First African-American Named to Lead Lexington Theological Seminary

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by Jamal Eric Watson

The flagship seminary of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) made history last week when trustees voted to name Dr. Charisse Gillett, the 17th president of the Lexington Theological Seminary (LTS).  She will be the first Black and the first woman to lead the 146-year-old, Lexington, Ky.-based institution.

The announcement comes amid considerable turmoil at the seminary in recent years.  The school had to seek court permission to dip into its endowment to cover operating expenses in 2009 and then fired tenured faculty members to save money. 

But the firings of tenured faculty resulted in a pair of lawsuits alleging breach of contract: one from a Jewish professor, Larry Kant, and the other from the first and only Black tenured professor in the school’s history, Dr. Jimmy Kirby, who earned his doctorate of theology in social ethics and Christian education from Boston University and joined LTS in 1994 as an assistant professor of church and society.

Amos Jones, a law professor and Washington, D.C.-based employment litigator representing Kirby, reacted dryly to the news that LTS had made history.  “While it might appear gratifying that the defendant seminary has elevated a Black woman to its helm, it is not lost on the public that they flagrantly discriminated against and breached their contract with Dr. Kirby, who was 65 at the time,” he said.

Jones noted that he filed a reply brief with the court only two days before Gillett’s elevation citing a 1979 case when LTS went to the Kentucky Court of Appeals on an argument they have advanced in the current litigation and lost.

“It’s pathetic that they are trying to overturn 32 years of good law as they continue fighting this outstanding Black professor, their only one for all those years,” Jones said.  “As long as LTS power brokers flagrantly assert a perceived right to breach contracts and discriminate with impunity because they are the church and believe themselves to be above every civil law of the land, Dr. Gillett had better watch her back.”

Rick Griffith, an attorney for LTS and an LTS trustee, did not return repeated calls seeking comment on the litigation and Gillett’s appointment.

Gillett, who holds a doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University, had been the seminary’s vice president for administration and special projects since February 2010.

“I am deeply committed to the church and to the work of the seminary in shaping students for ministry,” Gillett said in a statement released by LTS. “I am excited about the future of the seminary, and the students and congregations we will be able to touch in the years to come as our program continues to grow in dynamic ways. We have a wonderful team of faculty and staff who are dedicated to our students and to the church, and I am looking forward to working closely with them and leading the seminary as we move forward into the next page of our story.”

Gillett will take over from President James P. Johnson who is set to retire on Sept. 1 after just three years on the job. 

In his lawsuit, Kirby alleged racial discrimination.  After declining an early retirement offer in 2009, Kirby says LTS’ current president Johnson ordered him to exit the office via the back door.

Johnson, who is White, then laughed about it with a White dean who was also in the meeting, Kirby said. A 2003 e-mail message among members of an administrator search committee showed the same White dean encouraging a promotion from within because of what the dean called problematic dynamics whenever minority candidates applied.

Meanwhile Gillett, a former moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has been a commissioned minister by the Christian Church in Kentucky since August 2010. She also serves as Associate Minister at the 160-year-old East Second Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington, where her husband, LTS alumnus Dr. Donald Gillett II, serves as senior pastor. 

Gillett has more than 20 years of administrative experience in higher education, including posts at Disciples of Christ-affiliated Transylvania University and Midway College, as well as at Robert Morris College and University of Northern Iowa.

“She has the advantages of knowing who we are,” said Dr. Jerry Sumney, a professor of Biblical Studies at LTS for the past 13 years. He said that he thought that Gillett was picked for the top position because of her background in fundraising and the diversity that she herself represents as an African-American and a female. 

The seminary recently has been dogged by criticism of poor minority representation among its student population. But the number of enrolled African-American students has dramatically increased since LTS began offering most of their courses online, officials said.

“We have found that we now have an opportunity to serve populations that we were unable to serve before, those individuals who could not just pick up and come to Lexington” said Sumney.

Jones, however, remained pessimistic when asked whether the hiring of Gillett was a step in the right direction.

“Even the most diabolical slave plantations owned and controlled by Whites promoted Blacks to the role of overseer, but those environments were nevertheless fraught with racial discrimination,” the professor/lawyer said. “The real question is whether Dr. Gillett, whom my client wishes all the best, will demonstrate the courage of Harriet Tubman and de-bleach her faculty ranks while rectifying what the seminary has done to Dr. Kirby and others over these hellish years of late.  Time will tell, and only God will be the final arbiter, regardless of where the litigation winds up.”

Both discrimination cases stand before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, where oral arguments are expected to take place later this year or early in 2012.

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