Open letter from North Carolina members of the Board of Trustees to the Board of Regents

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All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee: The University of the South. Photo courtesy of Google images.

February 23, 2018

Grace and peace to our sisters and brothers in Christ at the University of the South.

We, the North Carolina members of the Board of Trustees of the University of the South, are holding you, the students, faculty, staff, alums, and all governing boards of Sewanee in our prayers during this difficult season of discernment over issues of accountability and reconciliation in matters of addressing as well as preventing sexual harassment and violence. This has been especially true in recent days following the board of regents’ declining to revoke the honorary degree awarded to Charlie Rose in 2016.

We are confident the board of regents exercised prayerful and rigorous discernment in their deliberations. We know their commitment to the baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer is sincere, strong and faithful. We suspect there were complicated legal issues not easy to summarize in their communication.

With respect, however, we must express our disappointment in both the decision and the reasoning used to support it. It appears from their letter that the regents concede Mr. Rose repeatedly harmed female colleagues while advancing in his career. We say this because their letter declining to revoke Mr. Rose’s honorary degree states the decision relies upon the importance of forgiveness in Christian teaching. We do not agree with the way the regents explained the connection between forgiveness and accountability. The letter states “Condemnation has no place here.” On the contrary, we believe condemnation of behavior is precisely what is called for here, as distinct from condemning the sinner. Mr. Rose’s employers thought so. Other universities thought so, too.

Forgiveness and accountability go hand in hand. Forgiveness does not rule out consequences. The students of Sewanee must live by an Honor Code and understand there are consequences for violating it. We should expect nothing less from everyone else associated with the institution. Yet we must also hold up the power of forgiveness to create the opportunity for new life. Perhaps there has been a time that a student was both forgiven as well as expelled. Maybe new life begins by taking away a driver’s license for drunk driving. Actions have consequences. Forgiveness and consequences are not mutually exclusive.

It is not the institutional responsibility of the board of regents to give or withhold forgiveness. It is the responsibility of all of us as Christians to find it in our hearts to forgive. We all hope Mr. Rose is finding his own way on the path of repentance and amendment of life. We believe it is between Mr. Rose and God, with the help of his pastor, to find the sweet release of penitence and absolution.

Sinners – all sinners – receive freedom from the burden of our sins by the grace of Lord Jesus Christ. That is a gift from God above. Regents of the University of the South share in a trust to hold the university community accountable during our earthly pilgrimage, to strive for the highest attainment of honor within our earthly finitude and frailty, according to the promises made in baptism. In fact, such accountability, complete with consequences for our actions, is in accordance and not contrary to a community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rescinding the honorary degree bestowed upon Mr. Rose is still consistent with supporting him on a path of repentance and amendment of life. We ask the board of regents to reconsider Mr. Rose’s honorary degree and hold him accountable for his actions – actions that repeatedly dehumanized and traumatized others. No one is saying Mr. Rose does not deserve forgiveness. What he does not deserve is an honorary degree from a Christian school for an opus of accomplishments achieved while using his position of power to sexually abuse others.

We believe the regents understand the lasting trauma of assault and how hard it is to come forward. We do not want the current climate of frustration and distrust to discourage victims and their allies from coming forward to report sexual assault, an outcome easy to imagine if it appears the University of the South does not seem to want to hold perpetrators accountable to one of the institution’s most fundamental values: to respect the dignity of every human being. We do not want this decision to undercut the truly good and valuable strides Sewanee has made in this area of student well-being.

Regents have the power to set a course and provide for the health and well-being of the entire community as it strives to move and stay together on a path of following Jesus and making profound contributions to the wider society. An honorary degree from the University of the South is by its nature a symbolic gesture of appreciation for contributions to this vision. And there is nothing more at the heart of an honorary degree than the word honor. We hope the board of regents will revise their position and consider other actions and statements that reassure students, faculty and staff that Sewanee will continue to strive for even higher standards of virtuous life, including accountability, while always demonstrating a robust practice of reconciliation necessary to build the beloved community of God.

 

Yours faithfully and with respect,

 

The Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman

Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple

Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

The Rev. Jane Wilson

Board of Trustees, Clergy Order

George A. Brin

Board of Trustees, Lay Order

Jim Nance

Board of Trustees, Lay Order

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