"There was friction. There was a lot of resistance.” That’s how Stan Barkey, a member of the board of trustees of Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley, California, remembers the reaction of the faculty to the board’s proposal to appoint a new president in the spring of 2013.

And it’s no wonder. The community was already on edge. Like other theological colleges across North America, PSR was grappling with the many changes reshaping higher education. Facing a leadership gap at the top, the board moved quickly. But the faculty balked — they felt that due process was being eclipsed right when it was most needed.

“It was very clear that there was a huge amount of tension between the faculty and the trustees,” recalls Randi Walker, a professor of church history at PSR. She had just returned from a sabbatical to find the school in turmoil over the question of the next president. 

How had this happened? Pacific School of Religion had been engaged in a process of rethinking its future. A Commission on Strategic Direction had been appointed, and after many options were discussed, the board had approved a new strategic vision. Members of the community were anxious about possible changes — after all, the budget was tight, as it is in nearly every theological school. 

Then, in the spring of 2013, President Riess Potterveld was named acting president of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of theological schools that includes PSR and seven other seminaries, as well as a variety of centers and affiliates.

Potterveld’s appointment caught some by surprise. As the board considered leadership options, many felt that the vice president for advancement, who was staff director for the Commission on Strategic Direction, would be a strong candidate for the president’s job. 

The re-visioning process, with its inherent uncertainties, was already stressful, but when it became known that the board was proposing the commission’s top staff member for consideration without a full search, in order to move quickly toward action on the new strategic vision, tensions erupted. “The faculty protested, the emeriti faculty protested, and the church community protested about the lack of process,” recalls Professor Walker. “We didn’t think that the person who had been put forward as the new president was unqualified, but we did want to take stock of what we needed in a president. We wanted a search committee, an open announcement, an opportunity for others to apply. It was all just kind of a done deal.”

Most trustees saw the situation differently. “From the perspective of the trustees, it was a trial balloon,” says Barkey. “But it sure wasn’t heard that way by the faculty. Their reaction was, ‘You guys decided this without us. We need to be included in the decision process.’ And they were right.” Today the atmosphere at PSR is decidedly more collegial. What made the difference was an active effort to engage in shared governance. As a result, today trustees and faculty are working together to choose a new dean, to make major decisions about degree programs, and to coordinate the roles of both the academic committee of the board and the faculty development committee in making tenure decisions. “We’re more focused on the issue of shared governance, and this has been really helpful,” says Walker.

Walker says that the new way of doing things includes not allowing governance to drift into informal procedures but “having a clear, defined process in place so that trustees and faculty can carry out their respective responsibilities in a coordinated way.”

Step by step

How did PSR meet this challenge? Deliberately. 

The board started by engaging trustees and faculty members in collaborative efforts. They created a presidential search committee composed of trustee, faculty, staff, and student members. The board also appointed a new Action Planning Team, with representatives from the faculty, trustees, and staff, to begin translating the new strategic vision into specific plans.

At the same time, the board moved to appoint an interim leader, choosing one of their own former members, a denominational official in the United Church of Christ named Steve Sterner, to a one-year term in the fall of 2013. The board asked him to do what he could to move strategic efforts forward while rebuilding frayed relations between the board and faculty.

“Steve did a wonderful job of helping calm the waters,” Barkey recalls. “He is very collegial, and helped settle the situation and get people talking to each other again.”

Walker agrees with this assessment. “Steve Sterner has a great gift for creating conversation about the things you need to talk about. And he wasn’t part of either side. He was granted a great deal of respect and authority.”

At Sterner’s recommendation, the board chartered a faculty–trustee task force, composed of two trustees (including Barkey) and two faculty members (including Walker). Beginning in July 2013, the group met monthly. They were charged with creating a process to engage trustees and faculty members in a conversation that would improve the relationship.

Early actions of the task force included setting up opportunities for faculty and trustees to eat together during trustee meetings, having trustees visit classes, and setting up face-to-face meetings between faculty members and trustees. “It sounds pretty basic, but we really just needed to get to know each other,” says Barkey.

 About the Pacific School of Religion
 Founded: 1866 as Pacific Theological Seminary
 Location: Berkeley, California
 Size: Student body of 180 (149 full-time equivalent), full-time faculty of 13, part-time faculty equivalent to 5.75 full-time positions.
 Member: Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of eight seminaries, as well as additional centers and interfaith institutes, located throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. 

The faculty–trustee task force also engaged an outside consultant to help the board and faculty work through their disagreements — someone with fresh eyes and ears. After looking at a number of consultants, the group decided on Eric Law, the founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a nonprofit consulting organization that is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Talking to each other

Law convened two retreat-like meetings with faculty and trustees, and also did in-depth interviews with individuals. “One of the best things he did was to allow us to actually talk to one another about how terrible that year of 2012–13 had been for people on both sides,” recalls Walker. “We were surprised — both faculty and trustees — about the feelings that emerged. The depth of emotion aroused by this issue is because all of us, trustees and faculty, care about PSR. It really hurts us when efforts or needs are dismissed by the other part of the community.”

“Before we talked to each other,” Walker says, “faculty thought the trustees were forging ahead with ideas that seemed new and exciting to the trustees.” But Walker and her colleagues suspected that the trustees hadn’t been paying enough attention to what they were already doing. Some trustees, on the other hand, felt that faculty members were not attentive to the way that the school’s finances were affected by the changing financial realities in higher education. 

“Eric Law helped get us to the stage where we could listen to everyone involved,” says Barkey. “It was clear that some of the wounds we uncovered were old and deep, and some kind of buried into the culture of the school. He set up a process that fostered very respectful listening.”

New leadership

The task force also decided to review PSR’s bylaws and faculty manual to bring to the surface what they called “points of intersection” — that is, every situation subject to shared governance, where open communication and joint decision making are necessary. 

“We identified 10 or 12 situations where borders were fuzzy,” says Barkey. “And we began talking about ways to make these decisions with mutual respect and with the engagement of all stakeholders.”

As the tensions were named, the community was in a better place to move forward on the important work of re-envisioning its future. And to find a permanent leader. 

After discussions to clarify the kind of person PSR needed as next president, the search team contracted with a leadership search firm. One of the people who eventually came to their attention was very different from the typical presidential candidate, but was a good fit for their institution's renewed commitment to preparing theological and spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation. 

“David Vásquez-Levy wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen when we began our search,” says Barkey, “because presidential searches typically begin by looking at deans or presidents at other seminaries. But David stood out head and shoulders above the other candidates. He has been very involved in social transformation issues, particularly around immigration.”

Vásquez-Levy was a pastor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and he had just the right experience for PSR. “He actually had hands-on experience in the nonprofit community organizing world, and that is one of our emphases,” says Professor Walker. “It’s one of the things we want to educate people for, and I think no other seminary was looking for that particular skill. And he has huge gifts in public speaking. His background has also prepared him for cultivating relationships with various denominations. Finally, he listens really hard, but at the end of the day is not afraid to state his opinion.”

Ultimately, mistrust was healed through the collaborative work done by the search committee, the faculty–trustee relations committee, and the Action Planning Team, which brought to fruition new initiatives like the Center for Spirituality and Social Transformation and the Changemaker Fellows. When President Vásquez-Levy arrived on campus at the beginning of the year, he found much to build on.

Shared governance at PSR today

PSR’s exploration of shared governance continues. The faculty–trustee relations task force that was first convened in 2013 is now a shared governance committee that includes two faculty, two trustees, and the president. It is charged with keeping all groups clear about shared governance responsibilities: which groups have the authority to make decisions, which ones needs to be consulted, and who carries out which task. 

During the first two years of the task force, the group learned how tensions arise when one group (like the faculty or board) begins infringing on the governance responsibilities of the others. Walker says that the shared governance committee has been clarifying responsibilities around all decisions.

“We have to be very open, very transparent, and involve as many people as possible in our decisions,” says Barkey, and Walker agrees. “PSR is changing,” she says. “It is going to change whether we try to steer that change or not. And we have found that the healthiest way to get through these transformative times is to keep talking to one another.”

Correction: The printed version of the article gave incorrect titles for Riess Potterveld. In the spring of 2013 he was president (not acting president) of the Pacific School of Religion and was named acting president (not president) of the Graduate Theological Union. (N.B.: on June 20, 2014 he was elected president of GTU.) The online version of the article has been corrected.


A new president for a new direction

David Vásquez-Levy has served as president of the Pacific School of Religion since January 2015. Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, he comes from a mixed religious heritage — his mother’s family is Jewish, and his father’s is Lutheran. At the time of his appointment, Vásquez-Levy had been campus pastor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, for 13 years; he was previously pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Batesville, Indiana. Because of his co-leadership of the Postville Relief Effort, a response to a 2008 immigration crackdown in Iowa, he has become a sought-after voice advocating for immigration reform.

“Shared leadership is something that requires attention and intentionality,” Vásquez-Levy says. “We are being very attentive to relationships, to make sure that we continue to make the space and the time within  the institution for relationships to continue to be built between board members, faculty, staff, and students.”

 


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