You Can Apologize Now
Reflections on Life at Montreat (A Small Christian College in Appalachia)
In May 2017, I sat in Gaither Chapel (now named Graham Chapel after Billy’s death) and watched Montreat College scholars take the stage. The best students from each department with the highest GPAs, the most community service, and the most actively involved on campus were paraded in front of the student body and faculty as prime examples of “Christian scholarship”. I giggled in my seat and almost put my feet up on the pew in front of me in irreverence. Could it be true, the majority of these students were gay, cross dressers, climate activists, border activists, or protestors out on the lawn after the college decided to write their “Community Life Covenant” which asked staff and faculty to NOT support gay marriage, abortion, or a myriad of other topics. There were Montreat’s best and brightest: gay cross-dressing activists. God has a sense of humor I thought as I leaned back in amazement.
Three months earlier I had brought a sexual and racial harassment charge against a colleague. I had been dealing with his advances and bullying for twenty years (it started when I was 18 as a student in undergrad). He used to take my friends out for dates** during his divorce, and loved to tell me I was the second hottest woman on campus. When I would tell others, they would laugh and or agree with him, and so I began to think it was normal. I was a 18 year old away from my California home, what did I know about academia, Christianity, or womanhood. His advances continued to my friends and to me all throughout undergrad and into graduate school. He told another professor that he wanted her to get him a doughnut, so he could watch her ass walk away. He told me that another staff member wanted him so badly that he had to stay away from her office. He told me that my pic on the website was so hot, that he liked to stare at it in his office. He told an administrative assistant that he got dibs on her first. This was my daily experience as a woman “becoming” at a small little Christian liberal arts school in the hills of Carolina in Billy and Ruth’s Graham hometown.
Once I became faculty, I thought the teasing and harassment would end. I had worked hard for my first masters of science in environmental education, and was now his colleague. What I didn’t know was that my husband and I (both alumni) had spent $120,000 at that school, but according to the new dean, my Masters of Science awarded from his institution did not give me enough science credits to teach science. I was made aware of his decision that I was unqualified in the Summer 2016 and being the go-getter that I am, I enrolled in Harvard University Extension School’s graduate program. The extension school at Harvard started over 100 years ago to educate the common man and eventually women in the Boston area, and is the largest and most reputable online masters program on the globe (obviously!) I pursued a Master’s Certificate in Natural Resource Management which awarded me 16 new graduate science credits in environmental science, and alongside the 15 I had from Montreat I now had 31 science credits. The accrediting body asked for 18.
So, obviously I was thrown off guard when the Academic Dean and my department head had a meeting with me about my sexual and racial harassment charges and then brought up my credits. I had walked into the office thinking I was getting an apology from my harasser of 20 years. I filed a report with HR because three female students and one male came to me complaining that they were experiencing the same thing. It didn’t matter if they were in class, or walking the halls, this tenured professors words would be slanderous to Hispanics, African Americans, homosexuals, transgender students, and women. Something about the students reports gave me the bravery to say something. It was as if I didn’t care what he did it to me, but he was not going to do it to them. They were my children and my mama bear came out.
In the apology meeting, first he said, “I am sorry that I have hurt you. I didn’t know it bothered you”. I told him I forgave him, because I actually really did. Then, the Dean said, “We believe that these types of comments are part of academic freedom. He has to be able to share his opinions with students”. I stated that I adamantly disagreed. Within minutes they moved onto my placement for the 2017-2018 school year which would be back the Biology Lab Coordinator which I had done as a TA in first grad school. When I asked for clarification the Dean stated, “Sometimes you have to move seats on the bus”. Living in the South, you can imagine the irony of that statement. Once again, God has a sense of humor. I knew exactly what the Dean meant. You are a Hispanic woman, get to the back of the bus.
The rest of our conversation went like this:
I swallowed hard and said, “My end of course evals show that students are extremely happy with my courses. My biology lecture fills before anyone else’s, my previous department head wrote me a glowing evaluation last fall, and I have taken our department from 10 majors to 21 majors and 27 minors in two years. You are moving me to a position that a graduate student does as a T.A. when I have a masters degree with 15 graduate credits in environmental science and another 22 in education from your institution, and then 16 graduate credits in natural resource management from Harvard?”
The Dean replied, “We are not sure that your credits are valid”.
“My credits from your institution that I have been at since I was 18 years old are not valid? Or Harvard’s are not valid?”
“Harvard’s”, he stated. “They were online.”
“Yes, sir. We have an online program, too, are those credits not valid?”
“Well you were at Harvard University’s Extension School, and those are not graduate credits”.
“Actually my transcripts say that they are graduate credits”.
“Extension schools are for working adults and not for graduate students”.
“So, is our graduate program for working adults not granting REAL graduate credits”.
“Well, your transcripts were opened so we can’t verify what you are saying”.
I turn to my department head, “You have taught me since I was 18 years old. You were my ecology professor and I became an ecologist. You think that I would forge my transcripts? Would you like me to get Harvard to send you a sealed copy?”
“Yes”, they co-replied.
“Would you like me to get Harvard’s dean to verify that they are giving out valid credits and that they started their extension school a hundred years ago so that they could provide a Harvard education to working men and women?”
“Yes”, they co-replied.
I left their office stunned. I was Montreat’s baby girl. I had been on their posters, their advertising, spoken at almost every Board of Trustee event, and mentored over twenty students a year. It was then when I realized that I was part of a total sham. Why was I fighting to keep the word evangelical pure? This word was not pure. And I needed to stop fighting for it. I left willingly and had several meetings protesting the Community Life Covenant and all it stood for. They hired a Caucasian male scientist with a beard and one masters degree, and less than two years teaching experience to replace me.
Three weeks ago, I walked across Harvard Yard as a graduate from Harvard University with a Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies- Sustainability and was awarded the Dean's Prize for Top Thesis in Sustainability. I map protected areas and potential national park expansions with The Wilderness Society and this week I was asked to work with Yale University (the first school of Forestry in America) and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (one of the top conservation foundations in the last century). I turned 40 five days ago, and I got to tell you that this decade is helping me to let a lot of things go. One of those things is caring what others think about me. So here it goes, “Montreat, you can apologize now”.
It seems like your scholars are the homosexual, the cross dressers, the climate activists, border activists, and protestors out on the lawn. Jesus would be proud.
**PS- HE APOLOGIZED on June 23 after I had gone public. It took 2.5 years and tons of work, but we are reconciled. As well, he has promised to NEVER talk to another student like that again. After talking to him, he feels as though he was not drunk in fist fights (though I have three reports from students and community members that say they have seen them). He states that he was pulling friends off fights. As well, he states that his time with girl(s) outside of the college were not dates, but rather work related. He does agree that he stated to me that those women were “the most beautiful” and that was stupid of him. I chose to believe him, because though he hurt me deeply I have not known him to be a liar.
Melissa B. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduated from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.