Due Process Is Boring…until Things Start Blowing Up

TRNITY-WCC

Trinity Western University’s travails continue over its community covenant

Meanwhile, the slow-motion explosion that is Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago continues to devastate that congregation and widely influential ministry.


I once had a ruthless boss try to do me in… and due process, properly followed, rescued me.

I was up for promotion from the rank of Associate Professor to the senior rank of Professor at the University of Manitoba.

In this complex process, the dean of the pertinent faculty would solicit the opinion of two experts from other universities. To make sure that those professors were truly expert in the field or fields of the applicant, a list of six names would be drawn up and agreed upon by the applicant and his or her department head. The dean would then secretly select two (to protect their anonymity) and ask them to render a verdict.

My department head duly requested such a list from me—since our fields were far apart—and then reviewed and signed off on it, forwarding it to the dean. Or so I thought.

Weeks later my friend Bob, an associate dean, appeared at my office door, looking awful.

“John, we’ve received the two letters of external review. I am here, as chair of your promotion committee, to remind you that you may withdraw your application without prejudice at any time. And I think that, after you’ve seen these letters, you may wish to do so.”

I felt the blood rushing my ears as I took the paper from Bob’s outstretched hand and began to read as he departed.

The first letter was condescending, concluding that “perhaps at the University of Manitoba this file would suffice for promotion, but not at [blacked out] university, where I teach.”

The second was actually vicious, misrepresenting my credentials and casting everything I had done in the worst possible light.

What made the situation particularly bad is that I knew every person on that list. They were all truly expert, so their judgment couldn’t be gainsaid. They were all highly experienced, so they knew what would result from such terrible reviews.

And they were all serious Christian people, so—

Then it hit me. I quickly opened my desk to retrieve the list I had sent to my department head. I stared at it, prayed over it, and concluded that while it would have been truly dreadful had any of them written the first letter, not one of them was so ungracious as to have written the second.

So I went to the dean’s office. His secretary saw the look on my face and got me in to see him quickly. He listened to my story, took the list from my hand, went behind his desk to fetch my file, withdrew a piece of paper from it to compare with what he had from me, and then simply said, “Will you be in your office for the next while?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and left to sit and pray some more.

Half an hour later, the dean’s assistant called to ask me to return. When I did, I found the dean and my department head in his office, with the department head hunched over like the proverbial kid with his hand in the cookie jar. The dean then informed me that my department head had changed five of the six names to cronies of his, none of them expert in my disciplines.

“Do you realize you have left this university open to scandal and a lawsuit?” asked the dean in an icy tone.

The department head just nodded.

“Okay, then. Here’s what’s going to happen. John, you type up the original list. Sign it, bring it to your department head, who will sign it in front of you, and then you, John, bring it here to me. Now.”

We complied, the requests went out to two new referees, and when they came back, Bob presented them to me at my office door in a completely different mood. “Yale and Notre Dame think you should be promoted, so I guess we probably will agree,” he said with a broad smile. And he was right. Happy ending.

I thought of this as Trinity Western University’s travails continue over its community covenant, now being dropped as a requirement for students in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent finding against that university. Whether labour law will continue to let them require it of employees is for the future to decide, and there is a lot to say about why TWU had such a code, why it maintained and fought for such a code, and why it now is jettisoning it.

Today, though, I was thinking of how several law societies across the country blithely set aside due process to resist TWU’s proposed law school. They had joined their counterparts to let their national organization make certain decisions on their behalf, which included a subsequent decision to recognize TWU’s new school. Then some of them broke that agreement, and in some cases some of their own traditions and regulations, in order to insist on their version of righteousness.

Meanwhile, the slow-motion explosion that is Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago continues to devastate that congregation and widely influential ministry. And one sees therein another organization led by professionals who knew all about due process nonetheless failing to follow it when faced with incendiary issues.

Lawyers and Christians have at least one thing in common: they know that the world is full of evil. And if they are competent, they plan for evil to occur by setting up and rigorously following good structures of accountability, investigation, and adjudication. Only by everyone abiding by well-conceived rules can institutions give proper protection to everyone concerned and judiciously right whatever is found to be wrong.

People who deal professionally with fire, radiation, viruses, violent mental patients, and other obvious dangers don’t pretend that things are better and safer than they are. Everyone’s welfare in fact depends upon them being starkly realistic. They stare the possible problems directly in the face and then draw up, and follow, wise protocols to deal with them when, as so often happens in our world, bad things occur.

The best time to draw up such protocols is not, of course, in the middle of an emergency, but when the sky is blue and everyone is cooperative and the dangers are hypothetical.

The best time to follow such due process is not, of course, when the sky is blue and everyone is cooperative and the dangers are hypothetical, but in the middle of an emergency.

Or else things start blowing up.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).