Fired at Fifty-seven: My Fight for Justice in Christian Academia

This book is a quick read, less than 130 pages, but it's considerably more detailed than My Calvin Seminary Story, first published in 2006. It focuses to a large extent on behind-the-scenes shenanigans, quoting extensively from some very troubling documents that essentially tell my story. And the book also presents the distressing accounts of others who have been unfairly fired in Christian Academia. 

First 2 paragraphs of Preface

Fired at fifty-seven. Not the first time. I was fired at twenty-four. A fresh M.A. degree from Baylor University, now a waitress at an upscale seafood water-front restaurant right at the bridge going into Wildwood, New Jersey. I had worked my way through college collecting tips, but here I was overwhelmed with too many hot plates (no trays allowed) and too many options for oysters on the pages of a complicated menu. But the tips were good—sometimes, I’m sure, out of pure pity. By the end of the second week I was making great progress. My manager didn’t agree. With no warning he told me I would no longer be on the schedule. His decision was final. No apologies. I was shell-shocked. I drove home with a heavy heart and a heavy handbag full of change. The next day I started looking for another job.


I was fired for incompetence, fair and square. There was no gratuitous “god-talk.” This volume is devoid of god-talk on my part, though loaded with it from those who fired me at Calvin Seminary. Such god-talk may seem odd to those outside the Christian workplace. Here firings are sugar-coated with the “I’ve-prayed-about-it” defense. Indeed, if words are taken at face value, my firing was an incredibly holy process, hours upon hours of fervent prayer, God leading every step of the way. At one point I was even accused of not sufficiently appreciating their prayers on my behalf. This whole dynamic in Christian culture is nothing short of spiritual abuse.

Cast of Characters

Not counting myself, the lead characters are the 3 administrators at the seminary, President Neal Plantinga, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Henry DeMoor, and Vice President of Administration Duane Kelderman. Also featured are Sid Jansma, President of the Board of Trustees, Jack Nyenhuis, Board member and Mel Hugen, professor emeritus, who with Jack, were in charge of my "renewal."

But this book is not just about my situation. Also included in the volume are the stories of other who faced similar situations in academia.

Megan Lively, shamed at Southwestern Baptist Seminary 

Judith Bessant fired from an Australian university (RMIT).  

Sheri Klauda, fired from Southwestern Baptist Seminary 

Janay Garrick fired from Moody Bible Institute

Denise Isom fired from Calvin University

Phil Lestmann fired from Bryan College

Herbert Richardson fired from St. Michael’s, University of Toronto

Martin Scharlemann, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

Larycia Hawkins fired from Wheaton College


First Paragraphs of Introduction

In 2000, I became the first full-time female professor in Calvin Theological Seminary’s 125-year history. In 2003, a new three-man administration, without warning, removed me from tenure track and gave me a terminal appointment. I was single and fifty-seven. That decision set me reeling. I was stunned and shamed. In the weeks and months that followed, I was sabotaged, sandbagged, slandered, silenced and surveilled, all the while enduring sex discrimination, spiritual abuse, slut-shaming and chicanery of every stripe.


Having exhausted every possible avenue of in-house appeals, in 2005, I contacted the head of the CRC who arranged mediation. I now had the muscle to demand that President Neal Plantinga explain his slut-shaming accusations of “lapses into ungodliness,” “ungodly conduct” and other variations of ungodliness. Such accusations rumored within CRC circles was a clear charge of sexual immorality. It was critical that he be required to respond in writing. He submitted “notes” (allegedly written some two years earlier) of a meeting with me and Duane Kelderman, another administrator. He claimed he had asked me a straightforward question: 


           What followed, without pause, was a tirade—a stream of accusations (“of all the sexist tricks, to haul me in here and take me to the woodshed!”), expostulation, and sheer, incoherent rage. I’ve never in my ministry of thirty-one years witnessed anything like it. All entreaties with entreaty body language (“Ruth, we’re trying for a kinder, gentler, ethos. PLEASE help us!) were met with more venom, some of it vulgar (you know where you can shove that!”), and some of it derisive, and all of it motored by one of the single most explosive, out-of-control losses of Christian self-control that I’ve ever witnessed. This went on for thirty-five minutes. 


The accusation is fabricated and false in its entirety. But it does serve as a classic description of a hysterical woman. More on this accusation later, but at first glance one might wonder why the two top administrators would sit and listen for 35 minutes. And, likewise, why there was no mention in any of his emails, memos and letters to me in the next two years after this alleged rage and vulgarity?

Was Sex Discrimination the Reason I was Fired?

Some colleagues actually chortled when I raised the issue of sex discrimination. How is sex discrimination even possible, they wondered aloud, when all three of the administrators had affirmed gender equality? They apparently assumed that the term is defined only by obvious statements followed by actions.  If the administrators, for example, had said that a woman teaching at the seminary was “an abomination” (as a student had written in an evaluation) and then turned around and fired me, that would fit the definition.  


Not the legal definition, however.  If a woman who is as qualified as her male colleagues is singled out and terminated, that in itself is sex discrimination. I maintain that if my credentials had been placed alongside those of my colleagues (with name and gender masked), I would have ranked high. Thus, sex discrimination. . . . 

Henry’s shocking decision revealed a standard no male colleague was required to meet. Never before was a colleague given a terminal appointment and removed from tenure track if two administrators (or even two colleagues) stated on a faculty evaluation that a professor should not be reappointed. Such is blatant sex discrimination. (In fact, in one instance an individual who was seeking an appointment for a teaching position had seven faculty votes against him. Yet he received the appointment. The administrators held power and they wanted him.

The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made it “unlawful for an individual to be discriminated against in the workplace in relation to selection for a job, training, promotion, work practice, dismissal or any other disadvantage such as sexual harassment.” That Act was repeatedly violated during my time at the seminary. Also included is the following stipulation: “It does not matter what the employer’s intention or motive was.” A woman making a complaint needed “to make a comparison between how she was treated and how a man would have been treated. She can either point to an actual colleague, or refer hypothetically to how a man would have been treated.” A colleague, challenging Neal and Henry, stated bluntly that the process was biased. 

I pointed out that the criteria of pedagogic excellence being applied [to her] were inappropriate for an initial reappointment since . . . none of the presently tenured faculty had ever been evaluated for their initial reappointment by these standards and that it was unjust to apply them to her. . . . [W]e are applying different, gender-biased criteria to her reappointment.

"CTS and I have grave concerns"

This was a phrase Neal used in a formal letter to me in the spring of 2005. His use of the term “CTS and I” is very telling, as though he spoke for the entire seminary community. So, what did “CTS and I” have grave concerns about? He continued: “what we view as numerous violations by you of the terms the Board set for your continued employment at CTS”—in other words, my seminary.


I wrote this on the header of my blog entitled CALVIN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: "What is Calvin Seminary? Is it a beautiful campus, course syllabi, committee minutes, student senate proposals, chapel programs? Is it students, staff, faculty, administrators, past and present? Is it all of the above and more? The Seminary must never be equated with Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and the other administrators. It is thousands of things and thousands of people, including Ruth A. Tucker, its first full-time woman faculty member." 

And, in fact, a lot of people connected with the seminary had "grave concerns" about Neal and the other two administrators, and a lot of students and others felt terrible about my being fired, as the next paragraphs demonstrate.

Blogging “My Calvin Seminary Story”

The first nine chapters of the book narrate the awful ordeal I endured at the seminary for three and a half years. The paragraphs that follow make up a portion of the final chapter.


During my time at the seminary, personal blogging was coming into its own, and by the time I left in late August of 2006, I was ready to launch my story. I had a ready-made audience, and many seminary students contacted me with support. Colleagues were silent. In the midst of the chaos, the administrators were trying to keep a lid on things—except for gossip of my “ungodliness.” But my blog did prompt passionate responses, as this sampling indicates: 


Male head of a Grand Rapids ministry: “I've read through your story at the link below. You've been through a wrenching experience and I respect you more than ever for handling it as you have. I think you're right to stand your ground.”


Seminary student of mine: [My wife] “and I have both said from the time we set foot on campus at CTS that there is an “aura of suspicion there.  If you're not like everyone else, then you must be in the wrong (maybe even "ungodly"?). . . . I am 100% with you on this garbage of using the ‘confidential’ label so you do not have to give details and can make some kind of accusation or recommendation without any real basis. . . . But to pull out a bunch of worthless red herrings that they can't even defend as close to the truth, that is just plain wrong.”  


Male head of a large Pasadena ministry: “I read every word. . . . I am sure this is a blow. CTS is also damaged. They have shot themselves in the foot. I am terribly sorry. Yours is a chapter in the growing up of the CRC.”


Male corporate executive from Washington state with Princeton Seminary connections: “Got it, read it. Will fw it to as many as I can.”


Seminary married students: “We're thinking of you and your sad experience with CTS. Thank you for sharing this with us, as painful as it may be for you. Receive our sympathy and love.”


Leading male CRC administrator: “Be sure that you know some of the rest of us are also saddened by your evident pain and continuing distress. Someday I may want to share with you my own story of what some would call my “marginalization” by Calvin Seminary.


Previous administrator at seminary: “Thank you for alerting me to your ‘blog.’ It is done with graceful forthrightness. Your sense of pain at believing you were done grievous injustice is palpable, but I do not sense any vindictiveness in your statement. I have always admired and appreciated you as a colleague. Thanks for your fine contributions to education at Calvin Seminary. My very best wishes for you and John in all your future endeavors.”


Long-time female seminary staff member: “Reading through it just quickly brings back the sadness and hurt you have had to endure for so long.”


Female seminary student: “I just read your blog and don't have adequate words to say how sorry I am for what you've gone through and how appalled I am at what the CTS administrators have done. . . . This is so devastating for you and for the school as a whole. I, too, am sad that students won't get to learn from you and be forced to think by you!  Your ability to present material and challenge students to address the gray areas of theology and ministry are such a gift and these are needed in a denomination that has the tendency to hide behind cut and dried theology. Oh how my heart hurts for you.”


Male seminary student: “It's clear you've been having an awful time in the past year! I had no idea. It sounds like much of this was in process even while I was in your Missions History class. Again, I was clueless to your turmoil. What a heavy burden you must have been carrying the whole time! How lonely! It sounds very difficult and very messy. I'm so sorry.”


Female Fuller Seminary professor: “I missed you at Techny this year and wondered what had happened.  I'm very sorry for what you have endured.  You'll always be a hero to me.”


Long-time CRC minister: “I would hope that WVD did not partake in this charade at CTS. His daughter is a provost at Western Seminary. He is a seminary classmate of mine.”


Male CRC church member: “I am taking this opportunity to let you know that I am appalled that so-called Godly men have mishandled/mistreated you at the Sem. . . . I just want you to know that I support, or am behind you 100%.”


Female seminary graduate: “What a story. I'm saddened to know that you experienced such injustice (and hurt) and also by knowing how systematic such abuse can be. I sent the link on to quite a few members.” 


Male seminary professor from the Netherlands: “The most astonishing point is, of course, your testimony to what happened at Calvin. . . .I really am very proud of your great courage in this regard. You must have a very strong spirit, because a lot of people would not be able to cope stress after stress.”


Male graduate of seminary: “I grieve with you over the events of the past three years.  I would add that these events, in my opinion, did not affect your professionalism nor your fine interaction with students. I have been most grateful for your friendship and encouragement since I came to CTS in 2003. Thank you for encouraging me in my calling and in my studies!”


Husband/wife professors and authors: “[We] just spent an hour reading it and some of the related material, and talking about it. As veterans of the Christian academic world our first response is ‘no surprise’ and yet, dear God, ‘surprise’ indeed.” 


Female professor at Calvin College: “Dear Ruth--wow. What a story. It is so sad to me to hear about this kind of treatment of you--again and in detail--and I can't help but think it is indeed
gender related. I am so sad for you, the seminary, and the CRC. This whole set of events is a blot on the church.”

Former male seminary student: “I had heard the “mutterings” but I did not know the actual story.  I am so sorry about what happened.”


Professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: “I am . . . appalled and so sorry. You are a good teacher and a good Christian. I cannot imagine the pain and suffering you have endured through this. I'll write more later after I return. I am grieving for you.”

Former male seminary student: “I am disappointed in my seminary, in leaders who I had respected and looked up to. I don't know what else to say, except that this is a very sad part of the seminary's story.  For what it's worth, I thought you were one of the better professors I had -- during my time at CTS.  I enjoyed our class discussions, and I particularly remember your hospitality that one Thursday morning on the Grand River.”  


Female in the CRC: “I just read your sad story. The mistake was made by the administration, in Jan. 2003. Not acknowledging that mistake is the problem. The rest is consequence. It is a crime against humanity, first, that this was done to you, and second, that a mistake by others has put you in a position to have to defend yourself to such great lengths. I know of all the issues:  fortress mentality of administration, code of silence, confidentiality smoke screen, gender bias, community confusion, community distancing, etc. I know everything about blaming the victim.”


Former male seminary student: “I just heard about what happened and I wanted to send an email and just say that I felt sick as I read what you've gone through over the past years. . . . I am so sorry you have had to endure all this. I enjoyed you both as a professor and as someone to talk to around the seminary.


New female seminary student: “I just started at this CTS this fall in the MTS program. I read your book Walking Away from Faith a couple of years ago--in the midst of a three-year struggle over whether or not to go to seminary—and it had a profound impact on me. . . . What I really want to say is that I am grieved to read about what has happened to you, and I am sure that it is a great loss to my education. I would have liked very much to have been in your class.”


Former Calvin College student to a minister: “VERY sad news. I can relate somewhat with what Ruth went through at CTS. . . . it parallels very closely with my own experience at Calvin College. On Calvin, I've moved on and healed. Let me just say that “institutional racism” is alive and well at Calvin, as is sexism at CTS.”


West Michigan man: “I read with great concern the article in the Grand Rapids press. [I have] concern primarily for what this account does for the name of Jesus Christ. . . . It does great harm to the name of Jesus in the public square. . . . Thank you for not taking your case to the courts since this is prohibited by the Bible. . . . I am glad however, that I won't have to answer to him on judgement day for taking a matter like this public.


Male seminary graduate:  “I'm overwhelmed and terribly saddened to hear of your loneliness over the years, and of course the injustices meted [out] to you. Your situation is something I was not aware of, and I'm ashamed for not inquiring or noticing.  Ruth, I am sorry to be part of a system which has so insulted you. I will reflect, also with friends in ministry, what your experience means for us in the CRC.”  

What if . . . Another Scenario

What if Neal during the fall faculty retreat had offered a session on the topic he professed to know so well: godliness, pointing out that there was not enough of it among the faculty? What if he had appointed as seminary elders five tenured faculty-room regulars (John, John, Arie, Cal and Richard) to be in charge of the faculty room ethos (which he found to be seriously lacking in godliness). If anyone were to get out of line, one of the elders would kindly encourage the offender to get back in line. What if those five had been graciously chosen instead of suggesting the woman, new at the seminary, fill that role? [I rather ungraciously declined the role.]

And what if the woman professor had not been singled out to be terminated? What if she had been permitted to continue on tenure track and was appointed full professor? What if she had announced in a faculty meeting in the earl autumn of 2009 that, after a decade of teaching, she was retiring—that the spring term would be her last? And, what if she had been surprised when she came to the faculty lunch room in May of 2010 with a fine catered lunch, all her colleagues making kind remarks, but mainly kidding and laughing about the good times they’d had with her? What if?

Why do I write about this awful ordeal?

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. The writer's job is to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words, but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

                                                    Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird