Report from the Simpson University Faculty regarding the termination of Dr. Sarah Sumner
October 14, 2011
On June 30, 2011, the President of Simpson University, Dr. Larry McKinney, terminated the employment of Dr. Sarah Sumner, the Dean of the A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary, Simpson University, Redding, CA. Questions immediately arose as to the legality of this termination with respect to Dr. Sumner’s status as a contracted faculty member as well as to the wisdom of the action in light of Dr. Sumner’s performance as Dean during her tenure. The Faculty President, Dr. Paul Jones, and the Chair of the Faculty Personnel Committee, Dr. Jack Painter, expressed concerns in the weeks following the termination, but received no sufficient response to the concerns. These concerns carried forward throughout July and August. Multiple faculty members have made individual appeals to Dr. McKinney to reconsider his decision, in addition to appeals made in group settings, to no avail. On August 31, 2011, the Simpson University Faculty tasked the Faculty Personnel Committee with investigating, seeking counsel, reporting findings and making recommendations with respect to this issue. The following is the report of findings and recommendations from the Faculty. We have desired earnestly in this report to be both respectful and truthful in our language with regard to the parties involved and prayerfully hope for a resolution that in every respect is in keeping with the Simpson University Values and the Simpson University mission to be a Christ-centered university.
After a month of examining a variety of documentation and interviewing numerous individuals informed with the facts of the situation, the Faculty brings the following findings and recommendations with respect to the termination of Dr. Sumner on June 30, 2011.
- Full-time faculty at Simpson University are employed via contracts, which supersede at-will employment of the California Labor Code. Further our contracts specifically state that our employment status is governed by the Faculty Handbook. As employees at a Christian university, we also expect that our contracts are seen as more than mere agreements, but documents of trust that express the relationship between the faculty member and the institution in line with the Simpson Values included with our contracts each year. Dr. Sumner was employed as Administrative Faculty with the rank of full professor with a continuing contract subject to all the rights, responsibilities and protections of the contract and the Faculty Handbook; she signed and submitted the July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012 continuation of the contract on March 30, 2011.
- At Simpson University, per signed contracts stating that the Faculty Handbook governs faculty employment, the stated supervisor with the authority to dismiss a faculty member is the Provost of the University. In this instance, Dr. Clark, the Provost, adamantly disagreed with the actions of Dr. McKinney to terminate Dr. Sumner. Furthermore, Dr. Clark advised Dr. McKinney prior to the termination that his actions were hasty, in violation of the Faculty Handbook, and outside of the agreed upon chain of command protocol. Dr. Clark has maintained his stance relative to this action in the intervening months in numerous venues. Our finding is that the action of Dr. McKinney was premeditated with full knowledge of the violations he was undertaking. Dr. McKinney admitted before the entirety of the Simpson staff and faculty on August 26, 2011, that he violated procedure and bypassed Dr. Clark as Provost in carrying out this action. The Board of Trustees also agree that Dr. McKinney violated process by placing a letter of reprimand in his employment file. In our view, this admission in itself is reason to reverse the dismissal and to reinstate Dr. Sumner.
- McKinney maintains that the cause for termination was insubordination, though in the Simpson community meeting with Board chairman Dale Dyk on August 25, Mr. Dyk stated that Dr. Sumner was not fired for insubordination. There are clear discrepancies regarding cause for termination. Our findings suggest that Dr. Sumner never willfully disobeyed a directive of Dr. Clark or of Dr. McKinney as per the definition of insubordination in the Faculty Handbook; indeed, in our estimation, she never disobeyed any directive. Dr. Clark affirmed this conclusion both prior to and since Dr. Sumner’s termination. While there is evidence of disagreements between Dr. Sumner and Dr. McKinney, neither the disagreements nor any action of Dr. Sumner ever rose to the level of insubordination; at most the disagreements were honest dialogue which faculty members are used to engaging in, whether at the curricular or the institutional level, and fit fully within our understanding of academic freedom. Thus there are no grounds for the charge of insubordination. A. When considering documents and testimony dating back to August of 2010, the evidence suggests several other conclusions.
- With just over a year in the deanship, Dr. Sumner’s job performance was stellar. In 16 months, she moved Tozer Seminary from a perpetual drain on the Simpson budget to making a profit, while expanding the offerings and reach of the Seminary. Furthermore she created vision and excitement over the future growth and impact of Tozer Seminary. Indeed, Dr. Sumner took seriously and exemplified the elements of the Simpson Values statement: Supremacy of Jesus Christ, Intentional Dynamic Growth and Development, Integrity, Community, Innovation, Service, and Stewardship. Dr. McKinney himself acknowledged Dr. Sumner’s effectiveness both before and after the termination.
- There are reports from multiple sources that Dr. McKinney showed regular and systematic disregard and dismissiveness of Dr. Sumner as she attempted to fulfill her duties to build Tozer Seminary.
- In the months prior to the termination, no formal notice of any untoward behavior was ever communicated to Dr. Sumner or documented in a way which was acknowledged by Dr. Sumner as such. The “warning letter” of June 6 was never placed in her personnel file, nor was a copy given to the interim HR Director. B. In April 2011, Dr. Sumner envisioned and proposed a “Tozer Cost Center” as an avenue for the seminary to expand both academically and financially. The proposal was developed in response to a request of Dr. Clark. There was no attempt on Dr. Sumner’s part to go around the President. In fact, along with Dr. Clark, Dr. McKinney was the first person she actually presented the proposal to in late April; he received both the oral version and the written version without comment. When Dr. McKinney rejected the proposal, Dr. Sumner accepted the decision and only discussed it again at the behest of Dr. McKinney himself. She was then accused of insubordination for discussing the proposal with the President and Board chairman.
- In a case where Dr. Clark might find an individual fulfilling the requirement for “termination with cause” (such as insubordination) the Faculty Handbook calls for “due process.” In this instance, Dr. McKinney followed no due process and subsequently admitted as much before the entire Simpson community and before the Simpson faculty. A. The letter of warning outlining the perceived insubordinate behavior that was sent on June 6, 2011, should have included specific steps for remediation, and a specified remediation period during which the faculty member would show evidence of no further offense. Further, the warning letter should have been officially acknowledged as such by Dr. Sumner and placed in her official personnel file. Neither occurred. Instead, Dr. McKinney apparently relied on notes he had made in a personal file he had kept on Dr. Sumner since October 2010. Dr. Sumner was never given the opportunity to read or respond to the contents of this file, which was said to support her “termination with cause.” B. McKinney informed Dr. Sumner sixteen days after the unofficial warning of June 6 that she could resign or be fired (on June 22, 2011). In those sixteen days, Dr. Sumner did nothing to further the perceived insubordination stated in the warning letter. Furthermore, the meeting in which she was informed of her firing was actually called by Dr. Sumner and was specifically understood by her and Dr. Clark to be a “listening” meeting. Instead, Dr. McKinney brought in the interim HR Director and at the end of the meeting informed Dr. Sumner of his decision to terminate her. The presence of the interim HR Director was an indication that the decision to terminate had already been made prior to this meeting. C. Nothing in the personnel file of Dr. Sumner states a cause for her termination. This lack of stated cause suggests she was summarily fired. McKinney admitted on multiple occasions that he did not follow the process as outlined in the Faculty Handbook.
- In making the decision, Dr. McKinney did not follow the counsel of his community advisors, who were either opposed to the actions, or urging caution. Rather, he relied on the counsel of the University lawyer regarding his legal position in initiating termination and subsequently used this “legal counsel” to defer questions related to his action, continually referring to the legality of his position. In our opinion the action was taken because Dr. McKinney “felt” that he could not work with Dr. Sumner and had held this position since the Fall of 2010.
- Sumner was never allowed to make an appeal/grievance prior to the termination. Because the President was the one who fired her, Dr. Sumner had no recourse at all except for a grievance procedure put in place several years ago that had been pulled from the Faculty Handbook, but still in force. The process itself seemed clear enough, but in fact Mr. Dyke, the Board chair, said in several venues that the grievance procedure was not followed exactly but that he did “the best he could;” in fact the process appears to have been favorable to Dr. McKinney in every respect. As part of this process, Dr. McKinney accessed Dr. Sumner’s emails subsequent to the termination and distributed selected e-mails to the Board-composed grievance committee and other individuals in order to validate his case for her termination. Though access to e-mails was perhaps technically legal, the actions of Dr. McKinney in obtaining, reading, and using e-mail communications of Dr. Sumner to justify the previous action of her termination was unethical and unjust. The faculty has expected that our e-mail correspondence with students, colleagues and others is confidential and never had any indication of a policy to the contrary. Furthermore, Dr. Sumner never had the opportunity to examine and explain emails in the context in which they were written. The secret use of the e-mails to uphold the termination is a serious breach of integrity in our estimation and the absolute opposite of due process.
- The final decision of Dr. McKinney demonstrated disregard for the impact of this action on Simpson, Tozer, the Redding community, the C&MA constituency and many other stakeholders, not to mention the accrediting body of the institution. This action has already had a major impact on how Simpson University and Tozer Seminary are viewed by students, staff, faculty and many external stakeholders. Despite his reasons for undertaking his actions, Dr. McKinney has repeatedly used poor judgment with regard to this situation, a judgment he seems unwilling to reconsider despite numerous requests to do so.
- The process for the termination of Dr. Sarah Sumner was flawed and in our estimation constitutes an abuse of office with regard to the power of the president.
- The contract of Dr. Sarah Sumner was violated in both letter and spirit. Not only was due process not followed in a contractual sense, but Matthew 18, referenced in the Faculty Handbook, was ignored in a spiritual sense. As a result, shared trust between the Faculty and the President has been severely compromised as to whether the institution takes seriously its agreements with faculty regarding contracts and to whether the Faculty has any ability to speak into Simpson’s governance and future direction.
- Sumner’s reputation has been severely compromised without justification because of this action and as a result the action also depreciates the reputation of the Faculty, Tozer Seminary and Simpson University.
- Clark as University Provost was summarily passed over in this decision, despite his objections to such decision, in violation of the stated lines of authority in the institution and specifically in the Faculty Handbook. This violation speaks to the larger issue of the role of the Provost at Simpson University and to the limits of presidential authority.
- The gathering, distribution and examination of Dr. Sumner’s e-mails by Dr. McKinney is morally indefensible. In our view, the privacy and freedom of speech of Dr. Sumner and all of those with whom she communicated were violated in seeking justifications for the termination after the fact.
The Faculty intends this report to be received by the Board of Trustees as a statement of our extreme disappointment and dissatisfaction with the way this decision was made and with the questionable actions used to maintain the decision.
- The Faculty recommends that the board act immediately to retroactively reverse Dr. Sumner’s termination by restoring her to her previously held position as the Dean of the A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary in accordance with the contract signed by Dr. Sumner and Simpson University in March 2011.
- The Faculty recommends that the board act to empower Dr. Clark to function in every way as the Provost of the University, not merely as a VP in charge of academic programs.
- The Faculty in conjunction with others in the university, should develop an electronic communications policy at Simpson University which takes into account our Christian values, basic trust and privacy, freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Respectfully submitted to the Simpson University Board of Trustees by formal vote of the Faculty.