This story, originally published for The Tartan, was part of an investigative project called “Define: Gordon.” The project received the 2017 Society of Professional Journalists National Mark of Excellence Award for In-Depth Reporting, Small School Division.
By: Liam Adams ‘17 and Taylor Bradford ‘19
Staff Writer and Editor-in-Chief
The work of the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) in Lynn did not become a success overnight, however, it took just about that for the 11-year program to fall apart.
It has been three years since President D. Michael Lindsay signed the controversial letter to then-President Obama. Since the letter, OCE and those who are or have been involved with the program are still feeling the repercussions of broken or strained relationships between neighboring communities and the College.
History of the OCE
In 2003, trustee Raymond C. Lee gave money to the college to enable students and faculty to integrate education and service within the community of Lynn.
Val Buchanan, now the assistant director of leadership and community engagement at Northwestern University, founded the inaugural program, calling it the Lynn Initiative.
Over the next five years, Buchanan and her staff worked to lay down a foundation of relationships with churches, schools and organizations in the city of Lynn. Gradually, new programs were established such as College Bound (2004) and the service-learning section to The Great Conversation (2006). By 2014, the OCE had grown to 28 weekly teams of 7 students at 14 different community partners through TGC service sections, according to the OCE Annual Report 2013-2014.
Eventually, as the ties between the Gordon and Lynn communities grew stronger, the program was renamed as Gordon in Lynn (GIL) in 2009.
Buchanan commented in a prior interview with the Tartan on the type or relationships that were built between the College and the city of Lynn, saying, “Our work in Lynn was relationally driven, mutually beneficial, and directed by the invitation of our Lynn partners.”
During the 2013-2014 academic year, over 564 Gordon students spent 17,575 hours serving off campus through involvement in OCE programs, according to a spreadsheet of OCE statistics of the 2013-2014, which Buchanan provided to the Tartan.
On the 10-year anniversary of Office of Community Engagement, StillPoint magazine wrote an article that said, “The OCE worked to foster mutual relationships that subverted the traditional paradigm of those who serve and those who receive. Stephanie Acker Housman (‘07) recalls the clear message that students should not regard Lynn as a ‘project city that we’re trying to save.’ Instead, the OCE puts Gordon students in the position of learners within the Lynn community and allows Lynners to invite them into relationship.”
Later, after the program took on the responsibilities of not only reaching out to Lynn, but of neighboring towns such as Gloucester and Salem, it was rebranded again to be called the Office of Community Engagement. OCE became the umbrella organization for GIL as well as other outreach programs that served the local communities.
July 1, 2014, President Lindsay Signs the Letter to President Obama
Circumstances for OCE shifted dramatically after President Lindsay signed the letter to President Obama to request exemption from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on July 1, 2014. Community members of the greater Boston area understood the letter to be discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people, causing many to publicly disassociate from the college.
The first of these disassociations occurred on July 9 when the Mayor of the city of Salem, Kimberly Driscoll, decided to sever ties with Gordon.
From the months of July to Sept. 2014, 14 Lynn community partners — Big Brother Big Sister of Mass Bay, Boys and Girls Club of Lynn, Lynn YMCA, The Food Project, Girls Inc., Operation Bootstrap, KIPP School, KIPP Adult ESOL Program, RAW Arts, Lynn Arts, Lynn Museum, Lynn School Committee, SOAR Program, and the NS Community College — also decided to sever ties with the college, according to a list of lost partners compiled by Buchanan.
In the midst of the fallout, Buchanan worked to salvage the remnants of Gordon’s relationships with Lynn community partners between the months of July and August.
Buchanan, commenting on her efforts during the months of July and August, said that she was “respecting community partners decisions, and not feeling victimized by those responses. And to allow rounds of dissociation to happen without retaliation, without responding, without the threat of legal action. And to allow some processing and time and the temperature to come back down for us to see where the invitations would be reopen or reestablished or see the pendulum swing on the public response.”
The “threat of legal action” that Buchanan referred to emerged in mid July when President Lindsay called Gordon’s faculty and staff together for a town hall meeting. In that meeting, Lindsay discussed how he might involve lawyers to deal with the issue of the city of Salem severing ties with Gordon, according to Buchanan. Buchanan began to worry, however, that Lindsay might deal with the partners in Lynn in a similar manner.
The debate over legal action only intensified after the Lynn School Committee called for a motion to sever ties with Gordon for its upcoming meeting on August 28.
Frustrated by the possibility that Lindsay would take legal action, Buchanan took efforts to express her dissatisfaction and anxiety. On July 28, Buchanan wrote a letter of concern to Lindsay.
In her letter, which was provided to the Tartan by Buchanan, she writes, “If you feel the need to push back on the decisions of our partners through the suggestion of legal action, I am prepared, with a heavy heart, to submit my resignation. My entire sense of passion and initiative in this partnership endeavor would be lost, and I could not in good conscience energetically lead Gordon students into the community.”
After writing this letter of concern, Buchanan took several actions in August to restore relationships between Gordon and the Lynn School Committee in light of the impending vote that was to take place at the end of the month. Buchanan met with different members of the Lynn School Committee over the month of August, trying to convince them to agree to alternative solutions.
One of the alternatives that Buchanan suggested to the Lynn School Committee was to have Gordon students sign an “Affirmation of Non-Discrimination” before going into the Lynn public schools. According to this document, Gordon students would agree to “engage with community partners, guests, and neighbors openly and inclusively, with a shared focus on our mutual goals of community service and educational opportunity. I affirm I am fully willing and capable to interact with and support any partner or guest regardless of race, age, disability, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation, working for the common good in local schools and communities, or with guests at campus programs and events.”
After meeting with the School Committee members and proposing the “Affirmation of Non-Discrimination,” Buchanan was hopeful that they would be able to preserve the relationships with the Lynn School Committee. Buchanan said, “I didn’t know 100% what was going to happen, but I felt very strongly that we had a chance to avoid the School Committee deciding to cut ties.”
Regardless of Buchanan’s interpersonal endeavors, lawyers eventually got involved. In an email exchange between VP of Student Life Jennifer Jukanovich and Buchanan on August 25, Jukanovich explained that President Lindsay initially involved lawyers because the Superintendent of the Lynn Public Schools, Catherine Latham, refused to meet Lindsay in person. Thus, Lindsay had his lawyers meet with Latham’s lawyers.
Lindsay had desired to meet with Latham to discuss the legal implications of a possible severing of ties between Gordon and the Lynn Public Schools, according to an interview Lindsay had with the Tartan in the September 19, 2015 edition.
Unsettled by the involvement of lawyers, Buchanan wrote her first of two resignation letters on Aug. 25, reasserting her desire to maintain relationships with Lynn that are “personal, mutual, and, non-coercive in nature.”
Aug 28, Goodwin and Proctor Letter and the Severing Ties Vote
Three days after Buchanan sent her first resignation letter, circumstances escalated. Some people involved said it was because Lindsay further involved lawyers.
Buchanan received a phone call on Aug. 28, hours before the Lynn School Committee was to vote on their relationship between the College and the Lynn Public Schools. The phone call, from a Lynn community member, notified her that one of Lindsay’s lawyers, Kevin P. Martin of Goodwin & Proctor, had sent John C. Mihos, Esq.,. Latham’s attorney, a legal memo. The contents of this legal memo notified the Lynn School Board that they were in violation of Lindsay’s First Amendment rights by threatening to cut ties with the college.
Martin wrote, “Nonetheless, we understand that, as a direct response to the July 1 letter, some Committee members have called on the Lynn public schools to sever all ties with Gordon College. The motivation behind this proposed step is not in doubt: it is in direct retaliation against Gordon College for its president’s public comment concerning the content of a federal Executive Order.”
The legal memo iterates that the college’s goal was not litigation, but that the “precipitous action by the Committee runs the risk of opening a Pandora’s box involving third parties.”
Shortly after these events occurred, Lindsay commented on the reasoning behind sending the legal memo in an interview with the Tartan. He said, “Because I love my wife I would never want for her to knowingly make a mistake that could have a pernicious effect on her. So we approached our relationship with Lynn in the same way. We received legal counsel that suggested that what the school committee was doing was not only unconstitutional, it was illegal. In that context, the Attorney General of the State of Massachusetts could take action against Lynn.”
Lindsay expounded upon his claim that his actions were precautionary, rather defensive (as many people, including the Lynn School Committee members, interpreted it). He said, “There are some members of the school community that wanted to posture politically and suggest that somehow we were using this as a guise to take legal threat. To suggest that is outright untrue, and is deliberately misleading for political reasons. We have made clear all along we have no desire to do that.”
Upon hearing the news that Goodwin & Proctor had sent a legal memo to the Lynn School Board, Buchanan went to Lindsay’s office to inform him that she was fairly certain that she would resign from her position as Director of the Office of Community Engagement.
Buchanan said, “All throughout the time, he [Lindsay] was aware that this was my line in the sand. Involving lawyers, threatening legal action is something that I didn’t feel like we would come back from that decision. I didn’t want to be defending that situation. I couldn’t maintain my zeal for that foundation that I had set if that was going to be the conditions of how we were going to relate to our partners. All of my energy fell.”
On the night of Aug. 28, the Lynn School Committee votes were cast: 4-3. The Lynn School Committee would be severing ties with Gordon College. According to ex-Communication Arts professor Rini Cobbey’s notes of the Lynn School Committee meeting, John Ford, a committee member, said that Kevin Martin’s legal memo was a factor of why he was voting against Gordon. Buchanan provided the Tartan with Cobbey’s notes.
Buchanan, heartbroken by the fact that an 11-year relationship was terminated with one letter, was “feeling emotional and physical strain of the severing of the partnerships.”
To process the unpredictable events of the past two months, Buchanan took two weeks off from work. During that time, Buchanan came to the conclusion that she would be resigning from her position as the Director of the Office of Community Engagement.
On Oct. 21, Buchanan wrote her final resignation letter to the Gordon Administration. In her letter, Buchanan wrote “The last three months have been heartbreaking as I have witnessed a large majority of our longstanding community partnerships become severely troubled or come to an abrupt end. Even more consequentially, I have lost confidence that I would be able to continue at Gordon College as the visionary and energetic leader of our campus-community engagements considering the difference in partnership philosophy that has been evident in my response, and the College’s official response, to the current crisis.”
Buchanan continued, “I am extremely grateful to Gordon College and the Lynn community for making this bridge-building work so personally rewarding for so many years…This work has truly been a thrilling and joyful experience for me.”
Buchanan officially left Gordon College on Nov. 4.
After the Departure of Buchanan
In the aftermath of the Lynn School Committee vote and the resignation of Buchanan, the Office of Community Engagement sought addiction treatment. Those left to deal with the alteration of the OCE were Vice President of Student Life Jennifer Jukanovich, Associate Director Katie Knudsen and six upperclassmen who were the 2014-2015 Lynn Fellows.
Sara Sessa ‘15, a Lynn fellow, commented on the dramatic change the events of the summer had on the operations of OCE. “We were now in crisis mode,” Sessa said, “so no one had the ability to carry out his or her original job expectations. As our entire program vanished overnight, we basically had to recreate a new intern program within the first few weeks of school. The fellows and myself were now focused on salvaging and rebuilding community contacts, emotionally supporting interns, creating new learning opportunities for interns, and finding new opportunities to get connected with in Lynn.”
Prior to the crisis, the Lynn Fellows helped Buchanan and Knudsen direct the college’s service programs that partnered with Lynn community organizations. They also oversaw the Lynn-terns, who were students that led freshman from The Great Conversation (TGC) service classes into Lynn to work with the community partners.
As a result of the transition of leadership within the Office, Knudsen found her responsibilities altered. She had been working in the OCE since the fall of 2013 and was in charge of coordinating with the Lynn Public Schools and collaborating with Gordon professors to create academically-based service learning opportunities for their students. Now, Knudsen’s responsibilities expanded, finding new partnerships for the TGC service classes and working to mend relationships with community partners that had previously severed ties.
After Buchanan left, Knudsen was successful in forming new partnerships, such as with North Shore Christian School, St. Mary’s Catholic School and an Adult Day Center. Furthermore, she was able to reinstitute six TGC service classes back into Lynn by the spring of 2015, after the program was frozen for the fall of 2014. By the end of the year, she had established enough partnerships in Lynn for 8 or 9 TGC classes to return to Lynn the next Fall.
Commenting on Knudsen’s achievements, Sessa said, “She was asked to do a full-time job on a part-time salary and time limit. I did not see the administrative office [CSD] the OCE fell under doing anything to offer Katie support during these tremendous circumstances. Despite these obstacles, Katie did an excellent job filling in for Val.”
Knudsen discussed her accomplishments from the spring of 2015 in an interview with the Tartan, saying, “It was my goal to run a good program that Spring for the students that we could serve and also to find more partners for the coming fall of 2015. My ultimate goal was to get back to the same number of TGC classes. And I think we could have done it.”
Knudsen’s aspirations were interrupted, however, when she was laid off in the summer of 2015 as part of Gordon College’s financial reset. In the face of a budget shortfall, the college established two “Priorities Committees” to decide which faculty and staff cuts should be made to “prioritize” the budget, according to an email from President Lindsay on August 14, 2015. Among these “budget prioritization” decisions, it was decided that the position of the Associate Director of the OCE should be cut.
A New OCE
In the summer of 2015, Greg Bish, former Director of Student Programs and Student Leadership at Houghton College, arrived at Gordon to fill the position of Director of the Office of Community Engagement.
As director, Bish “developed, diversified and maintained innovative community partnerships across Boston’s North Shore to develop and enhance opportunities for campus-community partnership work,” according to his LinkedIn.
In fall of 2016, the Office of Community Engagement was rebranded to be called the Office of Service Learning (OSL) to highlight the new focus of the Office.
Bish commented that while the institution will be incorporating what the OCE once was, OSL hones in on one part of the greater whole.
Under Bish’s leadership, OSL is now focusing on service learning within the classroom, connecting “faculty, courses and course outcomes with community service projects that both enhance the student learning as well as benefit the local community,” said Bish.
“True service learning is academically based. Not that you don’t learn through service, but true service learning is faculty driven, it is course driven,” said Bish.
Christina Waller ‘16, a Massachusetts Campus Compact Vista working within the OSL, gave some insight on how it has been difficult to see the changes in the program. She said, “When you know something to be a certain way for so long and you know it to be good and you saw how it functioned you have this certain bias. I think as humans we are not receptive to change and so for me it has been difficult because I know the way it used to run and I know it what it used to look like.”