Barely a month after announcing the appointment of James Tengatenga, a diocesan African bishop, to lead its William Jewett Tucker Foundation, Dartmouth College has rescinded the offer. Had he filled the position, Tengatenga would have been charged with supporting "the spiritual and moral work at the College" and mentoring the school's students "for lives of purpose and ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality, and social justice."
But the appointment of Tengatenga, the former bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, last month almost immediately drew questions about his history of homophobic views. As LGBT-themed blog Queerty pointed out, he pushed back in 2003 against the ordination of an openly gay man as Bishop of New Hampshire, saying he felt "betrayed" by the decision; eight years later, he reportedly called for the excommunication of bishops supporting same-sex marriage.
In a July 18 statement, Tengatenga said he had evolved—or something like that—and claimed to "support marriage equality and equal rights for everyone."
But that wasn't enough. Newly-appointed Dartmouth president Philip J. Hanlon met with Tengatenga and, in a follow-up statement, announced that the controversy posed by the bishop's previous statement "compromised his ability to serve effectively as dean of Tucker." In other words, Tengatenga got canned.
A remarkable backtrack, Hanlon's decision has drawn praise from all over the Dartmouth community—even from the notoriously conservative Dartmouth Review. But, morality aside, it's the only sensible decision the college could have made. Here's why.
Dartmouth can't afford any more bad press right now.
The news that Dartmouth's new moral spokesperson has a closet packed with bigotry was only the latest development in a series of unsavory media revelations that have threatened the smallest Ivy's prestige in recent years. Most disturbingly, there was Janet Reitman's remarkable 2012 Rolling Stone investigation into the sordid realities of hazing at Dartmouth fraternities—a report that described pledges being asked to "swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; [and] chug cups of vinegar," among other abuses. More recently, there was Dartmouth's decision to cancel classes after student protestors faced online death threats. That's not to mention the school's apparent struggle with sexual assault, which prompted a federal investigation this summer.
Surely sensing that outcry over Tengatenga's appointment had been the latest in a string of institutional embarrassments, Hanlon smartly decided to attract positive media attention (for once).
Dartmouth needs to confront homophobia on campus.
The school isn't alone in this regard—frat culture can be notoriously hostile to LGBT students, and Dartmouth counts 17 fraternities on its campus. Most of them, of course, are not likely responsible for bigotry, but it only takes a few students to defecate on an openly gay frat brother's door. In 2012, students came together to listen to LGBT students' stories of homophobia and administrative inaction; the previous year, a campus dorm common room had been vandalized with the words "FAGGOTS SUCK DICK."
Then there was this spring's incident, in which students protesting homophobia and racism were met with online death and rape threats; the experience prompted a day of reflection—and, once again, negative media attention descended on the New Hampshire campus.
Combine Dartmouth's occasional history of intolerance with the particular tenor of the Tengatenga controversy, and Hanlon's decision seems the only one for a principled leader to make.
Tengatenga's position wasn't just any academic job.
He wasn't hired to be a guest lecturer or to fill a routine administrative position. Tengatenga was tasked with being a "moral spokesperson" on a campus whose struggles with intolerance have not gone undocumented. As the Tucker Foundation's website explains, the organization "seeks to be a nationally recognized model of moral and transformation leadership in higher education." And as Hanlon himself wrote in his statement, "the foundation and Dartmouth's commitment to inclusion are too important to be mired in discord over this appointment." Hanlon also conceded the needed to clarify precisely what the foundation's mission is—beyond vague platitudes about "moral leadership"—before selecting its next dean.
Tengatenga, to his credit, said he has evolved since previous incidents. Let's hope that remains the case even in the wake of his dismissal.