Four Northern Seminary students have filed a complaint against the school with the Association of Theological Schools, the seminary’s primary accreditation agency.
The complaint, dated April 25, includes a timeline of conflicts between former Northern President Bill Shiell and female leaders who resigned citing his retaliatory and bullying behavior, and some female leaders who resigned or were fired citing similar conflict with the university’s board of trustees.
Earlier this year, Shiell resigned after complaints about his leadership style had triggered an internal investigation. Shiell has maintained he did nothing wrong, and in a note announcing the resignation, the board praised Shiell’s accomplishments. A group of students came together to demand the board change its views and apologize, and the tensions led to one trustee resigning, saying the board used the same tactics against her that Shiell was accused of using against seminary staff.
The group of students and alumni that led the resistance to the trustees is transitioning the movement into long-term action.
As the school year ends, the group of students and alumni that led the resistance to the trustees is transitioning the movement into long-term action, with the accreditation complaint and with a new website. The students also are transferring some responsibility to new student leaders who are organizing a more formal student government.
At a time when students at Christian colleges across the country are leading protests against traditional views on homosexuality and gender roles and catalyzing national revivals, the Northern student movement stands out as one with the potential for lasting change on campus.
Student leadership at Northern is unique. Because most classes are held online, students live in diverse settings across the country. Plus, campus culture embraces a concept called tov, developed by Professor Scot McKnight about forming cultures within religious groups that focus on God’s goodness. Students say they are protecting that campus culture by opposing board actions they say violate the concept of tov.
The complaint filed with ATS by four student leaders says trustees also violated accreditation standards. The document, signed by Christine Bleecker and affirmed by Karen Smith, Justin Charles and Sarah Klingler, says the board of trustees “hired, enabled, protected and affirmed abusive, bullying, retaliatory, intimidating, manipulative and illegal behavior against primarily women and minorities” by Shiell, and when more than 200 people complained, the board “engaged in abusive, bullying and illegal behavior of its own.” The document says the board’s actions and inactions put “the very viability of Northern in great jeopardy.”
The complaint outlines specific accusations about how the board violated four criteria for membership in ATS and standards of accreditation: lack of integrity; lack of appropriate and effective governance; lack of services for students to strengthen learning, retention, growth and safety; and lack of safe environment free from harassment and retaliation.
Whether the Northern board’s behavior violated broadly written accreditation standards is open to interpretation by the ATS Commission on Accreditation. The commission is composed of seminary professors and a few faith leaders from across the country. A spokeswoman for the commission declined to describe the status of the complaint, saying any accreditation information a school doesn’t disclose is confidential.
Northern Seminary and its board of trustees didn’t respond to a request for comment. Since Shiell’s resignation, the board named an acting president who left five weeks later, and is now on its second acting president, Karen Walker Freeburg.
Meanwhile, the leaders who filed the complaint say it’s time for them to step aside for others to take responsibility for student empowerment.
Klingler, Charles and Smith said in an email: “The student group is now moving to a different phase — from crisis management which required quick action, to what will be a formal student government/association seeking long-term change and representation. As student leaders of the first phase, we have decided to step out and let others lead the charge in the next phase.”
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