Two lawsuits may eventually determine whether Seattle Pacific University’s policies illegally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But only transparency and open dialogue will heal the rift in the campus community.
So far, SPU’s Board of Trustees has done a poor job of leading that crucial conversation.
SPU is not alone among Christian universities in grappling with tensions between church teachings and contemporary understanding of gender, sexuality and civil rights. But that does not excuse mixed messages. Board members should embrace the opportunity to listen, deliberate and publicly articulate their positions and expectations.
The school’s founding denomination is the Free Methodist Church, and bylaws stipulate that at least one-third of the trustees must be members of that denomination. But SPU proudly promotes the fact that its students and faculty represent more than 50 different branches of the Christian faith, many of which have embraced LGBTQ rights.
The school’s “Statement on Human Sexuality” affirms that marriage and sex are intended only between a man and a woman. Its “Employee Lifestyle Expectations” prohibit “sexually immoral behavior which is inconsistent with Biblical standards.” In a recent Seattle Times Op-Ed, former SPU staff member Dyana Herron wrote that while working at SPU, she and her colleagues were advised neither to forward gay candidates for interviews, nor to inform candidates about those expectations.
An adjunct nursing professor has filed a lawsuit accusing SPU of discriminating against him because of his sexual orientation. He says his application for a full-time, tenured position was rejected because he is gay.
In admissions materials, the school promises prospective students “a community where they feel supported and seen, and opportunity to dive deeper into their faith while engaging in dialogue around life’s challenging questions.” But in a federal lawsuit, SPU alum Spencer Vigil says he was publicly humiliated by an SPU professor when he tried to come out as transgender in 2019.
“I felt like I was always doing something wrong being who I was,” Vigil declared in the suit, which was filed on behalf of more than two dozen former students of Christian universities against the U.S. Department of Education for funding schools whose polices punish or exclude students because of their sexual orientation.
And despite an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the Faculty Senate, trustees have declined to change the employment policy or elaborate on that decision. In an April 26 email to faculty, board Chair Cedric Davis wrote that ongoing litigation prevented the board from speaking further, but said it would convene “with a goal of working out a process for dialogue with the community.”
That is too weak a commitment in response to such heated debate.
As the campus roils, trustees owe the SPU community a frank and transparent dialogue.
Alumni, students, staff and faculty deserve a chance to share their thoughts and experiences. Prospective students and job candidates deserve the truth.