PANA Institute put on hiatus

by Russell Schoch

Following weeks of intense discussion and analysis, on August 7 the PSR faculty, the executive committee of the board of trustees, and the administration announced that the PANA Institute would be put on hiatus for a period of six months to a year. In what President Bill McKinney called a “tragic” development, this included the termination of four staff members of PANA.

PANA (the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion) was founded at PSR in 2000, as was the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS)—two innovative and ground-breaking programs that have had wide effects on theological education. Both have had difficulties raising funds and landing grants in the recent past, as the economy has struggled; last year, CLGS trimmed its programming and budget. The two centers, since their founding, have had “dual accountability”: both to the communities they were founded to serve (LGBT and Asian and Pacific Islander) and to the faculty,  which brought them into being and has final decision-making authority.

“Over the years,” said McKinney, “I’ve used the metaphor of a rubber band to describe the band of accountability for the two centers, and have said that they must be free to stretch that band of accountability as far as they needed to. With PANA, it broke.”

One of the PANA staff members terminated is Deborah Lee, program director at PANA since its founding in 2000. Before then, while she was earning her MDiv degree at PSR, she had served as program director for an earlier API advocacy group, the Pacific and Asian American Center for Theology and Strategies (PACTS), which was founded in the 1970s, broke off from PSR in the 1990s and joined with the GTU, and was dissolved in 2002.

Both Lee and  McKinney agree that there were problems between PANA and PSR that go back several years—involving program direction and personnel issues that were never resolved—and that these contributed to a breakdown in relations within the PANA community.

What precipitated the decision to suspend the Institute was PANA’s dire financial situation. This had been brought to the attention of PSR’s board of trustees at its meeting in May. In June, with the retirement of founding director Fumitaka Matsuoka, both the PANA staff and oversight committee recommended that Benny Liew, professor of New Testament at PSR, be PANA’s new executive director. Before he accepted the position, Liew asked to have full information about PANA’s finances. In the weeks following, a complete examination was performed for the first time. It was found that PANA had a $300,000 deficit.

McKinney, who was in his “summer office” in Cape Cod during this period, was in daily conversation with the principals involved. New board chair Sharon MacArthur and other members of PANA’s oversight committee as well as other trustees tried hard to figure out a way that PANA community members, API faculty Benny Liew, Jeffrey Kuan, and Boyung Lee, and the PANA staff could begin to communicate directly and effectively to resolve past and present disagreements and differences. Sadly, they could not. “The only word I could use to describe this is ‘tragic,’”McKinney said. “People had either painted themselves or gotten painted into a corner that they couldn’t get out of.”

In the end, in early August, Benny Liew resigned from his new position; Jeffrey Kuan and Boyung Lee resigned from PANA’s oversight committee; and Deborah Lee and other staff members were terminated, as PANA’s operations were suspended for up  to a year.

McKinney has acknowledged a failure to intervene more effectively in both the financial situation and the internal conflicts within the PANA and API community. “One of the goals for the re-visioning process,” he said, “must be to identify mistakes that have been made as well as to build a renewed PANA that can avoid such mistakes in the future.

“It’s important to make clear that PANA is going to continue as a principal expression of our commitment to the API community,” continued the president, “and that the core components of its mission of leadership—leadership education, scholarship, and advocacy—are going to remain in place. Furthermore, our strategic plan’s commitment to anti-racism and to building cross-cultural competence remains a top priority.”

Some wondered if racism played a role in a decision that suspended a center devoted in part to combating racism. “I think race is involved in everything we do,” responded McKinney. “Racism is a constant reality in the world we live in and the school we work for. What we try to do is to raise it to consciousness, and to try to be proactive in confronting it when we see it.

“At some point, in the near future, I hope that we can take a careful look at not whether but how race played a role in this.”

Beginning in September, McKinney said that he and Dean Mary Ann Tolbert, working with the faculty, the board, and other stakeholders, would initiate the process of re-visioning and restructuring PANA. “We have to clarify the governance issues, and we need to ensure that the resources are going to be there to make PANA sustainable for the long haul,” he said. “We will certainly look at the possibility of an independent, outside consultant who can help us figure out what happened and how to rebuild relations with the community.”

“The PSR faculty, board of trustees, and administration are united in wanting a vibrant and sustainable PANA,” added Dean Tolbert. “PANA is an essential element of PSR’s vision of progressive Christianity, and we are determined that a renewed and vital PANA Institute will return to full health and programming within the next year.”