Seattle University’s decision to put its well-known humanities dean on administrative leave has led to a backlash in Seattle’s Catholic educational community. But some Matteo Ricci College professors say they have had concerns about Jodi Kelly’s leadership for years.

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As a Seattle University humanities professor, Jodi Kelly was known as an extraordinary teacher — a master of the Socratic method who drew her students out by asking thoughtful questions and sparking lively discussions, rather than lecturing to them or telling them what to think.

In 2011, she won the university’s Outstanding Faculty of the Year award. Decades after they graduated, some Seattle U alumni still remember Kelly as the best teacher they ever had.

That’s why Seattle University’s decision to put Kelly, the dean of Matteo Ricci College, on paid administrative leave is causing a backlash from people throughout Seattle’s Catholic educational community. A march in support of Kelly is planned for Thursday at 3 p.m. at Broadway and Madison Street.

Some Kelly supporters say the Jesuit university has abandoned its values in favor of placating a group of students who staged a three-week sit-in to try to force radical change at the humanities college, and to push for Kelly’s resignation.

And yet, the sit-in also seems to have cracked open longstanding conflicts over Kelly’s leadership. Despite her strong teaching credentials, some professors at the college say, Kelly came up short as a dean.

They say she presided over a hostile, threatening work environment, and that she had dragged her feet on much-needed reforms to the Matteo Ricci curriculum, which is dominated by Western philosophy and history.

Last week, seven of the college’s 10 full-time faculty members, plus one faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences, signed a letter asking Seattle U administrators to remove Kelly as dean of the college.

The university’s Academic Assembly — the elected faculty governing body — also made an urgent call for structural change, and raised questions about whether Kelly was providing effective leadership.

“A system that once was innovative and cutting-edge now needs to be restructured to respond to the realities of today and to reflect the Jesuit spirit of social justice,” the assembly wrote.

Kelly has declined interviews, and she is said to be out of the country.

In an interview last week, Seattle U President Stephen Sundborg said the student protest may have been a catalyst for several formal discrimination complaints that were recently filed by faculty against Kelly, which led to the decision to place her on leave. Those complaints will be investigated over the summer, he said.

Sundborg said he regretted not acting sooner to change the curriculum and address students’ concerns. “I think the university should have been more aware, earlier on, with the issues the students were bringing forward, and dealt with it more openly,” he said.

Impressions

Widely known in Seattle’s Catholic educational system, Kelly started her career as a high-school teacher at Seattle Preparatory School, one of a network of area Catholic high schools that often serve as feeder schools to Seattle University, and specifically to Matteo Ricci, which started as an experimental college. In its early years, Matteo Ricci allowed high-achieving high-school students to earn a bachelor’s degree over six years of study in high school and college.

Stern but fair — that’s how Stacie McMillan, a Seattle Prep student who graduated in 1980, described her former high-school teacher. McMillan said she was a bit of a student rebel, outspoken and headstrong, and Kelly became one of her favorite teachers. “I have nothing but warm, fond memories of her,” she said. “She had a huge impact on my life personally.”

Kelly also made a lasting impression on Joe Hueffed, a graduate of Matteo Ricci in the early 1990s. Even for a university that emphasized social justice, Matteo Ricci was known as “very progressive, open-minded and really challenged us to examine social issues not just from our viewpoint, but the viewpoint of others … in a Jesuit university, for religion class, we were studying Malcolm X.”

That’s why Hueffed took exception to the student protesters’ description of the curriculum as emphasizing the writings of dead white men, and found it hard to believe that under Kelly’s leadership, the Matteo Ricci climate was hostile and condescending to students of color.

“A lot of it I find so troubling is the way she was depicted by the students and that group — it’s so far from the truth,” he said. “It’s especially the culture in Seattle — so many people don’t know facts, and jump on the bandwagon without knowing the people, or facts, or situation.”

Many say Kelly would often step in to guide students not just as a teacher, but as a mentor and friend, helping them through personal and financial problems.

Yael Tellez-Rodriguez, a sophomore at Matteo Ricci, was struggling last year with family and financial issues. Kelly sat down and reviewed with her the classes she’d need to graduate on time. She even helped Tellez-Rodriguez find a job on campus.

“She went above and beyond to help accommodate my situation … I have only had a handful of professors that have made me feel valued not only as a student and a learner, but as a person,” she said in an email.

Tellez-Rodriguez believes the MRC Student Coalition makes valid points about the curriculum, but that “all the blame has been shifted onto Dean Kelly, and it is not fair. Systemic oppression and institutionalized racism exist but they are not caused by one person.”

Joseph David Delos Reyes, a Matteo Ricci student, also described Kelly as an open-minded teacher who challenged him to think critically about the world.

“I’ve never felt more empowered, as a person of color, than I have been in Dean Kelly’s theology class,” he said. Reyes is Filipino American.

Reyes said he believes the protesters pushed a narrative that was readily adopted by students and faculty who knew nothing about Matteo Ricci, including the idea that Kelly’s treatment of students’ complaints revealed a racist side.

He said it has taken “a lot of courage” to express good experiences with the college, and that many students who disagreed with the coalition were afraid to speak up. “They’ve said some pretty vitriolic things to me,” Reyes said.

Matthew O’Leary, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle and Matteo Ricci alumnus who has known Kelly for 40 years, said in an email that Kelly has been “a public victim of deliberate defamation of character,” and that she has been offered up “as a sacrificial scapegoat in a pathetic and sinful suit for peace.”

And Andrew Hendricks, a Matteo Ricci alumnus, wrote in an open letter to the community that the student coalition’s tactics, and the administration’s response, violated Jesuit foundational principles. Hendricks is a teacher at Seattle Prep.

Union issues

Some have suggested that Kelly’s outspoken opposition to a union for adjunct faculty — a bitter fight that played out last year, and is before the National Labor Relations Board — was a factor in the protest. But Sundborg discounted the union link: “ I don’t believe they are in any major way involved.”

Sundborg said he believes the student coalition has widespread support across campus; it was endorsed by student government as well as by the student newspaper, The Spectator.

The Matteo Ricci sit-in, which ended Friday, has become such a sensitive subject on campus that professors who support Kelly’s leadership, as well as those who do not, do not want their names used. Privately, they shared very different stories about Kelly — as an exemplary leader, and as a failure as a dean whose transgressions stretch back for years.

In its letter to the community, the Academic Assembly wrote that it heard testimony from students and faculty who felt intimidated and belittled at Matteo Ricci, as well as those who felt affirmed and encouraged.

With such a wide discrepancy of views, the assembly wrote, it was not its job to sort them out. Rather it called for “a reform of the university- and college-level structures, policies, and procedures that have, in one way or another, led us to this place.”

Audrey Hudgins, a part-time leadership instructor at Matteo Ricci College for 12 years, said she was surprised by the administration’s decision to put Kelly on leave. But she said it might be the right move.

“No one deserves to be removed from their position without due process,” Hudgins said. “This will give the university the chance to sort of clear the air and allow people to do the right thing in terms of an investigation.”

This story, originally published on June 8, 2016, was corrected on June 9, 2016. Seven of the 10 full-time faculty at Matteo Ricci College signed a letter asking Kelly to be removed as dean, plus one faculty member from the College of Arts and Sciences. Due to incorrect information provided by faculty, the story originally said all eight were from Matteo Ricci. The story also clarifies that the discrimination complaints against Kelly were filed by faculty.