.)  

For several months, participants in the group of banished meetings  informally referred to it as “Our New Thing,” and there was an air of discovery and reinvention to the messages from its initial proceedings. Yet as it prepares for its second annual session, some familiar outlines have appeared.

The matter of recording is a major one.

Continue reading Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?

Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”

Attention, liberal Quakers: Ashley Wilcox is coming for you. 

Wilcox was the Distinguished Quaker Visitor for the Friends Center at Guilford College in NC this past week. There she delivered a sermon on April 4 titled, “Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition.” In it she forcefully declared that she was on a mission from God, one adopted from no less a figure than the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah, by Rembrandt. He is often imagined as a voice of lamentation and grief. Given the times, and the messages he was given to deliver, it is not hard to see why.

For the guiding text, she read, 

“See [God says to the young, frightened Jeremiah], I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)

In the text, this statement of mission is figurative: It is not Jeremiah who is to do the uprooting, pulling down & destruction, but God, acting through the enemies of the sinful kingdom of Judah, namely the invading Babylonian armies. As Jeremiah prophesied, the Babylonian forces soon conquered Judah, pillaged Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed many inhabitants and took others into a long exile. (Jeremiah himself, after being imprisoned and almost killed by the Judean authorities, ended his days as a refugee in Egypt.)

But Jeremiah was not the invader. Instead, like the other major Hebrew prophets, he was a kind of mail carrier, delivering God’s message to a generally resistant people:

“Behold, I [God] have put my words in thy mouth  [Jeremiah]. . . Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee (1: 10, 17) . . . .”  

Speak those words, Jeremiah; God (and Babylon) will take care of the rest.

However, Wilcox in her Guilford sermon, did not pick up Jeremiah’s messenger role, but rather that of invading Babylon. She repeated the operative phrase (1:10), but with herself as subject: “I [God] have this day set thee [Wilcox] over the nations and over the kingdoms [mainly unprogrammed liberal Quakers] to uproot, to pull down, and to destroy” what she [and God] have determined to be wrong about them.  Continue reading Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”

Ho. Ho. Ho? How The Grinch Is Stealing Christmas at Earlham College

You read it here last August:

“At Earlham College, it’s going to be a tense Christmas this year, especially for faculty and staff.

That’s because, whatever goodies Santa brings, the Grinch will be close behind, snatching away the good cheer and hopes for a happy new year in 2019. . . .”

And this week, Mr, G. will indeed be out there, prowling the streets of Richmond Indiana. And he’ll be delivering pink slips.

The trigger was pulled Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. The Earlham College Board of Trustees adopted a plan, in preparation since late summer, that will cut Earlham College’s budget by 12 per cent, or $4.3 million (to $45.7  million total), and result in elimination of 12 staff positions, a reduction of five more staff jobs from full to part-time, and the ending of 11 visiting faculty positions: 28 in total.

It is the eleven faculty who will be getting pink slips from Mr. G. By college regulations, the bad news must be delivered, preferably in person, by New Years Eve. (The plan was announced in an email letter from the Board on Friday Dec. 21, which was also the Winter Solstice. The staff cuts will be made official by February 15; rumors that this date was chosen to spoil Valentine’s Day as well were unconfirmed.)

[The full text of the December 21 letter is  at the end of this post.]

From one perspective, the cuts were a big success for the faculty: they protected all the school’s tenured & tenure track professors, and turned back the Trustees’ earlier call for $8 million in cuts.

But for how long? The Board was careful to point out that this batch  of cuts was not the end of the matter. Their original $8 million target for cuts, almost 17 per cent, was not forgotten.  To reach that higher number would likely have meant adding some tenured names to the pink slip list. (We explained in the August post how the Board can get around tenure, by abolishing entire majors or departments.) And the December 19th letter was explicit that this option was still on your the table:

“It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.”

To my southeastern ears, that sure sounds more like “when,” rather than “if.” They then added, under the heading “Future planning”:

“The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation. . . .

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

“Financial sustainability” is the key phrase here. The Board’s analysis of admission and income trends views Earlham’s present path and staff/faculty configuration as “unsustainable,” requiring much more drastic restructuring (and job cuts) to stop the bleeding.

A concrete example of where “financial unsustainability” leads can be found by looking east, to Boston. There Wheelock College, after 131 years “merged” last June with Boston University, shrinking from a freestanding college to a department in BU’s ed school. And when the merger” was done, 111 employees, more than half of its almost 200 faculty & staff, were laid off.

How did this happen? One report said: “Schools like Wheelock have experienced a perilous cycle of shrinking enrollment and rising costs over the past decade. . . .

That spiral — of rising costs and shrinking enrollment — is common at small colleges colleges across the country.

Michael Horn, an education consultant based in Boston and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, puts it this way: pit “significant increases in tuition, year over year over year, against the reality that middle-class wages have largely been stagnant.”

Horn anticipates that many such schools could end up merging, closing or going bankrupt in the years ahead. “Forty percent of colleges in this country have fewer than 1,000 students — I think all of those are at grave risk,” he warns. [Emphasis added.]

Earlham’s recent enrollment is barely over a thousand.

An informed Earlham veteran advised me last week that another big factor in Earlham’s plight is that it gives away a great deal of scholarship aid, which has cut down its net tuition revenue to dangerously low [aka “unsustainable”] levels.

So one “fix” likely to be in the mix for the Round Two plan is a substantial reduction in scholarships and raises in tuition.

Such reductions might yield a jump in net tuition income. But then again, maybe not: perhaps enrollment would fall, as prospective  students take their tuition money and look for better bargains elsewhere.  Wheelock raised tuition; it didn’t save them.

And there’s another wild card the Board did not mention in the December 19 letter, but which I bet has been on all the Trustees’ minds since then: the stock market’s rapid slide. Just three months ago, as the first round of plans were taking shape, the market was riding high, seemingly  promising continued steady growth and income from endowments.

Last August, Earlham estimated its endowment at $438 million, up from $425 million in 2017. The school had been drawing on its endowment to cover operating deficits (“unsustainably,” said the Trustees).

But as of last week, all the year’s growth in major markets had been abruptly and completely erased, and more chaos was in the forecast. The Christmas Eve fall of 600+ In the Dow Jones Indexwas one for the record books. Could the markets be heading into a new crash like that of September 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Who knows? But uncertainty hangs over us all, including colleges living on or near the edge. Wheelock College saw its endowment tank in 2008, and it never recovered.

Can Earlham pull through this time of uncertainty? I make no predictions, but here’s one somewhat upbeat footnote: I am reliably informed that these financial problems have not affected the Earlham School of Religion. Or at least not yet.

ESR has a separate budget, which is currently deemed to be “sustainable.” (Of course, seminaries have their own problems, involving shrinking church attendance and finances, which means fewer job opportunities for their graduates. But that’s another story.)

And in the meantime, there’s the Mean One, on the loose.

 

Full text of Board letter, released in Friday, December 21, 2018

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, the Earlham Board of Trustees held a special meeting on campus to consider some time-sensitive issues. Following is a report on the meeting.

Presidential search

The trustees heard an update from the Presidential Search Committee, and they approved a slate of semi-finalists who will be invited to participate in preliminary interviews in January. Finalists will then be invited to visit campus for interviews in early February. The committee will share feedback on those interviews and a recommendation for next steps during the Board’s meeting on February 9-10, 2019.

Financial sustainability

The trustees received the president’s recommendations for a budget reduction for the 2019-2020 academic year. (This was in response to the Board’s direction in June to reduce the 2019-20 expense budget to $42 million, which would be about an $8 million reduction from the current year’s budget.) More than 20 teaching faculty, administrative faculty and staff attended the discussion with the Board. Trustees heard reports from committee conveners on the processes that led to the recommendations, and asked questions to which teaching faculty, administrators and staff members responded.

After a robust discussion, the recommendations were approved. The resolution will reduce the College’s operating budget by nearly 12 percent, lowering our annual expenses by approximately $4.3 million. After this reduction, the College’s operating budget for the 2019-20 academic year will be about $46 million. We consider this a positive step toward long-term financial sustainability, but we must continue to find ways for the College to meet this important strategic goal.

The Board expressed its gratitude to the Teaching Faculty and Curricular Working Group, the Administrative Budget Reduction Team, the Cabinet and the President for their hard work, thoughtfulness, perspectives and advice on the budget reduction process. Trustees acknowledged that they had given the College a very challenging task and that the recommendations are difficult and, in some respects, unwelcome to some in the community. They believe that what they have approved will help the College address its financial challenges while staying true to its core educational mission.

The budget reductions approved by the trustees touch every area of the College. We will eliminate 12 administrative or staff positions, most of which are vacant or will be vacated as a result of our voluntary early retirement program. In addition, five administrative positions that are currently full-time will be reduced to part-time.

We will also not be renewing the contracts of some visiting faculty members, many of whom were hired on one-year contracts. In total, the size of the teaching faculty will be reduced by 11 positions. Most are visiting positions that were scheduled to end this year. In addition, two retiring faculty members will not be replaced. All searches for tenure track and visiting positions that are currently underway will continue. These reductions will change our student-faculty ratio (currently 10:1) to 11:1. The recommendations did not call for the elimination of any tenure or tenure-track faculty positions.

Visiting faculty members whose contracts will not be renewed are being informed this week. We feel that it is important to share this sort of information in person, when possible, and it is necessary to do so this week since the Faculty Handbook stipulates a deadline of December 31, 2018 for non-renewals for visiting faculty. Administrators and staff whose positions will be reduced to part-time will be notified no later than February 15, 2019.

It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.

Future planning

The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation.

The first step in this effort will be the creation of a framework for a curricular plan, developed by the faculty, that will articulate the core values of an Earlham education and offer the world a compelling value proposition.

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability, but that it is also steadfast in its desire to offer an exceptional educational experience to a diverse group of students with a diverse and committed faculty and staff.

 

A Free Book Download on Quaker Bible Study: “A Respondent Spark”

For ten summers, 1984-1994, I led workshops on “The Basics of Bible Study” for the Friends General Conference Gatherings. They were lively and well-attended, highly rated on evaluations.

Putting my thoughts together for it, I produced a handbook. The title was “A Respondent Spark,” which was taken from a quote from Robert Barclay’s early Quaker theological treatise, “The Apology for the True Christian Divinity”:

“In the Scriptures God has deemed it proper to give us a looking glass in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers. There we find that our experience is analogous to theirs….

This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God’s ways and his Spirit upon them. We know this from inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and his work in our hearts….

Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners. Yet…they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule…for… according to the Scriptures the Spirit is the first and principal Leader.” [Emphasis added

I’ve had some requests to see this handbook, and have resurrected it from my hard drive as a PDF. It is located here, and can be freely downloaded.

I’m conscious of its limitations: I’m not a trained Bible scholar; and the text is several laps behind recent biblical scholarship. Even so, there are some ideas in it which may be of continuing relevance.

Certainly the sections in it introducing the work of literalist biblical interpretations, and some of the nefarious ways these ideas were then being put to work in our society and politics are not obsolete. Some of the names are different, but the key issues are much the same.

Yes, the Bible DOES teach slavery. But it also brings images of and hope for liberation.

For that matter, some of the names are much the same too: I wrote about Jerry Falwell’s so-called “Moral Majority” and its [mis]use of the Bible. There’s still a Jerry Falwell at work today, but his view of the Bible as a political battering ram is not much different from that of his late father. And then there’s Franklin Graham; lord help us.

Still the book was not and is not about politics, except incidentally and when it’s unavoidable. (Alas, there was too much of that unavoidable stuff going around these days; and in these days too; sorry.).The book’s main goal was to answer a query:

Is This the Book For You?

This brief handbook is for certain kinds of people:

First, people who don’t know much about the bible, but think they would like to.

Second, it is for people who are independent-minded, and prefer to form their own judgments rather than simply accept the pronouncements of a traditional authority, no matter how venerable.

Third, it is for those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity because, as we shall see, one thing the Bible doesn’t offer is easy, automatic, simple answers.

This book is also for people who want a practical approach. There is, of course, much more to this subject than could possibly fit into these few pages; but it is my hope that when you have finished it, and become familiar with the tools it describes, you will be able to pick up the Bible, begin to make sense of what you read, know where to get more information about it, and not be afraid of following your leadings about its meaning wherever they may lead.

Beyond the personal benefits it offers, the ability to find your way around in the Bible is of particular value these days, when groups who claim to have the exclusive, true understanding of Scripture are running around attempting to impose their understanding on everyone else, or else.

In case you missed it — you really didn’t. Didn’t happen.

I happen to think that these groups are mostly wrong, especially about what the Bible means. But I don’t think their efforts can be effectively blunted except by people prepared to meet them on their own ground, that is on the basis of knowing something about what the Bible says and how to figure out what the text means.

So if you’re wondering about Bible study, give it a whirl. Did I mention that it’s a FREE download? No registering, no information sought, no facial recognition, and I won’t sell your data. (Some web prowlers might come and snatch it; but can’t help that.)

If you’re interested, check it out, and I welcome feedback.

The download is here.

 

A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

Except for how it turned out, I hate almost everything about this report:

A mass school shooting was foiled on Thursday, December 13; that’s the good part.

College students and adults too: warning booklet, in a college dorm room at a large Quaker conference.

But the first thing I hate about it is not in the news, but in myself: when I began checking the evening  headlines yesterday, a thought came:

Isn’t it about time for another big mass shooting? How long has it been—? Let’s see . . . the Pittsburgh synagogue, hmm. Oh yeah, late October: 11 dead, six wounded. . . .
Seven weeks ago; right? So  . . . another one is about due . . .”

Yes, I thought that, unbidden, and I hate that I thought it. A premonition? I don’t think so. It’s just that after these past few years, it does feel like there’s some sort of gruesome rhythm to such events.

The new ABnormal.

Then I glanced at the BBC News feed, and there it was:

Continue reading A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?