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UR Chaplain Sparks Protest With Firing

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It's been a tough week for students in the Bonner Scholars program at the University of Richmond, who are not taking the firing of their mentor lying down.

University Chaplain Daphne Burt, to whom Bonner Scholars program director Grace Holcomb reported, cited "managerial problems" in explaining Holcomb's termination to students in the scholars program, which offers financial aid in exchange for community-service work.

Burt sent word of the Nov. 7 firing via e-mail to students not long after Holcomb was escorted off campus. In a later e-mail to students, UR President William Cooper called her dismissal process "fair and thorough, with the best interests of the Bonner Program in mind."

Faculty and student sources speaking on the condition of anonymity say they think Holcomb's firing may have been motivated by a complaint she lodged against Burt with the school's human-resources department.

"It's more than one person has been treated poorly by the leadership in the chaplaincy," says a university staffer who works closely with the chaplaincy office and asked not to be named.

Burt's follow-up meetings with students have failed to allay student concerns, says Bonner student Ethan McWilliams, who has assumed a leadership role among his peers in protesting the chaplain's decision. Hundreds of former UR students have joined an online chat room on Facebook.com to protest the school's decision.

"At this point, we don't have any expectations as to the return of Grace Holcomb, but I'm hopeful that the truth will come out through this process," McWilliams says.

Another Bonner Scholar, Trevor Tetzlaff, says he doesn't believe Burt's action was in keeping with the university's official termination procedures. "There have been people within faculty and administration who said that the reasons for Grace being dismissed were not" among firing offenses, he says.

"I have no qualms with Dr. Burt," McWilliams says. "But I do think the situation has been troubling lately." He cites concerns from other students that the university chaplaincy — traditionally a refuge for students — has become a less welcoming place, not somewhere they could go "for counseling or support."

Both Burt and Holcomb were out of town last week and unreachable by press time. UR spokeswoman Linda Evans declined to comment, citing the university's policy of not discussing personnel matters.

Former Bonner Scholar and chaplaincy employee Jonathan Zur, who now works for the Virginia Conference for Community Justice, says he spoke with Holcomb in the days after her dismissal. She told him she felt the firing was unwarranted, he says.

Unwarranted or not, it may have been brought on by the casual and sharing atmosphere that had long been encouraged under previous chaplaincy leadership.

Now there's a "negative" relationship with leadership, says the anonymous staffer familiar with the office. "They are really good people in the chaplaincy and they're getting hurt. It's got to stop." S



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