November 20, 2017

Conflict in the Communication Arts Department

Christine Gardner teaching. Photo by Taylor Bradford.

This is one article in a series explaining changes at Gordon College, called Define: Gordon

By: Langdon Kessner ‘17 and Daniel Simonds ‘17

Arts & Life Editor and Contributor

Conflict has always been part of communication. And in this case, it has spilled onto the faculty.

The departure of two Communication Arts professors, Nate Baxter and Toddy Burton, was quickly followed by the loss of a few more: Rini Cobbey, Justin Edwards, Moises Park and Jo Kadlecek.

Kadlecek founded the Gordon College News Service.  Cobbey, former Chair of the Department, specialized in theory courses such as Visual Storytelling and Perspectives on Communication. Justin Edwards taught film production classes. Park taught Film and TV Genres, Intercultural Communication and doubled as a Spanish professor.

Kadlecek, after eight years of working at Gordon, did not have her contract renewed in spring 2013. She declined to comment for this article. While Baxter and Burton left for different career opportunities, others left due to discontent with administration.

After President D. Michael Lindsay signed the letter to President Barack Obama in the summer of 2014 requesting religious exemption for an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating in the hiring process on the basis of sexual orientation, Cobbey and Edwards expressed having concerns with the administration.  

Cobbey, who was an employee of Gordon College from 2001 to 2015, told the Tartan she experienced “some conflict in [her] time as a faculty member and division-level administrator.”

Cobbey also said, “I held a view contrary to the way Gordon’s statement on sexuality is most commonly interpreted. This was not the only reason I left, but it is an important and relevant piece.” She elaborated, “more than once it was suggested that the way I understood certain doctrinal matters was a problem.”

Edwards, who was employed from 2014 to 2015, disagreed with the letter. He said, “I didn’t stand with [President Lindsay] in those beliefs. Within a few weeks I had heard and seen enough. It was obvious that LGBTQ people were not welcome at Gordon College, LGBTQ people were not safe at Gordon, and even those of us who wanted to love and support and provide a safe space for LGBTQ people…were not welcome either.”

According to Edwards, the tensions some teachers experienced with the administration began in faculty meetings and town hall sessions.

Justin Edwards. Courtesy of Justin Edwards.

“Town hall sessions were held every couple of weeks–sometimes after the standard ‘faculty meeting’–to give faculty with questions, comments, complaints a place to express themselves and have dialogue on everything from Bible verses about homosexuality to how administration should or should not have the power to issue Biblical interpretation mandates on all the faculty,” said Edwards [sic].

After Lindsay’s signing of the letter, town hall meetings were reportedly stopped the following spring semester. “There was a ‘one last final word’ kind of meeting, where Lindsay said they would no longer have a space or time for faculty to have these meetings and disagreements with administration, that the official stance on the ‘LGBT issue’ by Gordon college was resolved, and we should stop talking to the press. And, we had to stop bringing up our frustration with administration in meetings,” Edwards said.

Edwards continued, “We were told in not so many words to ‘Be quiet and stop fighting for LGBTQ rights, or else you can leave the college.’ Being told by your employer that your point of view is not welcome doesn’t feel good. Being asked to resign if you refuse to be quiet is possibly unconstitutional, as evidenced by the Professor Barthold lawsuit against Gordon.”  

Ryan Groff, former Program Coordinator of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum and former instructor of the Christian Theology course, confirmed Edwards’ recollection of statements made in faculty meetings. “This is exactly what was said, and the administration even invited those who felt they needed to leave to come forward,” Groff said.

Over the summer of 2015, both left. Edwards chose not to renew his contract, while Cobbey accepted a separation offer.  

Edwards continues to criticize the administration, “What a shameful state of affairs the administration must be in to have to pay to shut people up. I miss my students and friends there, but I’m also glad to not be associated with such an institution. I have an asterisk on my resume now next to Gordon College–‘Yeah, I was there, but don’t lump me in with the President and his (colleagues), please.’”

Cobbey said, “I chose to accept a separation offer from the College in part because I recognized that I was not as good a fit with the institution as I had been, given some of its recent and ongoing shifts in priorities and patterns of operating.”

In spite of all the conflict, Cobbey remains proud of her work and time at Gordon College. “I helped to build the Communication Arts program and am proud of our hundreds of graduates who are some of the most innovative and critically loyal individuals I’ve encountered.”

Given Cobbey’s nearly 14 years of professorship, including her years as chair, her departure left an impact on the Gordon community.  

Cliff Hersey, who previously ran the college’s Global Education Office, and current Chair of the Communication Arts department, had “great respect for [Cobbey’s] drive and ability.” He recalled her long history with the Department, saying, “we saw her through completing her doctoral program and developing as a fine professor and department chair…so I had a great respect for [her] and was looking forward to working with her. When I first made the move to the department, I was disappointed that she was not going to be here.”

Many current Communication Arts students have been discouraged by the direction in which they see their department heading.

Jacob Padilla ‘17 said, “There have been so many changes in the past few years that it is a totally different major than what it was only three years ago. I have told many freshmen Communication Arts majors who are interested in film to look at other schools.”

Some students have transferred to other schools. Anthony Farenwald, previous Gordon College student who transferred to Emerson College in spring 2016, said he has seen a “wealth of opportunities open up” since changing schools.

Current student Sam Misarski ’18 said it’s important for Gordon students interested in film to take part in off-campus opportunities  such as the Los Angeles Film Studies program where he is taking classes. Misarksi said the department seems underfunded.

Misarski’s Gordon-offered Cinematography class did not have enough cameras to serve each student.

“We would have to ask for extensions because we couldn’t get a camera because they were all taken out,” he said.

Hersey said that two years ago, the Communication Arts department was unable to purchase any equipment due to the College’s overall financial troubles. While the department spent $15,000 on updating equipment for the 2016-17 academic year, Hersey said, there are still evident holes in the department budget.

Christine Gardner teaching. Photo by Taylor Bradford.

In the past, despite budgetary restrictions, Communication Arts students have found security in the faculty.

Chandler Stier ‘17 said, “[Cobbey] knew a lot about the major and was willing to help me figure out what classes I wanted and what I would enjoy.”

Some Communication Arts students do not speak highly about their experience in the department since Cobbey’s departure.

Sarah Figucia ‘17 expressed relief in the fact that she took her foundational Communications Arts classes (taught by Cobbey) early on, giving her a “good foundation.” Like other Communication Arts students, Figucia said she started taking classes outside of the department “when things started shifting.”

Steven Schultz ’17 has joked with his friends about having “abandonment issues” due to the complete faculty turnover. No current professors in the department were employees during Schultz’s first year, 2013-2014.

Rapid professor turnover has created much instability for Communication Arts students. Stier has had three different advisors during her four years at Gordon, proving “personal mentorship”, one of Gordon’s commitments in its academic catalog, to be an elusive ideal in the Communication Arts department over the last three academic years..

“I felt like I had no real direction and none of my advisors know me personally and I feel like, as a senior, you should be known by your professors and advisers.  So specifically, their absence has made my journey in college confusing because I haven’t had that direction with a consistent adviser,” she said.

All interviewed students voiced, in some manner, the hole that Cobbey left in the Department with her departure. Some students believe their career prospects took a hit from Cobbey’s departure as well.

Figucia said, “I didn’t have anyone in the department that I could necessarily trust to talk about career things. And it turns out that I’m actually leading away from pursuing a career in communications and writing, which does probably have to do with that shift because I don’t necessarily feel that I’m prepared to succeed.”.

Communication Arts alumnus Tim Lewis ’08 had a different experience when he was a Communication Arts student than Figucia.

“She [Cobbey] was there for me, whether she knew it or not, at a time when I desperately needed her personally, spiritually, and artistically,” he said.

Since then, Lewis has worked at an Oscar Award-winning production company and has a touring one-man show based on his unique experience as a gay man navigating the evangelical world. Lewis attributes Cobbey’s recommendation as the driving force behind his acceptance into the University of California Los Angeles–one of the world’s premier film schools.  

Cobbey not only empowered students to reach their career goals, but she also shepherded students in their personal and spiritual development, her past students said.

Jake Rioux ’17 said, “She had a sticker outside her door that said ‘Safe-Zoned Trained.’ She’s not necessarily loud or boisterous, but she would say a few things here or there that would let you know that she was a friend.”

Despite his one-year tenure, Justin Edwards’ departure also had a large impact on the department.

Padilla said of Edwards’ mentorship,“His idea that we are all story-makers has affected my outlook on my career so much… He continues to be a film mentor to me as I email him on a consistent basis,” Padilla said.

Padilla’s dynamic “#GordonMoments” promotional videos can be seen as an outcome of his tutelage under the narrative film specialist.

Edwards’ departure, a narrative filmmaker by trade, left Gordon without any instructors experienced to teach fictional filmmaking.  

Moises Park, who was employed at the College from 2010-2016, left to teach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Park received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award at commencement in May 2016. His absence has also affected the Department, especially from the perspective of students.

“Dr. Park has fundamentally changed my view on film, and I miss his presence on campus so much,” said Padilla. “He was a terrific teacher, who loved what he taught, and was such a gift to Gordon.”

Schultz said that one of Park’s classes, Intercultural Communication, is “still the best class that I have taken at Gordon College.”

Padilla said of the current situation in the department, “The department is cheating their students by giving them a bad education and it needs to stop. It starts with good leadership and great professors,” he said.

But even with all the changes that the Communication Arts department has gone through, Stier has felt that Hersey, the current department Chair, deserves credit for handling it all.

“I’ve talked to Dr. Hersey a lot, and I know that he cares about the department. I think, without him, the department would’ve struggled even more,” Stier said.

While the future of the Communication Arts department remains to be seen, current seniors feel that there was a lack of proper care for the damage when the professors left the college.

Administration’s Response to “Define: Gordon”

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