Columbia students charge discrimination against Black staff, faculty

Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur is reckoning with past racial injustices.

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Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur is reckoning with past racial injustices.

Students also seek resignation of President and Trustee Chairwoman

Some Columbia Theological Seminary students are protesting the recent termination of one of the school’s well-liked Black administrators and called for the immediate resignation of President Leanne Van Dyk, who has already announced her decision to retire in July.

The protest comes just days after the Rev. Samuel L. White III, 37, was fired as director of admissions and recruitment. He was terminated the day after the Juneteenth holiday.

Earlier this year, White filed a charge with the EEOC and requested the right to sue Columbia, according to his attorney Grace Starling with Barrett & Farahany. She said the charge would be amended to include White’s firing.

In the filing, White, who was hired in March 2020 as director of admissions and recruitment, said his work was “degraded” and resources needed to perform his job were delayed after he complained of employment discrimination based on race and sexual orientation for others at the seminary. He also informed seminary officials that he was interviewed by an attorney representing another employee regarding employment discrimination.

Members of the African Heritage Student Association held a press conference on Zoom Thursday to address their concerns about what they described as incidents of racial discrimination, intimidation and retaliation against staff at the Decatur seminary.

AHSA President, John DeLoney,, who is also a pastor, said dynamics have changed in the last couple of years as more Black students have enrolled in the seminary, creating a “blacklash.”.

According to the seminary’s website, there are 350 students.

“We believe Rev. Sam White was a casualty of that,” he said, adding that a scholarship intended to help Black students “opened the floodgates, letting more people in than I think they knew were coming...The firing of Rev. Sam White is not going to erase a systemic problem that has been in place since 2015. We’re shining a light on what we feel is an injustice. Silence is no longer an option for us.”

Additionally White alleged he was denied housing benefits as a result of his complaints, while previous directors of admissions, who were white, received the resource.

“We believe it was an act of retaliation for reporting and opposing race discrimination and also filing his EEOC charge,” said Starling. “Anytime he was faced with retaliation, he would report it to the appropriate people and was not given the support he needed. There is going to be a reckoning with the seminary’s history and treatment of Black people.“

In a statement, Columbia said it “is sensitive to students’ concerns over the departure of Rev. Samuel White. However it was a carefully considered decision and out of respect for the privacy of all current and former employees and consistent with our policies, we do not comment on personnel matters.

“We are confident we’ve stayed true to our mission to nurture faithful and effective leaders as well as conduct school business in a forthright and equitable manner.”

In a public letter to the officials, the students said the administration” has effectively undermined the infrastructure supporting the seminary’s growing network of diverse students, faculty, and staff. “

The letter cited cuts to funding and support for international students, faculty and staff; mistreatment, demotion, and firing of Black, Hispanic and Asian faculty and staff; and “tokenization” of LGBTQ students.

In addition to the call for President Van Dyk’s immediate resignation, the group called for the immediate resignation of Jane Fahey, chairwoman of the board of trustees; the reinstatement of White with a “generous hiring offer”; and the formation of an independent student-led advisory board to oversee the president’s council prior to the Fall 2022 semester.

The students called for greater transparency and voiced concerns that if Van Dyk stays more gains could be eroded.

The seminary was established in 1828 by a regional group of Presbyterian pastors in Lexington, Ga.. and moved to Columbia, S.C. in 1830 where it gained it’s name. In 1925 it moved to its present location in Decatur.

In 2020, the seminary announced it was taking steps to address some of the wrongs that Blacks experienced and the role the seminary played.

A Columbia spokeswoman at the time said that “while the institution did not directly own slaves, we definitely benefited from the sale of slaves through donations made by Southern slave owners.”

The Columbia board of trustees approved a statement, “Repairing the Breach: Deepening Columbia’s Commitment to Black People and Their Flourishing,” that is the result of lengthy discussions on ways to address the harm done to Black communities.

Those steps include offering full tuition and fees for all Black students who apply and are admitted to master’s-level degree program and implementation of new policies to foster partnerships and support for others working to address police brutality and racism.

Van Dyk’s successor when she retires has already been named. The Rev. Victor Aloyo will become the seminary’s 11th president, effective Aug. 1. Aloyo is currently associate dean of institutional diversity and community engagement at Princeton Theological Seminary where he is the chief strategist on matters related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

He is also the organizing and lead pastor of La Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, a multicultural community of faith in North Plainfield, N.J.