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Students protest at Columbia Theological Seminary

International students say they’re unhappy with strategic realignment

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

International students and supporters pray on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — International students at Columbia Theological Seminary say they want their voices heard as controversy has erupted on campus.

The controversy began Jan. 31, when seminary president Dr. Leanne Van Dyk announced a strategic realignment in the seminary’s Office of International Programs. Students represented by the Coalition of International Students and Allies say their voices weren’t heard when the decision was made, and that the move effectively dismantled the program.

Before Van Dyk made the announcement, the seminary’s International Programs coordinator, the Rev. Kim LeVert, had already resigned to care for aging parents. Shortly after the strategic realignment became public, the program’s director, Dr. John Azumah, resigned to return to Ghana to work on a Christian-Muslim dialogue project, according to Van Dyk.

In addition, the contract with Dr. Kevin Park, an associate dean for advanced professional studies whose duties included directing Korean-American ministries, was not renewed. Seminary officials said the contract nonrenewal was not due to the strategic realignment.

“It was a perfect storm,” Van Dyk said, of LeVert’s resignation for personal reasons, Azumah’s choosing to leave sooner than anticipated for his position in Ghana and Park’s contract nonrenewal.

According to Van Dyk, the strategic realignment increases dollars, people, transparency and accountability to the program serving international students. As part of the realignment, six people share the job responsibility — in addition to their current duties — for international student support, rather than one person, as was the case previously.

Critics of the realignment, including attorney and CISA special advisor Helen Kim Ho, called the realignment “a culturally-based decision to replace well-regarded immigrant faculty members with non-immigrant faculty members from other departments.”

With a list of demands in hand, 15 international students met with Van Dyk twice in February. Their demands included reinstating Park as the new director for the International Programs Office. Van Dyk says she couldn’t do that because the nonrenewal of Park’s contract was a faculty governance decision.

Because these international students say they weren’t being heard, CISA began making its demands public. In a social media petition signed by more than 900 people, students asked that the International Programs Office be reinstated, and that the director’s position be filled by an immigrant faculty member who is globally trained and empathetic to the interests of immigrant and international students. They also asked for a seat at the table when key decisions are made related to the office, or that might impact immigrant and international students.

Van Dyk said the six people who will share responsibility for international student support are well-qualified and have global experience. She said the seminary has distinguished itself by creating a working strategy to address white privilege and racial discrimination.

“Any accusations of institutional racism around this story are flawed,” she said. “I did say to them, ‘We have been listening to you for several years’” in multiple listening sessions and dozens of conversations, “asking them, ‘What do you need?’”

Park, who pastored many of Columbia’s international students, said he believes they are crying out for visible representation. For many, English is a second language.

“They’re not looking for an academic, programmatic or curricular resource,” he said. “What they want is a relational resource, someone who will advocate for them.”

Park said he wishes Van Dyk would have been able to make what he called a “heart-to-heart connection” with students who came to her with a list of demands.

Van Dyk said she wishes she could go back to Jan. 31 and tell the international students that changes were coming over the next four months — and that it was based on what she’d learned from the campus survey and in talking with international students about their concerns over the last two years.

“But the spark that lit this fire was clumsy communication and that’s on me,” she said. “The painful irony is that we made these decisions to increase and enhance our support to our international students.”

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