On a fraught subject, a change without conflict

Bethel College clarifies nondiscrimination policy

Apr 7, 2014 by and

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An update to Bethel College’s nondiscrimination policy drew support on social media and brought attention to differences between faculty hiring processes at Mennonite colleges.

Bethel’s board of directors voted unanimously April 5 to approve the revision, which adds more explicit nondiscriminatory language, broadening it to include references to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The revision clarified, rather than changed, Bethel policies for hiring faculty, college officials said. The process happened relatively quietly, in contrast to Eastern Mennonite University’s review of its policy that prohibits hiring people in same-sex relationships.

EMU’s process has become one of the flashpoints in Mennonite Church USA’s conflict over issues of sexuality. In a February letter to the denomination’s Executive Board, leaders of five area conferences cited it as a cause for concern about changing attitudes on homosexuality.

In the days leading up to the Bethel board’s action, the college heard support for the clarified policy, President Perry White said.

“Any time you get very specific with language there’s always a danger of missing something,” he said. “Who knows what that language will be in 50 years? But I think the intent is to be as non-discriminatory as we can be.”

Bethel students and others expressed support for the change on a Facebook page, “We Support New BC Hiring Policy,” created by a group of students.

The college has appreciated the support, White said. But he noted there had been confusion about the updated language — confusion that he believes is based on the assumption that all five colleges relating to Mennonite Education Agency have the same policies and governance structures.

Bethel, in North Newton, Kan., and the four other MC USA-affiliated colleges — Bluff­ton (Ohio) University, EMU in Harrisonburg, Va., Goshen (Ind.) College, and Hesston (Kan.) College — belong to MEA.

MEA director Carlos Romero said each college’s relationship with MEA was established when the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church merged in 2001.

“Those denominations had very different understandings and polity about the roles of higher education,” he said. “So the statements of arrangement, the document which describes the relationship that MEA has with each, are reflective of that.”

Two of the former MC colleges, EMU and Goshen, require faculty to sign community standards stating sex must be inside a marriage. The third former MC college, Hesston, and the two former GC colleges, Bethel and Bluffton, discuss standards and expectations as part of the hiring process, but no commitment to standards is signed.

Since 2011, a group started by Goshen students, GC Open Letter, has gathered 1,500 signatures from students, alumni and faculty at gcopenletter.org in support of Goshen becoming a “place that actively seeks the contributions of openly GLBTQ faculty.” Goshen’s board discussed its hiring process at a February meeting but made no decision regarding sexuality. They will revisit the topic at their June meeting.

No changes to faculty hiring policies go through MEA.

Bethel’s process is internal. A faculty committee proposed the changes, and faculty voted 29-5 to recommend their adoption.

EMU’s policy examination process is both internal and external, involving a community and churchwide listening process. A report is expected to be ready for the board of trustees meeting June 20-21.

The difference in process is important, Romero said. He’s participated in the listening process at EMU when asked.

“I believe pretty strongly that the personnel policies that all of our schools have reflect each college’s mission and history,” Romero said.

White believes the current church climate added to the confusion about Bethel’s policy update and drew attention to the change.

In addition to EMU’s listening process, MC USA’s Constituency Leaders Council met in March on Bethel’s campus to review Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s licensing of a woman in a same-sex relationship.

“I think that’s what elicited the tremendous outpouring of support on this student Facebook page,” White said.


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