Patrick Henry College president steps down

Students wore bow ties Friday morning at Patrick Henry College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Purcellville, Va. It was a gesture to honor the school’s president—a somber gesture, not a cheerful one.

President Graham Walker announced his resignation to the college’s approximately 325 students at a campus-wide meeting on Wednesday, citing disagreements with the school’s board of trustees. He had served as president for eight years.

“The board and I have simply decided that sometimes it is best to agree to disagree, in a healthy and amicable way as fellow servants of Christ,” Walker told the students, according to a college press release. “It is a fully mutual agreement.”

Students had no idea there was any kind of disagreement among the school’s leaders.

“We all left completely stunned,” said Hannah Zarr, a senior and journalism major at the school, adding there were “no rumors of this at all.”

The resignation comes less than two months into the academic year. According to the press release, Walker will “pursue new opportunities” but will continue in a board-approved sabbatical until the end of the fall semester.

The release also quoted board chair Jack Haye noting that “his departure does not result in any way from any moral or financial misconduct on his part. … His ethical and moral character are above reproach.” The school’s provost, Gene Edward Veith, will step into the role of interim president while the college looks for another leader.

By email, Walker told me his departure was amicable, although he declined to describe the issue of disagreement. “The Board and I have the same vision for PHC’s mission and character. But Christians can and do disagree about what are the proper means to our shared ends.”

Walker said he was grateful for the “wonderful” years at the school: “Christians don’t have to agree about the means in order to respect and honor one another. But they do sometimes need to embark on different pathways in such situations.”

During a campus meeting on Thursday, the school’s chancellor, Michael Farris, told students the disagreement was over the school’s growth strategy.

“Essentially Graham came in at a time when the college needed some peace and stability, and he provided that,” said college spokesman David Halbrook. “Now we’re in a position that we need to grow. … And the board and Graham decided mutually that we needed new leadership in that area.” The school has received zoning approval for a plan to build new dormitories and academic buildings, and hopes to scale up to 1,000 students or more, and expand its academic programs.

“[Walker] is a good man and will be missed,” Veith and Farris said in a joint statement, promising to keep the school on a “steady path” for the future. “We also pledge that we will begin to pursue strategies that will allow PHC to substantially grow in terms of the size of our student body and with our donor community.”

Earlier this year, the college hired a legal firm to audit its policies after an article in The New Republic claimed the school’s administration had discouraged two female students from reporting to police that they had been sexually assaulted off-campus by male students. The school denied the magazine’s charges, and Halbrook said that situation had “zero connection” with Walker’s resignation.

Walker became president of Patrick Henry College in 2006, replacing Farris, who transitioned to the post of chancellor after a dispute over teaching philosophy and leadership style prompted several full-time faculty to resign.

Before coming to the school, Walker served as the vice president for academic affairs and dean at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He had also been a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“We’re really disappointed, but I think we realize that these changes happen at colleges,” said Zarr, who is 24. “At a school like mine, it means we lost part of the family.”

Walker and his wife, Lindy, have given students personal advice and invited them over for dinner, Zarr said. “It means I won’t be spending Thanksgiving at his house.”

— by Daniel James Devine

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