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On August 15, 2013, Dartmouth College's new president Philip J. Hanlon announced that he has rescinded the appointment of the Anglican Bishop of Southern Malawi James Tengatenga as dean of the William Jewell Tucker Foundation, a campus institution that focuses on furthering the moral, spiritual, and social justice work of the school. The appointment of Tengatenga, who is also chair of the Worldwide Anglican Communion's Anglican Consultative Council, had become controversial as his history of homophobic statements and actions came to light, including his support for the criminalization of homosexuality in Malawi.
When Tengatenga's appointment was announced on July 16, 2013, he was hailed as "a person of international stature and extraordinary perspective." The Interim Provost Martin Wybourne said that "His accomplishments and leadership make him an outstanding choice to lead the Tucker Foundation."
However, almost immediately after Tengatenga's appointment was announced, reports started to circulate about his statements and actions regarding gay rights. Some of these are detailed by Dartmouth undergraduate Andrew Longi in a blog at Huffington Post. For example, as chair of the Malawi Council of Churches, Tengatenga successfully lobbied the Malawian government to enforce draconian laws that carry penalties of up to 14 years in prison for committing homosexual acts after President Joyce Banda had suspended these laws in 2012. He also loudly called for the excommunication of bishops in the Anglican communion who support same-sex marriage. In addition, he vociferously opposed the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, the state in which Dartmouth is located.
Gay activists at Dartmouth, joined by the college chapter of the NAACP, quickly denounced the bishop's appointment as incompatible with the mission and vision of the Tucker Foundation.
In response to the growing dismay over the appointment, members of the search committee that recommended him told the college newspaper that Bishop Tengatenga did not really believe the things that he said but was merely mouthing the sentiments of the Church of the Province of Central Africa. Search committee chair Professor Irene Kacandes said he expressed his church's views, not his personal beliefs.
Even were that true, it would hardly say very much about the alleged courage and spiritual leadership for which he was extolled upon his appointment.
In an attempt to mollify his critics, Tengatenga issued a statement immodestly (and inaccurately) describing himself as having exercised "courageous leadership." He said "As a priest and a bishop, I have made it my life's work to advocate for human rights. I have worked and campaigned for the rights of youth and women. I have worked to end human trafficking and all forms of violence against women. I have risked my life by advocating good and just government."
Then, addressing the controversy, he said, "Let me state unequivocally and categorically that I consider all people equal regardless of their sexual orientation. The dignity of all should be honored and respected."
Alluding to President Obama's evolution on same-sex marriage, Tengatenga said his "ideas about homosexuality have evolved over time. I'm not ashamed to say that, but I also think I'm not alone, and I think it's important to have some historical context."
Most astoundingly, he completely reversed his recently held positions.
Instead of being the blasphemy he had previously described it, he said he now views "the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire" as "an extraordinary gift because it forced people--from parishioners to bishops to people outside the church--to think carefully and critically about the issue of homosexuality and gay rights. As a result, many of us came to very different understandings of the faith and the gospel."
He concluded, "So, let me be clear. I support marriage equality and equal rights for everyone, and I look forward to working with everyone at Dartmouth--everyone. I believe that discrimination of any kind is sinful. When I say that I am committed to the human rights of all, I mean all."
Patently an opportunistic ploy to keep his position, the letter convinced no one. Adrienne Clay, African and African-American studies department program coordinator told The Dartmouth, "Although Tengatenga's new statement strikes some encouraging notes, it seems very polished and a little too ambiguous for my taste. How do we measure Tengatenga? By a statement directed to a college audience in the U.S. or by his words and actions, as well as inaction, over the past decade?"
Lisa Wangsness of the Boston Globe reports that President Hanlon made his decision after a meeting with Tengatenga last week.
In announcing the decision to rescind the appointment, Hanlon said that "Dartmouth's support of gay rights and members of the LGBTQ community is complete and unwavering, as is our commitment to a campus that is diverse, welcoming, and inclusive. In light of concerns--specifically surrounding gay rights--expressed by members of our community about the appointment of Malawi Bishop Dr. James Tengatenga as the dean of the Tucker Foundation, I felt it was important for me to meet with him personally."
"It was in this context that I sat down recently with Dr. Tengatenga and asked tough questions about his earlier statements on homosexuality. We also discussed his leadership within an Anglican Church in Africa that has often been hostile regarding gay rights."
"Dr. Tengatenga spoke to me about his inspiring life of service to some of the world's most vulnerable people, especially victims of HIV-AIDS. In passionate terms, he described his commitment to gay rights and how he has worked to support the LGBTQ community in Malawi in the ways that are most effective, given the country's cultural context."
"However, following much reflection and consultation with senior leaders at Dartmouth, it has become clear to me that Dr. Tengatenga's past comments about homosexuality and the uncertainty and controversy they created have compromised his ability to serve effectively as dean of Tucker."
"The foundation and Dartmouth's commitment to inclusion are too important to be mired in discord over this appointment. Consequently, we have decided not to move forward with the appointment of Dr. Tengatenga as dean of the Tucker Foundation."
The "courageous leadership" evinced in this painful episode has been exercised not by the pusillanimous bishop who allegedly did not mean the demeaning things he said about gay people, but by the new president of Dartmouth College, whose belief in human rights is demonstrated by his swift action in rescinding the ill-advised appointment.
I hope that African leaders who aspire to international careers find a lesson here. Encouraging human rights abuses even when they are popular at home may prove costly in the long run.