Home Christian News Columbia Theological Seminary Accused of Racism Amid Influx of Black Students

Columbia Theological Seminary Accused of Racism Amid Influx of Black Students

columbia theological seminary
Participants in a “Blacklash March" pose at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Photo courtesy of Leo Seyij Allen

(RNS) — In 2018, the incoming class at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in the tree-lined suburbs of Atlanta, was 47% white and 16% Black. Just three years later, a 2021 admissions brochure advertised an incoming class that was more than 64% Black and 32% white.

Many of the Black students at CTS credit the Rev. Sam White, a beloved admissions director, who is Black, with the surge in diversity, and when White was terminated on June 21, it set off a week of recriminations and protest.

The day after the Juneteenth holiday, White was called into a meeting with President Leanne Van Dyk and informed he was no longer an employee at the school, according to White’s lawyer, Grace Starling with Barrett & Farahany. Starling said her client was told the firing, which the attorney says came without warning, was for “insubordination” — which White disputes. Instead, Starling said White’s termination constituted discrimination and retaliation. 

“In the middle of recruitment season, they’re pulling their director of admissions,” said Leo Seyij Allen, vice president of the seminary’s student government association. “I used to work in admissions at Candler (School of Theology, at nearby Emory University) so I know from experience, this is not what you do. And you don’t do it lightly.”

A seminary spokesperson said the school could not comment on legal matters, including “responses to unadjudicated statements or allegations from complainant’s attorneys.” The spokesperson added, “As a general statement, we regret that these limitations often hamper balanced narrative in public reporting.”

White arrived at the school in March 2020, two months before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off nationwide protests. In the aftermath, the new admissions director played a critical role in forming the seminary’s Repairing the Breach scholarship, according to students.

Launched in June 2020 as part of a series of racial justice commitments, the scholarship covers tuition and student fees for all Black students admitted into master’s degree programs. Many Black students said it was White and the Rev. Brandon Maxwell — a Black administrator who resigned in November — who made them aware of the scholarship and welcomed them to the seminary.

“Dean Maxwell was very adamant that this was the place I needed to be,” said Allen. “He told me, you want a place where you’ll be heard, you’ll be seen, and that there are faculty and staff and other students who have a similar mindset that’s oriented toward justice.”

Maxwell declined to speak with Religion News Service for this story.

Relations between White and the administration soured in September of 2021, according to a charge White later filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. White said in the filing that he informed Van Dyk that he had been interviewed by an attorney investigating racial and sexual-orientation discrimination against a colleague. After informing Van Dyk that he opposed how his colleague had been treated, White alleges that the administration retaliated.

“(M)y supervisors who are privy to my opposition have degraded my work product and work ethic to others at CTS, including the Board of Trustees, resources I need to do my job have been delayed, and duties have been removed from my purview,” White wrote in the EEOC charge.

The charge also claims Van Dyk denied White seminary-owned housing, though the benefit had been granted to other senior administrators, including White’s predecessors who were white.