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
Even with the financial cuts and political tensions that caused many departures, some still left on their own accord due to the changing atmosphere of the institution.
One of the advocates for the LGBTQ+ community was Ryan Groff, Administrative Director of the Center for Faith and Inquiry and an adjunct professor who taught Christian Theology and The Great Conversation. He quit on his own volition in 2015 due to budget cuts within his department.
While Groff was not mistreated by the administration, he was very much aware of the friction between certain administrators and the faculty.
“I was told identity politics is a useless cause, and it was strongly implied that those who did not agree with Gordon becoming known for its prohibitive stances with respect to the lives of LGBT people needed to stop causing all of the tension which defined the 2014 and 2015 school years, and still remains for many.”
Groff said, “I received very clear condemnation of my beliefs and how vocal I was about my positions from senior faculty.
“I think face-to-face conversation, which the administration urged in summer/fall of 2014, is a great idea; I also think the cause of the tension at that time was a public political statement, which, by this very nature, welcomed public response; if this method was not ideal, then it should not have been used to begin with.”
Groff also noted the poor treatment of other departments at Gordon College.
“In other departments, I do not feel as though many of the people whose positions were discontinued were treated well by the College, especially after years of service and years left to give.”
Groff spoke of one faculty meeting that affected him especially–an address from the Chair of the Board, Kurt Keilhacker.
“I remember him saying that if there were those in the audience who thought they remembered a Gordon which was different in the past, then they were remembering a time that never was. I believe he called them a ‘Back to Egypt’ party.”
Groff characterized these words as “haunting.”
“The Gordon which ‘never was’ taught me to be, to think. It gave me my conscience. It taught me not to be satisfied with cheap slogans and petty partisanship. It taught me to cultivate a kind of theological and intellectual self-confidence. Criticism actually creates worthwhile beliefs; it doesn’t destroy them. And it’s definitely not something to fear. But a fear came to campus these past few years. We feared not being right, and we feared disagreement. We feared looking like we didn’t have an answer for all the questions; of looking like a people in process, instead of a people who had arrived.”
In losing Tim Ferguson-Sauder, Gordon lost not only its Creative Director but also a design professor who spearheaded rising student interest in design, shaping the College’s design program into, what Sauder deemed, was “one of the best in the CCCU.” When Sauder left in the summer of 2015, he was also taking his Return Design Program (a student-populated design studio which produced work for nonprofit organizations) to his new institution. But before the paperwork was signed, the interviewer from a small engineering college in New England had one concern before welcoming him aboard.
“We want you to take the job, but we feel guilty. Do you really want to walk away from such an amazing program at Gordon?”
Sauder expressed having a similar hesitation to abandon the program he cultivated for over ten years.
“I felt responsible for delivering the education that I had promised to share with those hoping to study design or explore the world of working with nonprofits,” Sauder said.
Sauder found himself in an environment not conducive to the program he describes, though.
“After seeing how Gordon failed to retain Val Buchanan and how she was treated in the process of her exit, I decided that it was time to move on. Her program was much bigger than mine but similar in its commitment to hands-on experience, support of nonprofits, student autonomy, and willingness to converse about difficult issues. If the administration was willing to let her leave and her program scale back so significantly, there was no reason to believe that Return Design would receive any more support.”
Since Sauder’s departure, Return Design has been disbanded, as the design studio now lacks its founder.
Sauder’s decision did not come easily, as he developed close relationships with the Design Center staff, Art faculty, and students. But President Lindsay’s letter-signing and the ensuing actions by the College created unsettling dissonance that could not be overcome for Sauder.
“I think it’s safe to say that if Michael [President Lindsay] hadn’t signed the letter, and if the college’s responses to the reaction to that signing had been different I would still be at Gordon. Gordon was still full of wonderful people doing great things, but over the last four to five years, it had somehow changed into a place less about open dialogue and more about control of message,” Sauder said.
His students and interns desired robust discussion on controversial issues internal to the College, like sexuality, as well as external to it occurring in American culture.
“After all, we had people like Tal Howard, Val Buchanan and Judith Olsen who do this for their living,” Sauder said.
Observing a lack of campus discussion, Sauder reached out to gay friends of his to apologize for any hurt experienced, and to assure them that he did not have the same views as the College. In one particular instance, Sauder found himself losing composure on the front steps of the house of another father in his son’s class.
“As I fell apart crying in front of this man, I found that I was the one being comforted. He hugged me and reassured me that the people at Gordon were good people,” Sauder said.
“Think of the students you are helping,” the father said to Sauder.
Tim Ferguson-Sauder continues to think of the students he helped and could have helped, as he experiences a collegiate environment not muddled with internal disagreements.