William Shiell resigned as president of Northern Seminary March 13 while under scrutiny over accusations of bullying and retribution.
Baptist News Global obtained a letter he tendered to the board of trustees and a letter from the board to the seminary community about Shiell’s decision, both dated Monday. Last month, BNG reported Shiell had been accused of bullying faculty and staff at Northern, in particular women, resulting in the loss of some top talent.
Shiell took a leave of absence and the board launched an investigation. In its letter to the Northern community, the board praised Shiell for leading a change in the school’s model of theological education since 2016, facilitating growth and showing commitment to women and racial justice.
Shiell defended his legacy in his resignation letter: “I have done everything in my power to prevent the kind of abuse of authority that has been publicly alleged about my character and leadership. I am very grateful that in January, the board’s independent investigator concluded that there have been no financial improprieties or grounds for claims of misogyny, racism or discrimination.”
“I have done everything in my power to prevent the kind of abuse of authority that has been publicly alleged about my character and leadership.”
The board has not publicly released or commented on the results of its internal investigation.
Shiell’s resignation was effective immediately.
Northern is a century-old evangelical seminary with Baptist roots and a long history of educating women in ministry. The leadership change comes at a time when Baptist institutions are under pressure for their treatment of women, particularly of failing to hold abusive church leaders accountable, and as evangelicals debate the role of women in ministry.
Concerns about Shiell stemmed from complaints from female and male leaders of controlling behavior that resulted in a loss of key talent. Tommy Lee, executive director of the university’s Grow Center for Church and Mission, sent a scathing letter to the board and other leaders describing Shiell’s behavior and advising them if Shiell returns, the Grow Center will suspend all activities until the leadership issues are resolved.
“When things go wrong, he throws people under the bus. When anyone dares to challenge him, he belittles them,” Lee said in an interview in February. “If it was anyone else, we would fire that person. He’s become an embarrassment; let him go.”
The letter Tuesday from the board of trustees defends Shiell’s performance, noting the Grow Center specifically was relaunched under his leadership and the seminary underwent a change in its educational model. The board also pointed to 72% growth in enrollment and a 95% drop in student debt.
“We affirm his deep commitment to women in leadership and racial justice,” the board said.
Earlier this month Northern named the John Bowling acting president. He will continue serving in that role until a new president is named.
“As the Northern community moves through this time of transition, I am honored to serve alongside the seminary’s nationally recognized faculty and dedicated staff,” he said. “While such a moment can be accompanied by a certain level of natural anxiety, this can also be a time of institutional renewal. We can be assured that the Lord will provide grace and guidance for the days ahead.”
Lee, director of the Grow Center, told BNG: “This morning the board of trustees of Northern Seminary accepted the resignation of Dr. Bill Shiell, effective immediately. Northern Seminary is a great institution with an unparalleled faculty and staff with whom the Grow Center has proudly partnered. We acknowledge the turmoil many staff and students have experienced in recent months, and we trust God will guide Northern’s leadership as they seek the restoration and renewal of this beloved school.”
Elizabeth Souder is a freelance writer and editor in Dallas.
Editor’s Note: William Shiell is a former member of the Baptist News Global board of directors. Because of that connection, as well as longstanding relationships with staff, BNG contracted with an independent journalist, Elizabeth Souder, to report and write this article.
Northern Seminary’s Shiell on leave while trustees investigate bullying accusations