Articles & Testimonies

Open Letter from Dr. John Near – Departure from Principia College Faculty – Part I

by | Jan 23, 2014


December 3, 2013

Dear Friends of Principia,

I understand that my name and the underlying reason for my departure from the Principia College faculty recently came up in an open forum of Faculty Senate.  To clarify the situation, I am distributing this letter, and I would like to thank all who have communicated with me for their kind support. Several have said they are proud of me for having the courage to speak out on a sensitive issue when most are afraid of saying anything at all. I have loved Principia since my student years, and I gave it the best I had to offer in every capacity in which I was asked to serve for the 28 years I was on the College faculty; I served honorably and brought a high level of distinction to the institution through my esteemed scholarly work. I directed eight Principia Abroad programs, served on Community Board for countless years, worked my way through all the ranks of professor to become the distinguished William Martin and Mina Merrill Prindle Professor of Fine Arts, served as Unit Head of the Creative Arts and Communications for 3 years, taught at Summer Session for some 25 years, administered the College Concert Series for 27 years, and I was a conscientious character educator. That the Trustees bestowed Professor Emeritus on me acknowledged my long years of service and the good I brought to the school. I know I left Principia a far better place than I found it, now 29 years ago, including the Chapel carillon and two world-class pipe organs of which I am particularly proud to have designed.

From the beginning I struggled with the anti-gay policy at Principia, but I decided to make it the non-issue it should be, as I felt the Cause of Christian Science and the Mission of Principia were worth so very much more. But last spring it clearly became time for me to move on. I could no longer tolerate what I know is wrong, and sit idly by when many, including myself, have suffered and been deeply affected by hurtful discrimination and homophobia. It’s a horrible thing to have to hide and lie about who you are. Mrs. Eddy tells us, “Honesty is spiritual power.” Times have changed since I joined the faculty in 1985, and people’s thinking has “evolved”—including that of the President of the United States, the Supreme Court of the United States, 16 individual states, and the District of Columbia, all of which have legalized same-sex marriage (and that most recently includes the State of Illinois where Principia College resides). Thankfully this is finally coming to pass! I have long been concerned that there has not been any real progress at Principia in this area. The anti-gay policy must be abolished.

At my “retirement” dinner at Hutchinson House, Jonathan Palmer thought I was leaving Principia a very happy man. He was correct that I am extremely happy—but only happy no longer to be under the repressive policy. Dr. Palmer said many people leave Principia unhappy. That being true, the Principia Trustees and Administration need to search their souls and methods of operation to understand why. I thought maybe there was a glimmer of hope on the abolishment of the anti-gay policy, but after reading the report from the most recent Trustee meeting, I see the discrimination that has gone on at Principia for far too many years is to continue. I am now speaking out publicly about it, and all with whom I have spoken are as indignant as am I about the policy and concurrent hurtful actions at Principia.

Discrimination in any form is wrong, and it is illegal most everywhere. The US Senate has recently passed an anti-discrimination policy on the basis of sexual orientation, and it will only be a matter of time before the House of Representatives does the same. I realize there has been exclusion for religious institutions, but in my opinion Principia is doing the Christian Science Church grave disservice on this issue. Principia adheres to an ultra-conservative and in my opinion incorrect interpretation of Christian Science on this topic (possibly based on an article in The Christian Science Journal in November 1980: “Only one kind of man”). Honorable careers and reputations have been damaged in the process. Mrs. Eddy tells us, “The time for thinkers has come.” I have thought deeply through this issue for most of my life, and I have not seen any recent statement by The Christian Science Board of Directors quoting Mrs. Eddy banning openly gay men and women from the Christian Science Church, as is still the case at Principia. Then there was the student sit-in last spring. I proudly signed their petition—though it could have been worded much more effectively. I soon made my decision to resign under the guise of “retirement.”

Rushworth Kidder, a friend, former Principia trustee, and founder of the Institute of Global Ethics, said one sometimes has to have the moral courage to resign in the face of what one considers morally wrong. Making ethical judgments, he said, includes balancing considerations like truth versus loyalty—in this case loyalty to The Principia. It used to be that one could not even talk about this “forbidden subject” at Principia without the threat of being fired or expelled. Though now permitted, people are generally still afraid to discuss it openly, and those who do so are weary of hearing the institutional rationale. To those reading this letter who may think this is not an issue that concerns you, I would ask you to think twice about living passively with the poison of discrimination and repression in any form.

Consequently, I have decided to speak out with the hope that others gather up the courage to speak out as well, and no longer to tolerate this painful vestige of discrimination—and it does take a great deal of courage to speak out at Principia!  We are all given different issues to deal with in our lives. None of us made the choice to be straight, gay, or bisexual; it is not a choice. Who would choose to be something governments, religious organizations, and segments of society have misunderstood and disdained for centuries? The choice lies in what one does with it and how one handles it, as is the case with many issues in life. But it really is a private issue and must become a non-issue at Principia, as it is increasingly in the larger world community. One’s sexual orientation should not be Principia’s or anyone else’s concern; it should not be anything people are talking or speculating about. There shouldn’t be innuendos, rumors, whisperings, or finger pointing. We are all the children of One Father-Mother God who loves each and every one of us unconditionally.

I have a very close non-CS friend who during his late teen years nearly committed suicide over the fear of being castigated by society. Thank God he did not do it! Today he is a beautiful creative artist and deep spiritual thinker. I ask, “what is Principia doing to help its students who may be confused and feeling outcast over their orientation?” “How is Principia answering their questions and needs in a positive, non-condemnatory manner?” I have heard that a gay student was told he was in need of healing. This is a horrible verdict to place on a young person struggling with sexual orientation, and it’s what drives some to suicide; it happens all the time. What are Christian Science educators doing about this? Christian Scientists need to be the most loving, understanding, compassionate, and supportive mentors these young people can find. No wonder many students are leaving Christian Science when they see things like this unjust policy justified in Christian Science lingo. How many wrongs the world experiences every day in the name of religion!

I have long hoped to see abolished this policy under which so many have suffered over the years. I suppose there are some who disapprove of my speaking out publicly, but it’s beyond time when a stand has to be taken by someone with acknowledged credibility by Principia. I decided it was my time to take the stand for what I know in my heart is right and honest. Indeed, “Honesty is spiritual power.” Isn’t it ironic that after all I have done at Principia, I now can no longer be hired to teach for Summer Session!

On November 20, the Christian Science Monitor headlined the story of a Pennsylvania Methodist minister. The Rev. Frank Schaefer “convicted by a jury of his ecclesiastical peers of breaking church law for presiding over his son’s wedding to a man is refusing to repent.” Rev. Schaefer said the church “needs to stop judging people based on their sexual orientation. We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians.” He said, “I will never be silent again.” Until truly ALL ARE WELCOME at Principia as students and employees, I encourage everyone in disagreement with the current policy and discrimination in any form to stand up and be counted.



Dr. John Near