ESR dean announces resignation, then is pushed out

Earlham School of Religion sign in Richmond, Ind. Photo by Seandreas.

Updated: January 8, 2020

On December 4, 2020, Earlham School of Religion (ESR) Dean Matt Hisrich announced his resignation, to be effective December 31, 2020, ahead of a move to Canton, Ohio, with his family. But following a letter to the ESR Board of Advisors, faculty, and students that expressed his concerns about ESR’s relationship to Earlham College, Hisrich was dismissed on December 16.

ESR was founded in 1960 by Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and has maintained relatively independent operations throughout most of its history as the oldest graduate seminary associated with the Religious Society of Friends.

During Hisrich’s tenure as dean since 2018, ESR added two new master’s programs and enrollment doubled from fall 2019 to fall 2020. But in spring 2020, amidst ongoing financial shortfalls that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Earlham College began exerting more control over the seminary.

On May 11, Earlham College President Anne Houtman informed ESR that the Earlham Board of Trustees had decided to de-designate about half of the $49 million that ESR had previously considered its endowment. Houtman also required ESR to cut its budget 20 percent, leading to three layoffs. Hisrich, a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond and a recorded minister with the New Association of Friends, was later informed that employees of ESR would no longer report to him directly.

Matthew Hisrich. Photo courtesy of Earlham College.

On December 10, following his resignation, Hisrich sent his letter, which questioned the college’s decisions and offered three “steps forward” to right the relationship between ESR and the college: “(1) Return the de-designated endowment funds . . . (2) return direct reporting of ESR administrative faculty to the dean of ESR; and (3) restore the autonomy necessary for ESR to fulfill its distinct and board-approved mission and strategic plan.”

On December 15, Houtman responded with a note of her own to the ESR Board of Advisors stating that Hisrich’s reflections were “filled with misinformation and misinterpretation, and reflect more than anything a deep misunderstanding of ESR’s fiscal situation, its relationship to Earlham, and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time.” The note also stated that “this is not the first time Matt has behaved unprofessionally in our work together.”

The morning of December 16, Hisrich learned that his Earlham email account had been turned off. After inquiry, Hisrich found out from the director of Earlham College human resources that his employment was being ended immediately instead of on December 31 as previously planned.

ESR faculty and students gather outside the seminary in support of outgoing dean Hisrich as he departed on his last day, December 16, 2020. Photo used with permission.

About 20 faculty and students gathered in front of the seminary that day in support of Hisrich as he departed. Faculty minuted “its deep appreciation to Matt Hisrich for his visionary, affirming, steady, deft, and gracious leadership,” noting his “departure is a considerable loss for ESR.” An open letter shared by alum Margaret Hawthorne (MDiv, 2008) reiterating the steps forward from Hisrich’s letter has gathered over 100 signatures as of December 21.

In her note, Houtman states that Earlham College will “conduct a national search for a Quaker theologian with administrative experience and expertise” to serve as the next ESR dean. She could not be reached for further comment. ESR associate professor of pastoral care Jim Higginbotham will serve as acting dean.

Reached for comment, Hisrich said, “I believe we are at a pivotal moment for Quaker institutions of learning in the United States. How will those institutions, and how will Friends, respond? If we set aside Quaker principles and identity for the sake of survival, will what is left be worth preserving? I’m not convinced that it will be.”

Erik Hanson

Erik Hanson is a news editor for Friends Journal. Do you know about any Quaker news stories we should be covering? Send us tips at [email protected].

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