July 23 2018

Our Theological Schools are Running Ethical Deficits: Here’s How We Can Fix That

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Chicago Theological Seminary

protestors stand together outdoors with signs

Protest at Seattle University. Photo credit: SEIU.

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”1

This is exactly the case in theological education today. There is a crisis that many schools are refusing to face, and in so doing they are closing the door to real possibilities to bring about positive change. This needs to be fixed.

The hidden crisis I want to invite us to face is the fact that increasing numbers of faculty are part-time and contingent.2 They often live at or near the poverty level, have no benefits or job security. Schools have often made the choice to reduce full-time faculty positions with benefits and replace them with part-time and contingent faculty to “balance the budget” and try to keep their endowment draws around the recommended six percent.

I believe, however, that in using this practice of increasing part-time and contingent faculty to close a financial deficit, these schools are now running what I have come to call an “Ethical Deficit.”

An ethical deficit results from these kinds of exploitive practices that bring schools out of compliance with their own vision and mission statements. Theological schools commonly engage in sweeping claims about how they are teaching students to advance God’s work in the world, and they make strong claims for their values as they do so. I looked at many Association of Theological Schools' (ATS) mission statements, from across the theological spectrum, to write this article. Here are a few phrases that often appear: “Pursue knowledge of God…and seek peace with justice”; we teach students to “aid in Christ’s ministry in the world”; we help students learn to “bring about greater good”; we help students learn to “transform the world toward greater justice and mercy”; we work to teach students how to “witness to Christ's good news of justice, love, and peace,” and to “develop a Christian perspective of truth and life.” These are just a few, Catholic and Protestant, progressive, mainline, and evangelical.

So, I want us to ask ourselves, how is balancing your budget by exploiting vulnerable people congruent with peace and justice, or recognizable as a part of Christ’s ministry, or an aspect of the greater good, and so on? It’s not. It’s just not.

The Real Costs of Running an “Ethical Deficit”

“Today, more than fifty percent of all faculty appointments are part-time. This includes positions that may be classified by the institution as adjuncts, part-time lecturers, or graduate assistantships.”3 Fifty percent or more?

I became increasingly concerned about this crisis when I was at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings in November of 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.I talked with members of the Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group at their booth at the Exhibit Hall.4 I read the materials they gave me. I also gave a talk at the AAR, and I brought up this issue because the persons to whom I spoke at the booth asked me to, indicating they felt too “vulnerable” to do it themselves. Religion News Service wrote that up.

There’s one cost of running ethical deficits right there. We have faculty in our theological schools who feel so vulnerable they do not wish to be seen speaking up against their own exploitation as they fear retribution. How in the name of heaven can we claim to be teaching people to pursue God’s justice and peace in the world when covert intimidation is part of our educational structure?

I began to think further and came up with the idea that our schools are running ethical deficits, and I brought up this concept in a group setting at the ATS’s Twentieth Anniversary of Women in Leadership Celebration in early 2018. After I spoke up, and for the rest of that meeting, I was taken aside by individuals who told me heartbreaking stories of their own adjunct indentured servitude and their fearful and economically deprived lives as contingent faculty.

By now, I have heard many stories. People have become aware that I am raising this issue and they email me. They send me stories of being hired as sabbatical replacements, working full-time teaching loads for a third of what the faculty member who was on sabbatical was paid for the same work. And, of course, with no benefits. One person, with an earned doctorate, had to take an additional job as a church secretary to make ends meet. That job, as part-time work, paid more than the academic teaching job.

Some of the biggest issues people have shared have to do with health insurance, or the lack thereof, and job security. People have worked for an institution for years with only a contract for one or two semesters at a time. There are whole departments where there is only one person who is not an adjunct. These faculty members live with constant anxiety.

“I owe my life to Medicare” was one shocking email I have received. The person, who had been an adjunct for years, was finally old enough to qualify for Medicare even as their teaching hours were reduced. And it was a good thing, as they developed a serious illness shortly thereafter. What would have happened to this person if they had not been able to get health care? These are life and death challenges.

And then there are the cuts. I heard from contingent faculty members who used to be paid over the summer months and then, with no warning, that pay was eliminated. Suddenly they had to scramble to cover their bills over the summer months.

I have heard from people who live in a “camper RV because I cannot afford housing.” And from another, “Thank God for food stamps.”

There is fear, there is deprivation, there is genuine suffering.

This is the real picture of what many are refusing to face.

First, Face It

There is a reason we as Christian educators think what we do is part of the “Good News.” It is. The mission statements I quoted, and many others, are good news, and the effort to bring our practices into line with these missions is a worthy effort.

Our first job is to cost out and face our ethical deficits. When I was hired to be Chicago Theological Seminary president, we had previously incurred a financial notation from the ATS's accreditation team and one of my first responsibilities was to deal with that operating deficit and show progress in closing the gap. The clarity of the ATS accreditors in their communication to the Board of Trustees was indispensable for focusing the Board’s energies on fixing this. And we did.

But, I know for a fact that you cannot provide inspirational leadership in fixing a problem that you are trying hard to hide.

It could be of great benefit to theological schools to be asked to measure their ethical deficit and show concrete plans to close that gap over a number of years. I think the ATS should consider adding the measure of ethical deficits (i.e., budget priorities compared to an individual school’s mission statement), as part of accreditation efforts.

But even in the absence of that external review, senior administrators can make their boards of trustees aware of this deficit and inspire them to eliminate the deficit as part of their commitment to have their schools live up to their stated values. People commonly say to me, when I raise this issue, “Well, that’s just the financial realities today,” to excuse this unethical way of balancing our budgets. It’s not the reality, it is a reality. Another reality can be attained by raising the money to close the ethical gap—once the gap is seen as a problem to be systematically addressed.

I spent ten years raising money basically full-time for CTS, and I can tell you from my own experience it is possible to raise money for our theological schools. It’s just hard. It is really, really hard. It takes an enormous amount of work by not only the president, but also senior staff, a committed Board of Trustees, and major donors. It is just far easier to cut and cut and cut.

Instead, close the ethical deficit. Of course, there will be push back and great pressure to default to the “that’s the reality today” excuse. As my faculty colleague Ted Jennings said to me as we were discussing this issue, “ ‘Everybody’s doing it’ is not a moral argument.”

Your school can do this. And you’d better get started.

Unionization is Coming

Inspirational leadership to raise up the necessity of ending ethical deficits is needed. But I want to alert you that the climate today is such that exploited educators are fed to the teeth, and they are organizing, they are striking, and they are marching on statehouses.

This period can be called the “Age of the March” and, as one teacher in Colorado said to me, “if those kids can do it, so can we.”

Unionization of adjunct and contingent faculty in higher education is already here. These working conditions have made it inevitable. When people are exploited, they organize. When my immigrant Hungarian ancestors were trapped in the sweatshops in New York City, they became union organizers.

Tragically, some religiously affiliated schools, such as Elmhurst College, have used their faith connection as a reason to block unionization rather than as a reason to strive toward greater justice in their employment practices. In late 2017, United Church of Christ clergy protested the college’s anti-union organizing legal efforts in a letter they delivered to Elmhurst College President Troy VanAken's office.

The letter had been signed by 104 pastors from around the United States who support non-tenured faculty's ability to organize a union. In the letter, clergy members expressed their “deep disappointment that Elmhurst College is seeking to use its affiliation with the Church to claim exemption from the oversight of the National Labor Relations Board in the efforts of its adjunct faculty to organize” and asked the administration to “find in the Church a partner for sharing in the struggle for justice and peace.”5

Adjuncts and contingent faculty have staged “National Adjunct Walkout Days.” From larger scale protests to teach-ins, both awareness-raising and union organization has been taking place. Yet, religiously affiliated institutions have, like Elmhurst, used that as a way to try to prevent unionization, prompting the “Jesus wouldn’t union bust.”

Would Jesus union bust? No is the only possible answer.

A religiously affiliated school that uses its affiliation as a way to prevent workers from organizing is committing a serious moral error. These schools seem to prefer to be blind to the profound theological issue at stake in these struggles. Pope John Paul II called work the way we human beings “co-create the world” with God.6 Workers’ rights are central to God’s mission for justice and peace in the world. This why American Social Gospel leaders urged the Roosevelt Administration to adopt the language of “living wage” rather than “minimum wage.” Human beings have the right to live decently, not merely minimally.

Far from being a threat to institutions of theological education, I see unionization as part of the human solidarity that builds the Kingdom of God.

My Advice as Both Faculty and Administrator

As a Christian pastor and theologian, I find the employment situation at many of our theological schools to be ethically untenable. We are running huge ethical deficits, and it has to stop.

It is far better to take the path of inspiration and accountability. Launch a campaign. Create an inspirational motto like “Walking the Walk” on mission and practice. Invite the adjunct and contingent faculty into this walk. Partnership gets it done.

The choice is actually to be a community in Christ or be forced to acknowledge those words are just marketing.

I believe the former with all my heart. I know that we can do better in our fund-raising when we live out our values with conviction and passion. 

I urge you to take that path and to do it now.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). She was president of CTS from 1998 to 2008.


1 James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” The New York Times, January 14, 1962, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Also available at https://www.nytimes.com/1962/01/14/archives/as-much-truth-as-one-can-bear-to-speak-out-about-the-world-as-it-is.html.

2 “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” American Association of University Professors, https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

3 Ibid.

4 “Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group,” American Academy of Religion, https://www.aarweb.org/about/academic-labor-and-contingent-faculty-working-group.

5 Mary Stroka, “Elmhurst College administration hears from clergy, adjunct faculty on union organizing issue,” MySuburbanLife, December 14, 2017, http://www.mysuburbanlife.com/2017/12/06/elmhurst-college-administration-hears-from-clergy-adjunct-faculty-on-union-organizing-issue/asrmw22/.

6 John Paul II, Laborem Excercens, September 14, 1981, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html.