Mars Hill Graduate School will pay $300,000 in a court-approved judgment to settle a harassment and discrimination lawsuit brought by one of its founders.
Heather Parkinson-Webb, the first female professor at the Seattle seminary, alleged that she was fired after filing for divorce and being granted a restraining order against Kirk Webb, another founder of the school, in 2005. In the lawsuit, Parkinson-Webb alleged that the school knew her former husband had an affair with a student, but failed to dismiss him. Webb, who later left the school, told CT he'd never had an affair.
"In my experience, there has been a pattern of harassment and retaliation that [the school] wouldn't want exposed," Parkinson-Webb said. "A lot of this is very painful, but I'm hoping it will do good for others who come after me."
As part of the judgment, Mars Hill must provide Parkinson-Webb with a letter of regret and a letter of reference. The school must also "engage outside professionals to conduct diversity/anti-discrimination training for all employees on at least an annual basis for not less than three years."
Mars Hill president Dan Allender said that Parkinson-Webb had not been harassed or fired, and that the school had agreed to a judgment simply to avoid further litigation costs. "I don't know how to respond to such conjectures and accusations," Allender said. "This is a tragedy for us that personal problems, in my view, have apparently been projected onto our institution and community."
However, a former adjunct professor whose husband also co-founded the school, Suzanne Hudson, said she faced a similar situation to Parkinson-Webb's in 2001. She said she was forced to resign after separating from her husband when he had an affair with a student.
Hudson said school leaders often blame women for marital problems. Also, she said at least two other male faculty members had affairs with students, and neither was disciplined.
"The school says fundamentalists are bad and evangelicals are bad because they don't know how to express themselves sexually," Hudson said. "But [the school] doesn't teach good boundaries, things get over-sexualized and many lines become crossed."
Allender denied that any faculty members at Mars Hill had affairs with students, though he declined to talk about any case except Parkinson-Webb's. The school reviews diversity and sexual-harassment guidelines during its annual training, he said.
Mars Hill currently employs three female professors on its staff of nine full-time faculty members. CT spoke with the female professors, who said they felt no discrimination at the school.
"Speaking only from my own experience, I do not think I have been discriminated against by the school's administration," said New Testament professor Jo-Ann Badley, who has taught at the school since 2006. "I have found the work environment to be one where my opinions and contributions are welcomed."
Mars Hill was founded in 1997 and enrolls around 250 students.
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Mars Hill Graduate School is not affiliated with any church.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer also reported on the settlement.
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