Changes at Trinity
Students, alumni and faculty at TWU concerned about leadership and LGBTQ inclusion.
A new president, a closing Theatre department, a massive influx in international students, and, as of March, the faculty are unionised. A lot has changed in the past five years at Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, B.C., Canada’s biggest Christian liberal arts school.
On March 10, after covid-related delays, TWU faculty finally received confirmation from the B.C. Labour Board that their unionization vote from October 2021 had been successful. This union is made up of full-time faculty members and they have chosen the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) to represent them.
“From CLAC’s knowledge, TWU’s faculty union is the first certified faculty union at a private Christian post-secondary institution in North America,” reported the TWU student paper Mars’ Hill.
This unionization drive came on the heels of a faculty association vote in July of 2021 when 71 percent of TWU faculty voted for non-confidence in President Mark Husbands. The Board of Governors decided to keep Dr. Husbands in his role despite faculty concerns.
Christian Courier spoke to Nathan Matthews from CLAC and he explained that transparency and job security are key priorities for the new union.
“Money was not the primary motivator,” emphasized Matthews. “The common theme amongst all faculty, whether it was from the Business faculty to the Arts faculty, to the Science and Religious Studies Department was: ‘We want a seat at the table [. . . ]. We love this place, and we want our voice to be heard.’” Matthews says almost every faculty member involved in the unionization drive has worked at TWU for more than 20 years.
Christian Courier asked if a union could have prevented some of the faculty departures TWU has seen in the past year.
“I’ve had a number of faculty ask me that exact same question,” admits Matthews, “‘Would things be different’?”
While he’s hesitant to speculate about the past, he assures these faculty members that there will be more accountability and support going forward.
Tensions between academic faculty and administrators is a reality at most universities, but what makes TWU and other Christian liberal arts institutions unique is that these conversations about values are happening within the context of theological debates.
Christian Courier talked to Jessie Legaree, a lawyer and TWU alum who has served as a director for the Alumni Association. She was the university’s spokesperson during the Supreme Court case in 2018 and is a strong advocate for the university. In February of this year, Legaree called out TWU leadership in a social media post.
“Today I am ashamed of the administration. There is a president who leads with fear, not love. An administration that has rooted out and isolated voices it doesn’t agree with. And a mass exodus of ‘friendly’ well respected (largely female) faculty,” writes Legaree.
She added an update to that post a few days later after having lunch with Dr. Husbands and hearing his side of the story, saying he had “extended an olive branch.”
“Dr. Husbands arrived to a campus divided between those willing to sacrifice the school’s traditional theological underpinnings for the sake of influence as a top academic institution and those wanting to batten down the theological hatches,” Legaree told CC. “This divide existed long before [Dr. Husbands] got there, was inflamed throughout the law school debate and now seems to be coming to a head.”
Legaree adds, “it was clear that Dr. Husbands places great value on Christian higher education and it is important to him that it be done ‘right,’ while we may disagree on what ‘right’ is.”
As TWU works through different visions of what a ‘right’ Christian education is, the institution is guided by a strategic plan that will change the face of the university by 2030. Already 55 percent of TWU’s student body are international students and the strategic plan calls for doubling the TWU student body in the next six years. This growth will likely be in Business and Leadership, two programs seeing approximately 30 percent year over year increased enrollment – virtually all from international students. Another avenue for that growth will be adding more pathways for international students to complete degrees without ever coming to Canada, as well as expanding “market-relevant, fully online degree programs, certificates and micro-credentialling.” Meanwhile, less “market-relevant” degrees, like Theatre and Acting, will be gone by 2024.
The reasons for closing an academic department are always multifaceted and the board would have considered the impact on students within the department. But One TWU, an LGBTQ support group on campus says that queer students are grieving the loss of a space where students of all genders and orientations were able to learn from each other.
“The Theatre department was the only department on campus when I was there that had out queer students,” says Matthew Wigmore, a co-founder of One TWU who graduated in 2016.
This year, Wigmore co-organized the annual One TWU storytelling event with Carter Sawatzky. For the first time in eight years, the university didn’t allow them to promote or hold the event on campus. Sawatzky (who uses they/them pronouns) says they received this news back in December during the same week they heard about Bekett Noble’s death by suicide.
“It was kind of like a double whammy of disappointment and despair,” recalls Sawatzky, “because someone just like me with really similar experiences in Hamilton, Ontario, had died by suicide with a similar kind of Christian university conditions.”
Sawatzky met with university administrators regularly up until the fall of 2022 when they left a meeting feeling bullied. In March 2022, Sawatzky had reported in Mars’ Hill about the departures of several female administrators. This included former Dean of Education Dr. Allyson Jule who was named one of Canada’s top 10 professors in 2016.
In her interview with Mars’ Hill, Dr. Jule said that when her deanship was up for renewal in 2021, she was told that her “desire to show care to all persons, including LGBTQ+ persons, appears to make it difficult [for her] to model an institutional perspective as Dean.”
The article included quotes from Dr. Sonya Grypma, then-Vice Provost, who left TWU shortly afterward. After writing that article, Sawatzky says that the meetings they had with TWU admin about general LGBTQ inclusion devolved into personal attacks.
“They said that it was hard to take me seriously. They said that the president was hurt by the things that I’ve said.” Sawatsky was also accused of damaging women, causing Dr. Grypma to leave and threatening TWU’s accreditation for their professional schools.
Supporting queer students
One TWU and the university administration have, in the past, had a good relationship. In 2018, when TWU was fighting a Supreme Court battle for the right to an accredited law school, Wigmore had asked then-president Bob Kuhn if One TWU should go underground. Wigmore says President Kuhn had encouraged the group to continue doing their work publicly. One TWU ratified as a non-profit in 2021 and is now seeking to raise $100,000 with a campaign called #heretostay. It hopes to hire a chaplain, enhance its digital marketing and ensure the sustainability of One TWU’s mission.
“I sometimes wonder if Trinity should be thanking us,” says Wigmore. “We’re looking after their LGBTQ students. We’re advocating for them. We’re ensuring there are mental health services for them. We’re ensuring their spiritual care. We’re taking care of them in a way that, I believe, is politically impossible for the university to do.”
CC asked TWU to provide more details about how LGBTQ students are supported on campus. “TWU continues to work closely with LGBTQ+ students to understand their experiences,” they responded, “and together find ways to support and meet their needs within the context of our mission, vision and values. This work is being done through the Office of Inclusive Excellence in partnership with Student Life, together with LGBTQ+ students who desire to work together with the University.”
Space for diversity
Many TWU students, alumni and faculty still have hope that TWU can make space for differing visions of Christian education, wholehearted discussions on hard topics and reconciliation where trust has been broken. A faculty union and an LGBTQ chaplain may help elevate marginalized voices in these conversations.
“Why would we expect a Christian university with faculty, staff and students from a variety of Christian denominations to hold exactly the same view?” said former vice-Provost of Research and Graduate Studies Eve Stringham in Sawatzky’s Mars’ Hill article. “Goodness, if you can’t have healthy conversations about these matters at TWU, where can you?”
“If faith is what we think it is, if ALL people are children of God,” says Wigmore, “then we shouldn’t be terrified of them encountering other perspectives; in fact, we should welcome it.”
Being an alumnus of Trinity Christian College, and knowing about Trinity Deerfield, plus numerous other Trinity colleges, I wonder if the main headline should have said Trinity Western (I know it’s in the subhead).