A Massachusetts seminary is facing an outcry from students, alumni, and clergy after it decided not to renew the contract of the school’s lone Black full-time professor earlier this month.
The Rev. Emmett Price III founded the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2016. The institute has been essential in the recruitment of Black and other students of color to the predominantly white seminary in Hamilton, his supporters say.
Price’s supporters say that instead of making strides in a time of social and civil unrest, the seminary is going backward. Others say they recognize a pattern of racial inhospitality from not only within the seminary but also the evangelical church overall.
“How people spend their money gives you a glimpse into what their priorities are,” said Bishop Talbert Swan, leader of Springfield’s Black Pentecostal denomination at The Church of God in Christ and a 2008 Gordon-Conwell alumnus. “And If you’ve got a budget shortage, and one of the first things you do is say, ‘Let’s get rid of the Black guy,’ that tells us a lot.”
Swan was among the more than 200 supporters of Price — academics, black leadership, local pastors, alumni, and staff — who signed an open letter to the school saying they were angered and offended by the failure to retain Price. Although they knew it was likely too late to change course, they hoped the seminary would “begin the work of repairing lost trust and making restitution for harm.”
The seminary says budget issues forced its hand. President Scott W. Sunquist said in a letter to the campus community on Monday that the decision was “very painful … given the many ways Dr. Price has blessed and impacted us.”
“We pray God’s blessings on Dr. Price in his next area of ministry and teaching,” he said.
The seminary, over the last two years, had eliminated six faculty positions and reduced its budget by approximately $2.5 million, Sunquist wrote.
The seminary did not respond to requests for comment. Price could not be reached for comment.
It is not lost on the seminary, Bishop Swan said, that losing Price will negatively affect recruitment of Black students. As of fall 2020, Black students made up 7 percent of the student body on the Hamilton campus, according to school data.
“I think the seminary needs someone like Dr. Price to be there if they are committed to some level of diversity and continuing to recruit Black students to attend,” Swan said.
In addition to Swan, others who signed the letter to Gordon-Conwell included the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, director of the African American Studies Program at Colby College.
“We receive this news with confusion, anger, and a sense of betrayal,” the letter said. “Your actions are not an experience in isolation, but part of a pattern of behavior of predominantly white institutions that use Black intellectual labor when helpful and then dispose of when perceived as inconvenient or expensive,” Price’s supporters wrote.
Three Black Gordon-Conwell alumni say Price made a world of difference in their seminary experiences. He was their go-to in times of strife, and not just for academic issues.
For Denicia Ratley, 38, Price brought heart and light to the campus.
“A Gordon-Conwell without a Dr. Price is very scary,” said Ratley, who holds two master’s degrees from the seminary and is director of religious and spiritual life at Babson College. “[Gordon-Conwell] shined brighter with him there.”
Price was one of Ratley’s only professors who would comment and write feedback throughout her papers, she said. One common line was “I see your heart.” He was also the first to ever tell Ratley she was “brilliant.”
To not renew Price’s contract when racial tensions and civil unrest are roiling the country was especially shortsighted, she said.
“By not renewing his contract they’re not renewing their commitment to social justice; they’re not renewing their commitment to a compassionate and pastoral leader in the community,” she said.
For Zachary Stephenson, Price was not only a mentor but also a liaison when Stephenson was hassled by security over a locked classroom where he had been studying and when he dealt with housing issues at the seminary.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would have left,” the 34-year-old social worker said. Instead, he graduated in spring 2020 with a master’s degree.
From Stephenson’s perspective, the campus could be inhospitable for people of color.
“You will be emotionally drained, you will be physically drained, you will begin to struggle with your identity and question who you are,” he said.
The Rev. Kenneth Young, an alumnus and former recruiter at Gordon-Conwell, now associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, grew animated when speaking about classes with Price. He had an infectious, fun quality that drew students to him, Young said.
When Young was president of the Black student association at Gordon-Conwell there was little diversity on campus or within the curriculum, he said. Young recalls petitioning to have one Black preacher visit the campus per year. To go from that to having Price and his institute come to campus felt like the seminary was going in a refreshing new direction, Young said.
“This really puts a whammy on everything,” he said.
Price’s dismissal leaves a remarkable void, Young said.
“Minority professors, they are actually carrying and doing more than their contracts ask them to do,” he said. “I’m saying from the outside looking in, he did it well.”