Caeden Tinklenberg-Staff Writer
On Saturday, April 9, 2016, students enrolled in Theology 352, a leadership, discipleship and formation class, heard the notification of a new email arriving in their inboxes. At 9:38 a.m., Associate Professor of Theology Jason Lief sent his class a message with the subject line ‘Explanation’.
“All, I would like to explain my absence for the past week or so of classes,” Lief wrote. “The past two weeks have been very difficult as I have been dealing with issues related to my employment at Dordt College. [Due] to these issues, which unfortunately I am unable to discuss with you, I have decided to accept a position at Northwestern College starting next Fall.”
This announcement brought an end to a process that Lief had been working on the entire academic year. Starting with summer work and rolling into the first few weeks of school, the early fall of 2015 saw Lief brushing up an updated version of his four-year articulation paper, reflecting on teaching evaluations, compiling his annual contribution and development plans and preparing a presentation on his original professional work: “Back to the Future: A Reformational Engagement of the Two Kingdoms Perspective,” insights from a chapter he wrote for the book, “Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective.”
All of these documents, according to the faculty handbook, are required components of an application for extended term contract status available for eight-year faculty. Lief, who began teaching theology at Dordt in 2006, was finally eligible to apply for an extended contract that would grant three years between reviews instead of two.
Now, one year later, Lief is gone and his divorce from Dordt has left festering wounds among some faculty members and students. Mary Dengler, Professor of English, said there hasn’t been an issue like this at Dordt in her 17 years.
“We were devastated, we were disappointed; young faculty were stunned,” Dengler said.
In an effort to reconcile these emotions and prevent future similar occurrences, an ad hoc committee from the academic senate was formed at the April 27, 2016 senate meeting. The ad hoc committee produced a report on May 18 that included a list of recommendations. For most of the Dordt community, the reasons for these recommendations, the recommendations themselves and the degree to which they have been heeded by those at which they were directed remain a mystery.
The aftermath of these events has also stirred numerous rumors on campus as some students and faculty struggle to understand what happened. To bring clarity, the Diamond gathered the following report:
Assistant Professor of Theology Benjamin Lappenga remembers sitting in his office when Lief knocked on his door. It was November 18, 2015. Lief wasn’t alone. Lappenga said in the next minutes, a student confessed to both him and Lief of actions that demonstrated a violation of Dordt’s policy on student conduct.
As required to attain a certain degree, the student was enrolled in a practicum at a local organization. Professor of Philosophy Mark Tazelaar said that as the student’s practicum supervisor, Lief chose to immediately withdraw the student from the practicum and not grant credit. Tazelaar said that the student was also trying to set up a spring practicum at another organization. When contacted later in February by the person who was going to lead the practicum, Lief indicated that he was not comfortable with the arrangement. The organization canceled. Lief also notified Robert Taylor, Dean of Students, of the misconduct, according to Lappenga.
After a police investigation, the student was not charged with any crimes.
Lappenga described Lief’s actions as “commendable behavior, by the book.”
The student, who did not agree to answer questions posed by the Diamond, posted a picture to Facebook on December 16, 2015 that read: “Goodnight Dordt College. It’s been a wonderful three and a half years. Thank you all for everything. Soli Deo Gloria.” He did not return for the spring semester.
According to the Dordt course catalog:
Once each year the members of the [theology] department will discuss each student’s fitness to continue in the [certain] program. A majority of the department members must approve a student to graduate with a [certain] major.
According to Lappenga, at the February 9, 2016 theology department meeting the theology faculty voted unanimously to not allow the student to graduate from the program.
The situation appeared to be resolved.
When spring classes resumed in 2016, the Faculty Status Committee (FSC) interviewed Lief and the seven other eight-year faculty candidates. According to the annual report of the committee to the academic senate, all eight faculty were recommended for contract renewal. The FSC sent a letter of recommendation for Lief to Dordt College Provost Eric Forseth on February 9, 2016, according to Tazelaar. The committee report states that each letter “highlighted and encouraged [the] candidate’s contributions, strengths, potential for development.” Recommendation letters to the provost from area leaders were also expected by February 20, according to the faculty handbook.
The faculty handbook also states that “by March 1, the provost shall review all evaluative sources and make a recommendation to the president.” If the president agrees with the recommendation, he shall pass it on to the Board of Trustees. The board is the official governing body of Dordt College and any decision made is final.
Only one more hurdle for Lief: the board interview.
But then there were more.
Tazelaar said it is standard practice for the president to have a “pre-interview preparation meeting” with eight-year faculty members before their board interview. Lief’s meeting with Dordt College President Erik Hoekstra was scheduled for March 21, 2016. In an interview with the Diamond, Hoekstra denied to comment on any part of Lief’s contract renewal process due to “fiduciary responsibilities of the college.”
The administration declined to comment on any matter related to specific employees or students that are not matters of public record.
Hoekstra referenced a paragraph describing the role of the office of the president in the Educational Task of Dordt College. Written by the faculty and adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1996, “This document now serves as the biblically-based, confessional foundation for the entire academic enterprise at Dordt College.”
Tazelaar said that on the morning of his meeting with the president, Lief answered a phone call from his wife. Theology department chair and area leader Wayne Kobes was at the front door of Lief’s house. Kobes and Lief agreed to meet in the campus center, according to Tazelaar.
“The president can’t meet with you,” Kobes said, according to Tazelaar. Kobes then handed Lief a letter.
Kobes did not respond to the Diamond’s repeated requests for comment.
Lief asked Kobes, “Am I in trouble?” Kobes didn’t know, said Tazelaar.
Lief turned next to Tazelaar, who also serves as the chair of the faculty status committee. He was in the dark, as well. To figure out what was going on, Lief requested to meet with the president the next day.
Tazelaar said that it was then, when Lief opened the letter on the day of his meeting with the president, that Lief first learned that the student he pulled from the practicum had delivered a complaint regarding instruction against him to the Office of Academic Affairs.
The Diamond obtained a document addressed from Hoekstra with the subject line “Board Interview” and dated March 28, 2016. According to this memo, addressed to Lief, the president was also aware of the complaint and said “the postponement of the ‘pre-interview preparation meeting’ originally set for Monday, was simply to allow for us all to do some preliminary research on the student appeal.”
The student handbook describes the process for pursuing complaints regarding instruction:
Concerns must be specific and the party making a complaint must do so personally with the individual(s) involved. Every attempt must be made to resolve the problem as close to its origin as possible. If the problem is not resolved with the instructor, efforts should be made next with the instructor’s area leader and then with the dean for curriculum and instruction. The Curriculum and Academic Policies Committee [CAPC] will consider written, signed complaints only after all other levels have proven to be unsatisfactory. The committee’s decision will be binding.
According to Robb De Haan, Professor of Environmental Studies and CAPC member, when the committee hears student complaints, they make decisions such as changing grades. “The CAPC has final decision on a grade, but no final decision on faculty contract. That’s the provost’s job to make those kinds of recommendations,” De Haan said.
De Haan also noted that neither the president nor the board involve themselves in student appeals.
On March 22, Lief met with Hoekstra, Forseth, Tazelaar and Kobes, said Tazelaar.
“It was unfortunate,” Tazelaar said, “how it happened.”
According to Tazelaar, the complaint regarding instruction brought forward by the student cited that Lief had unjustly removed him from a practicum for a crime he was never charged for. He was seeking credit for the practicum so that he could graduate with a certain degree. He also alleged that Lief told him “there is no way in hell I am allowing you to continue working” in the practicum.
Lief was the only professor subject to the complaint even though the entire theology department voted to bar the student from graduating with a certain major.
“I would have thought he [Lief] should have been dismissed if he didn’t dismiss the student from the program,” Dengler said.
According to Associate Professor of Social Work Abby Foreman, the spring board meeting was moved up from when it normally occurs each year. This change created a situation where there was no time to review the complaint since it came in only days before the board interview.
“The timing was just so crazy,” said Foreman, who also serves as the secretary of faculty assembly.
Tazelaar said that the administration explained the complaint to Lief and said they would have to investigate. Lief’s eight-year review process had been frozen, and Lief wasn’t going to have his scheduled board interview. According to Tazelaar, alternative contract possibilities, such as a special contract, that would allow time for the complaint to work itself out were discussed in the meeting.
The faculty handbook explains a special contract:
A special one-year contract is a contract reserved for reasons agreed upon by the provost and the faculty member. The president issues the contract and informs the board. Normally a special contract will not be renewed.
According to Tazelaar, Lief didn’t want a special contract. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t go forward with the board interview. With no resolution, the meeting was adjourned.
When recently asked if a complaint regarding instruction had influenced any contract renewals last year, Forseth said, “I can’t comment on that.”
Tazelaar offered possible explanation for why administration was concerned about the complaint against Lief. “Unlike [professors] who get to hide in the classroom, [administration] do have to feel these concerns from the community,” he said.
At this point the complaint was turned over to Leah Zuidema, the Dean for Curriculum and Instruction, to oversee as instructed in the student handbook.
Administration confirmed that Hoekstra made contact with the executive officers of the board to discuss the situation. Some of the board members knew about the complaint, according to Tazelaar, who also said that Hoekstra did not inform all of the board members of the complaint.
Two of the student’s relatives have served the college in appointed leadership positions.
According to documents shared with the Diamond by a faculty member, the board’s executive officers brainstormed a solution that would allow both processes to move forward. Pending board approval, Lief would be verbally offered an extended contract, but not formally issued or allowed to sign it until the favorable resolution of the complaint against him.
Rev. John Lee, chair of the academic affairs committee of the board, declined an interview request but said, “the board has carefully looked into this whole situation.”
Tazelaar recounted that Lief was out of town for a conference on March 24 and 25. When he returned on Monday the 28th, he, Tazelaar, Forseth and Hoekstra met again.
As recalled by Tazelaar, at the start of this meeting Hoekstra and Forseth apologized for getting off on the wrong foot during the first meeting. Hoekstra proceeded to explain to Lief what he and the executive officers had decided to do regarding Lief’s contract renewal.
“I did not believe it was appropriate for the two to be connected,” said Lief in a written statement to the Diamond, “so I repeatedly asked that they give me my contract and then let me go through the complaint against instruction process.”
Lief declined numerous request for on-the-record interviews.
After Lief left the room, Tazelaar remained to tell Hoekstra and Forseth how upset Lief was. “You guys don’t know what you’ve done,” Tazelaar recalled saying. “You don’t know how rattled he is.”
Donald Roth, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, teaches a theory in his business law class: contra proferentem, Latin for “interpretation against the draftsman.” It means that in scenarios when one party is dictating the terms of a contract to the other, any ambiguity about the terms of the contract should be interpreted in favor of the weaker party.
“It is up to Dordt to be as clear as possible,” Roth said, “but in this case, the faculty handbook is ambiguous. The ambiguity can be solved by saying that the two process are separate and the complaint should be handled apart from the contract renewal process, or it can be solved by acknowledging that the president’s recommendation is an additional step of approval and knowledge of open complaints regarding instruction are legitimate grounds to not recommend.”
Roth does not think the ambiguity went in favor of Lief. “I don’t disagree with Hoekstra’s interpretation, but it should have been made clear from the beginning.”
“You can’t just say we made this decision and you have to trust us,” added Tazelaar. “You have to find a way to communicate what were the pertinent issues and make a general explanation for the decision made, leaving room for disagreement.”
Tazelaar said that following Lief’s board interview on March 30, a few trustees wanted clarification on some theological views expressed by Lief. These questions were unrelated to the complaint. Later in the day, Forseth interrupted one of Lief’s classes to tell him that the board wanted to meet with him again, right now. According to Tazelaar, Lief left the classroom to answer their questions.
“I know that the board has their timelines, right, but come on,” Tazelaar said.
At the college’s annual Fellowship Dinner on March 31, Lief’s name was announced, along with the other eight-year candidates, as being approved for extended contracts. No mention was made of the contingent status of Lief’s contract.
According to Tazelaar, the president generally issues contracts directly to faculty, or they arrive in the professor’s mailbox in the next week.
“Although it was announced that I received my contract, I never received an actual contract to sign,” wrote Lief to the Diamond. “If I had received such contract I would have signed it, confident that the complaint against instruction would eventually be resolved in my favor.”
Lief requested another meeting with representatives of Dordt to urge that the complaint regarding instruction be treated as an issue separate from his contract, according to Tazelaar.
Tazelaar also said that on April 2, Lief met with and informed Dordt administration that Northwestern College had offered him a contract to teach in Orange City. At that time, Lief had not accepted the offer, but he wanted to let Hoekstra know that he was now considering it.
According to Tazelaar, this was not the first time NWC had reached out to Lief. The year before, the institutions had offering Lief a contract to teach youth ministry. At the time, however, Lief concluded that he was happy at Dordt and declined their offer. When NWC had difficulty filling the position, they returned to Lief with another offer.
According to documents shared with the Diamond, representatives from Northwestern gave Lief a week to consider their job offer.
Tazelaar said that administration provided no assurances during this meeting. He remembers Lief asking him “even if this resolves itself, am I always going to have some weird target on my back?”
According to Tazelaar, “It wasn’t just the complaint resolution nor its likely resolution at this point. It was the entire process that had become problematic, with an increasing sense that the future would be no different.”
Dordt does not have tenure. Even senior faculty are up for review every three years, although this review is not as extensive as the two-year reviews.
“You get your anal probe every third year instead of every two,” Tazelaar said.
The time for resolving the complaint was then estimated to be another 30-45 days.
Zuidema explained, in an email, the general time frame for a complaint regarding instruction:
I ask that the student, professor, and any others involved (division chair, CAPC if it gets to that level) respond to emails, voicemails, and meeting requests within 72 hours. They might all respond quickly, but not have a common meeting time available for several days. After a meeting, one party or another may want a day or two to consider next steps. All of this takes time, so any stage of the process could take a week or two to complete.
Zuidema wants students and professors to know that she works to help resolve these complaints in a timely way.
According to the “Board Interview” memo, administration said they first became aware of the complaint on March 18.
Lief said that on April 9, exactly a week after meeting with Hoekstra and Forseth, he signed the contract to join Northwestern.
In the email sent to his class that same morning, Lief warned students about a variety of rumors that may begin floating around campus regarding his departure. “I want to make a few things clear. I did pass my board interview, I was not fired, and I have done nothing wrong,” he wrote.
Tazelaar went to Hoekstra and told him that this situation may not be over. “If you really want him to stay, I think, even though it’s going to be embarrassing and weird, maybe what you need to do is contact Northwestern and say, ‘We’re really sorry that this led to this, but we’re going to ask that [Lief] actually retract his acceptance of your contract.’”
Later that day Hoekstra thanked Tazelaar for coming to him, said Tazelaar, and scheduled another meeting for April 12 with the goal of trying retain Lief.
According to Tazelaar, a contract was offered during the meeting, but it wasn’t a five year contract. The contract was also offered in conjunction with certain social obligations intended to restore trust between Hoekstra and Lief.
The two parties could not come to an agreement.
Lief confirmed the decision in his statement, “I was offered a contract at Northwestern, which I decided to take when my request to have the two processes disconnected was turned down.”
“What came out of this last meeting was clarity of how wide the gap was between Lief and Hoekstra,” said Tazelaar. “At one point I almost became a mediator.”
According to Dengler, it would have taken “a very strong, very courageous effort by administration to admit that they were wrong and that they want Jason back.”
“I really thought that we could have got beyond this,” said Tazelaar. “Both wanted yes, but it couldn’t be the way it once was, and there was no way that it could be anything other than what it was.”
“I was, and remain, bitterly disappointed,” he said.
When asked why he thought this situation turned out the way it did, De Haan said, “Personalities. Lief has a strong personality, and so do some administration members.” De Haan also said that Lief pushed things to move faster than was appropriate.
According to Tazelaar, only a few days later, most accusations in the complaint regarding instruction, except the grade for the practicum, were dropped. The entire complaint was eventually resolved.
It didn’t take long for word of Lief’s departure from Dordt to make the rounds through ranks of Dordt faculty.
“It was sort of like having a firecracker going off in your ear when you aren’t expecting it,” said Associate Professor of Biology Jeff Ploegstra. “I certainly read through the handbook with a greater attention to detail after this.”
At the April 18 campus assembly, Instructor of Language Studies Rikki Heldt remembers Associate Professor of English Howard Schaap asking the president why procedure wasn’t followed when renewing Lief’s contract. Hoekstra replied that it is was not the time or place for this discussion. Paul Fessler, Professor of History, asked, “Do I have to be worried about a [appointed leader’s] kid being in my class during a year of review?”
At the conclusion of the assembly a number of professors remained to talk about the issue with Forseth and Hoekstra. De Haan, a member of the academic senate, suggested that the issue be taken under consideration by the senate.
Prior to the campus assembly, De Haan was unaware of what had transpired regarding Lief. “A number of faculty knew things were going on, but most weren’t closely engaged,” he said.
The next day, Hoekstra sent out an email to all faculty acknowledging concerns and thanking them for speaking up. He expressed interest in continuing the dialogue around the contract renewal process.
The academic senate meeting on April 27 was well attended by visitors. The minutes from the meeting list the following guests by last name only: Jongsma Knauss, Lappenga, Mathews, Hawley, Heldt, Eppinga, Visscher, Frisch, Janssen, Schaap, De Roo, Drissell, De Smith, Culpepper, Shim, Clark, Miedema.
After devotions and a brief discussion of faculty handbook changes regarding activities policies, Senate Chair Wayne Kobes moved to bring the meeting into executive session to discuss sensitive matters regarding a faculty contract. According to the minutes, “This move was challenged, and there was a motion to remain in open session. This motion was not passed. Visitors in the room were excused as the senate moved into an executive session. The senate remained in executive session for the remainder of the meeting.”
Heldt said the debate over the motion to enter executive session lasted nearly 20 minutes.
No business professors were guests at the senate meeting. One professor from the business department compared the college to a large puzzle. “Some professors want to focus on one overturned piece,” he said, “but they may not be able to see the whole picture.” He said that Dordt is doing many great things and any individual disputes should not overshadow that larger picture.
A few weeks later, at the faculty assembly on May 12, De Haan explained that an ad hoc committee had been formed during the April 27 executive session of the senate to look into questions about the faculty contract processes that arose in light of Lief’s situation.
Foreman said that the ad hoc committee was formed because Hoekstra serves on the senate committee ex officio. “Due to the role of the president in the issue at hand, it wasn’t appropriate for him to be involved in the conversation,” she said.
Serving on this committee were senate members De Haan, Foreman, Tazelaar, Dengler, Art Attema and Forseth.
Foreman followed De Haan and summarized what the ad hoc committee had concerned itself with over the two weeks since its commissioning. Over five “listening sessions” that included conversations with the president, Lief and other individuals close to the situation, the committee pursued three goals:
- Gaining a better understanding of what transpired during Jason Lief’s contract renewal process.
- Listening to faculty concerns and facilitating improved trust relationships among all parts of the campus community.
- Identifying opportunities for correction, and for development or improvement of current policies, procedures and practices.
The ad hoc committee hosted three more listening sessions on May 16 and 17, specifically for faculty.
According to Foreman, no board members were asked to meet with the committee.
The committee met a total of twelve times between April 27 and May 18.
Foreman confirmed some general observations from the committee meetings: there was a history of tension between Hoekstra and Lief, Lief did not commit any moral or theological errors, the reason for the weight given to the complaint remains unclear and timing placed undue pressure on the process.
At the May 18 Academic Senate meeting, the ad hoc committee submitted a report describing the purpose of the committee, the work completed and recommendations to seven various offices and groups on campus. The report, which was voted on and approved by the senate at large, also included an expectation that the recommendations be completed or well under way by December 15, 2016. The report expected significant progress on recommendations made to the president, provost and Academic Senate by August 15, 2016.
Recommendations specifically made to the president and provost included, “A clear expression of humility on the part of the college would be to acknowledge the shortcomings and errors that occurred in this contract renewal process, and to apologize for these shortcomings… Work to enhance understanding and respect for ‘office’ on the part of faculty and administration. Regularly utilizing and operating within existing structures will expand trust among those on campus,” and more.
“The revision in policy will be good, but the close-knit-ness will be gone,” said Dengler.
On August 31, the academic senate reconvened for the first time since May 18. During the meeting, Foreman reported on the engagement of the recommendations made in the ad hoc committee report. Senators advised that they be able to talk with and hear from the president at a future meeting regarding recommendations made to him.
As of the most recent senate meeting from which minutes have been posted, February 22, 2017, no further mention of the president engaging recommendations have been made.
Administration released the following statement to the Diamond:
Regarding the follow-up on the ad hoc recommendations, President Hoekstra did indicate that in his 2016-17 annual performance goals with the Board of Trustees, there are action steps that he is accountable for in the areas of mindfulness of ‘office’ and improvements to the structural integrity of the various offices.
Provost Forseth also indicated that the new academic affairs structure with the new role of “Division Chair” which was set up in the summer of 2016, was also influenced positively by the findings and recommendations of the ad hoc group.
Progress has been recorded on other recommendations, including adding guidelines to the faculty handbook about complaints regarding instruction. The minutes also record ongoing conversation about revisions to policy guiding the contract renewal process.
Foreman noted that there is also conversation about changing the structure of the faculty status committee to include a board member as one possible way to strengthen the relationship between faculty and the board. According to Foreman, this would promote greater communication a stronger link. “It would triangulate it more,” she said.
A year after the formation of the ad hoc committee, professors are still grappling with the situation and its aftermath.
“When people experience something, they don’t forget it, and it will affect the way they work in the future,” said Foreman.
“I used to think about it night and day, around the clock. We lost a dear colleague,” said Dengler.
Dengler said the events of last year have morphed into a type of jargon within the English department: “Is this gonna turn into a Lief problem?”
“There is still a sense that faculty are vastly distant from administration,” Dengler said.
Some students also are experiencing grief in the wake of Lief’s departure. Marta Vander Top, a senior theology major, took at least one class with Lief every semester.
Vander Top said that when she returned to campus in the fall of 2016 Lief’s absence from campus seemed unaddressed. In her opinion, the lack of information shared with students sends a message.
“Dordt was like, ‘See, that never happened,’” she said.
Vander Top added that she now feels a gap within her own educational experience at Dordt. “Jason had such a huge influence on how I see ministry that I don’t think I would be the ministry leader that I am if I didn’t take classes from him,” she said.
Questions about purpose and role remain in some professors’ minds. “How is my job understood by all of these different parties? If these roles don’t match, I am left confused and distracted,” said Ploegstra. He expressed concern that many don’t realize the implications of this breakdown of roles. “Understanding of the role between students and faculty is as in jeopardy as [the role between] faculty and staff,” he said.
Some students expressed frustration about losing Lief. “I was pissed off because I had to switch jobs and find a new mentor,” said junior Damon Hawes. “I want an explanation.”
“Dordt messed up and cost students a great prof who cared about his students and colleagues,” said junior Brad Badudu. “Now everybody is afraid of losing their job for doing what is right.”
Not all professors expressed strong feelings about the events surrounding Lief’s contract renewal and many have put it behind them. When contacted, one professor said he believes the process is generally good. Another said this struck him as “old news” and still another asked, “why now?”
Others said they were not aware of the specifics of the situation.
“I remember hearing about it at a Faculty Assembly meeting long ago,” said Jeff Taylor, professor of political science. “I’ve heard rumors and speculation, but I can’t remember the details of what occurred and have no first-hand knowledge of any of it.”
According to Dengler, one half to two thirds of her peers either don’t know what happened, don’t care or simply chose not to get involved.
The Administrative Cabinet released another statement to the Diamond that said:
The administration regrets that we can’t say more about these types of personnel situations. We are supportive of the Senate’s ad hoc committee work and we anticipate working positively with faculty, staff, and students in the future.
Ploegstra pointed out two emerging silver linings. First, he mentioned that many faculty are critically analyzing the handbook to understand what it actually says. He also said he loves seeing more meeting of the minds on the roles of faculty and students, and that these events have “stimulated a lot of discussion, much of which has been fruitful.”
In regards to how Lief is handling his first year at Northwestern, Dengler said, “As far as I know, he’s content.”
Board member Lee added, “I am thankful, a year later, for a number of positive changes that have been made and I do see God’s leading, healing, and grace emerging from what has been a difficult time for all.”
On February 2, 2017 the student who filed the complaint against Lief received a theology degree from Dordt College.
Ashley Bloemhof contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note: This article was reviewed and approved by the Dordt College Administrative Cabinet prior to being published.
Another Editor’s Note: Please direct any complaints or comments regarding this article to firstname.lastname@example.org