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Tucker Tengatenga Meeting

Tucker Meeting1.jpg

Approximately 40 students, professors, administrators/staffers, community members and at least one alumnus turned out yesterday afternoon for the meeting on Bishop Tengatenga that had been called by Nancy Vogele, Director of the Tucker Foundation’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (standing, in the white jacket above). Vogele’s ground rules included a verbot on quoting people without their approval, so this report will necessarily be somewhat cursory.

Let me begin by saying that I have been in few Dartmouth classes where the intellectual level of discussion was so high, and where people spoke their minds so forthrightly. Any administrator who attended the meeting — and the group included Interim Provost Martin Wybourne and Interim Vice Provost and Associate Provost for International Initiatives Lindsay Whaley — can’t help but have been impressed by the level of passion students showed concerning the choice of Bishop Tengatenga to head the Tucker foundation. My sense is that the undergraduates in attendance have not yet begun to fight.

A great deal of the discussion revolved around Bishop Tengatenga’s attitude toward gays: had he personally held anti-gay sentiments in the past, or had he just acquiesced to the prevailing prejudices of his flock in this particular area in order to work on other, more pressing problems (he has spoken courageously against government corruption in Malawi and the shoddy treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS and other treatable diseases)? Is his newly expressed support for gay rights sincere, or is he just tacking ideologically in order to land the Dartmouth job? How deeply did the members of the search committee question him on these issues, and did they have the sense that their understanding of his state of mind was complete?

One member of the search committee admitted that the committee’s interrogation of Tengatenga had not been exhaustive on the matter of gay rights, but another commented that in the strife that rocked the Anglican/Episcopalian world following the appointment of openly gay NH Bishop Gene Robinson, Tengatenga had been a voice of moderation (this remark is in contrast to a report in the Los Angeles Times from that period). The same search committee member noted that a number of bishops and prominent clerics in the Episcopal Church today support Tengatenga’s nomination to the Tucker post.

Students pressed for more than explanations for Tengatenga’s past anti-gay remarks and those of the Malawi Council of Churches, which he headed from 1998-2001, and in which his own Diocese of Southern Malawi is an important member; they sought proof of pro-gay sentiments and actions in support of gay rights. Curiously, the severity of the persecution of homosexuals in Malawi (prison terms of up to 14 years) was not evoked, though the recent anti-gay declaration of the Malawi Council of Churches was read aloud. Students also sought a better understanding of just how Tengatenga’s views had developed over time; several were skeptical that the evolution in the Bishop’s ideas was more than window-dressing for his desire for the Tucker post. One student asked if the College would have considered a repentant anti-Semite to head Dartmouth Hillel, and a staff member asked if the College would today hire someone who had supported apartheid in South Africa. Another student asked that the Tengatenga appointment be looked at in light of the past year’s numerous controversies at the College over racially charged incidents; he asked how the world would look at the College’s action in hiring a senior administrator with Bishop Tengatenga’s history.

Several speakers noted that Tengatenga’s hiring represented a risk, but that the Bishop should be given the benefit of the doubt. I spoke briefly and wondered why the College should take such a hard-to-define risk, given that there certainly are other, capable candidates available. At that juncture I noted, to what seemed like widespread agreement, that Bishop Tengatenga’s recent comments on his past views on gays were far from convincing (here and here), given their vagueness and his use of open-knit language.

The meeting concluded with a remark by one student that the discussion had produced far more questions for him than answers, and there was a consensus that the community would like to question Bishop Tengatenga in much greater detail either via a Skype teleconference or in a future visit by the Bishop to Hanover. Interim Provost Wybourne stated that if an egregious disclosure came to light, the College would feel free to rescind Tengatenga’s offer of employment.

Addendum: I expect this story will break into the national press in the next few days.

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