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What are they/he/she thinking at Houghton?
A battle over pronouns?
In late April, the Chronicle of Higher Education shared a story about Houghton University in upstate New York. Two residence life staff — Raegan Zalaya and Shua Wilmot — were fired from their positions after including their preferred pronouns with their email signature. As someone who pays A LOT of attention to what’s going on in Christian Higher Ed, this quickly got on my radar. I shared in on my NOTES page without elaboration because I wasn’t ready to process.
For some reason, the news from Houghton resurfaced last Friday in a story in the New York Times. I’m not sure where the story had been for three weeks, but the later story was able to dig a little deeper. It has subsequently been covered in Inside Higher Ed and Religion News Service.
A couple of things to note. First, staff members like residence life folks don’t have any employment protections. They serve on an annual basis and can be non-renewed at will. Second, Houghton claims that this had nothing to do with pronouns. The Times story includes this:
Michael Blankenship, a university spokesman, said in a statement that Houghton “has never terminated an employment relationship based solely on the use of pronouns in staff email signatures.”
“Over the past years, we’ve required anything extraneous be removed from email signatures, including Scripture quotes,” he said.
I’d note that the word “solely” is carrying a lot of weight in this response. It’s also consistent with what I wrote two weeks ago on the way Christian institutions hide behind “personnel issues” instead of dealing with what the real conflict is about.
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It is true that Houghton’s administration had directed that no added material — bible verses, favorite quotes, or pronouns — could be appended to the end of an email. I find this to be a surprising stance for a Christian University that prides itself on being a caring community of Christians. Unless, of course, you’re trying to suppress difficult conversation.
Zalaya and Wilmot had multiple motivations for retaining their pronouns in their email. First, both of them have unusual first names that are not easily gendered. Keeping the pronouns help the reader of the email understand who they are. Second, they are committed to inclusion more broadly. Zalaya told the Chronicle:
Her intention and Wilmot’s, she said, was never to imply that everyone ought to include their pronouns in their email signatures or to impugn others for not doing so. “We were just trying to make this a place where the least of these feel like there’s a space at the table for them, and trying to love people with curiosity and grace rather than judgment and condemnation,” she said. “And that feels pretty in line with the values of this institution.”
Both Zalaya and Wilmot had actively promoted concern for diversity and inclusion. She had been quoted in a campus newspaper story criticizing the university’s closure of its multicultural center. He had written the leadership of the sponsoring denomination (the Wesleyan Church) calling for a rethinking of the denominations stance on LGBTQ issues.
At the end of the day, Zalaya and Wilmot were directly told by various higher-ups that they had to remove their pronouns from emails. When they consistently refused, they were let go. So the Houghton spokesman was technically correct — they weren’t fired for using pronouns; they were fired for not removing their pronouns.1
So what’s wrong with challenging comments in an individual’s email signature line? Isn’t that a matter of freedom of expression and personal style? Not if a Christian University insists on treating every utterance as a measure of institutional identity. If the institution is fearful2 of the signature being seen by an upset student, trustee, alum, donor, or pastor, then these things must be shut down. Consider this quote the spokesperson gave to the Chronicle:
“When current employees publicly misrepresent the institution, its positions, and its values, or argue against the beliefs and doctrine of the institution, they open the institution to reputational and material harm.”
This attempt to insure that all employees are in complete agreement raises real concerns. I was struck by a quote that Houghton’s president gave the Times:
“Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition,” the president wrote. He also noted that university employees were required to reaffirm their “understanding of and agreement to these commitments” at the start of each year.
There’s a lot to explore here. First, I’m intrigued by the word “privileges.” Not to be overly literal, but it seems to me that this suggests that other views exist but there is an institutional view that predominates.My interpretation would suggest that faculty, staff, and students should be expected to respect that privileged view whether they literally agree with them or not. Second, their “orthodox Christian worldview” (by which they mean traditional definitions of gender and marriage plus other things) doesn’t really follow from Wesleyan theology. In this case, “rooted in” is doing a tremendous amount of work.
This attempt to mandate institution uniformity (in a Christian liberal arts institution!) reminded me of Gordon College’s long-term attempt to respond to a social work faculty member, Margaret DeWeese-Boyd who was LGBTQ affirming. After the then-president (now president at Taylor) signed a letter encouraging the Obama White House to grant religious exemptions on LGBTQ policies to Christian organization, Gordon found itself in the middle of a public relations storm. When that settled down, there was still the matter of the faculty member who claimed she was denied tenure for her position.
Gordon went to court arguing that the faculty member was like a minister and so normal employment law grievances didn’t hold. She sued the university in response to this argument. Courts agreed with her at several levels, ending with the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Gordon, with support from the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund, appealed to the US Supreme Court.
SCOTUS denied certiori in February of 2022. While Justice Alito (of course!) supported the denial, he wrote a long piece on religious freedom but agreed that there were “jurisdictional issues” that would “complicate our review”. Gordon College and DeWiese-Boyd settled their case a month later.
Attempts to mandate uniformity of viewpoint at Christian Universities is a Sisyphean effort. Generational differences among students and younger faculty/staff will always surface. Some of this is inevitable given the context of wanting to be responsive to the students in your classes or residence halls or sports teams. Add to that the diffusion of denominational identity in favor of a generically Christian commitment and diversity of viewpoint in inevitable.
Healthy institutions will figure out how to create space to let that happen while still protecting institutional identity. Others will try to create sanctions to keep those voices under control. Give me the first option every day.
Thanks for reading,
I’d love to have an inventory of all Houghton staff and faculty email signatures.
In case you missed it somehow, I’m writing a book about this!