Eastern University, my alma mater, has found itself in some hot water. For those of you who don’t follow Eastern’s affairs, the current scandal is the result of the president, Dr. Bob Duffett, signing a letter to the other president, Barack Obama, asking for Eastern and other religious institutions to be exempt from a piece of legislation that bans hiring discrimination against LGBT people. Put simply: Eastern has never hired gay people who are sexually active, and they would like to keep it that way.
You can see why, in Pennsylvania, in 2014, this has a whole bunch of people pretty pissed off.
But I’m not really going to comment on Dr. Duffett’s move, or whether or not I think it’s right or wrong. A lot of alum have taken to the internet to voice their thoughts on the matter, and I don’t have much to contribute to this conversation. Here, I’m mostly interested in talking about why I feel bad for Eastern.
One of my favorite things about my time at Eastern was that, for the first (and maybe last) time in my life, I got to share a classroom, dining hall, and residence with a whole bunch of people who came together from pretty different paradigms. Different parts of the country. Different socioeconomic backgrounds. Different political affiliations. Different theological positions. Sometimes, different races or sexual orientations. Some of these different people were my professors. Some were my friends. And we all peacefully shared classrooms and dinner tables, together raising big questions and entertaining answers. I think my favorite thing about Eastern University is that it attracts so many different kinds of Christians, and I’m a better person because of this.
But, practically speaking, this can be pretty problematic for an institution that runs almost exclusively on student tuition and private donations. The target audience that Eastern needs to reach falls all over the political and theological spectrum. In some parts of the country, there are parents and pastors that would never let their kids consider Eastern, because it teaches evolution and cares about “social justice.” Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, there are prospective students who would never consider Eastern because it is far too conservative – they won’t even hire LGBT people!
Should there ever be a day when Eastern begins to hire LGBT faculty, the university will have a lot of support from many alum and faculty. But, it will also alienate a lot of donors and prospective students, which would be a huge financial blow.
This is not to suggest that Dr. Duffett’s letter signing was the right thing to do. Honestly, I think because Eastern attracts so many different kinds of people, it’s screwed either way. Whoops.
Also – I’m sure a lot of the alum that are so riled up about this have been LGBT allies for a long time, even before coming to Eastern. However, I can’t help but suspect that some of them are allies largely because of their Eastern education. As in, they wouldn’t be so upset with Eastern right now if they hadn’t gone to Eastern. Whoops again.
In addition to expressing pity for my alma mater, I’d also like to ask my fellow alum to keep in mind that, despite its best intentions and our strong desires, Eastern University is not just a pure academic bastion where people come together to read, write, and discuss. It is also a business, at least insofar those classrooms need to keep standing and those professors need to get paid. In this fallen, broken world, money often beats out ideology. I doubt that Dr. Duffett is merely a fundamentalist bigot. Instead, I suspect that he’s simply trying to financially preserve a struggling institution – perhaps in vain, perhaps all the wrong ways, and certainly, at no small cost.