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Houghton University’s pink slips

Employee dismissals that roiled the Christian school involved more than just preferred pronouns


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Houghton University’s pink slips
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Houghton University student Madelynn Miller used to meet with her resident director, Raegan Zelaya, every week. As a resident assistant at Houghton—a small Christian liberal arts school in western New York—Miller used those meetings to talk through the challenges of her role. Even though Zelaya was her boss, Miller says the relationship was more than that: “In some ways, it was like she was my RA.”

So, it came as a shock when Miller got an email on April 19 saying Zelaya had been fired just three weeks before the end of the semester. Houghton’s men’s area coordinator, Shua Wilmot, had also been removed. Wilmot was known for sitting in his apartment on Houghton campus with the door ajar, and letting his pet rabbit Darcy—an icebreaker with students—sometimes wander free.

The two employees, who had already planned to leave the school this summer, said they had been immediately released due to their refusal to remove “she/her” and “he/him” preferred pronouns from their email signatures. Media accounts ran with that headline, but there was more to the story—including Zelaya’s public criticism of the school administration and Wilmot’s critique of the Wesleyan Church’s Biblical views on human gender. The president of Houghton says he’s maintaining the school’s mission, but students at the school remain upset and divided over the firings.

Cody Johnson, Houghton’s student body president, said that while students disagreed about the dismissals, many found common ground over the perceived bad timing just before summer, which he said “did not demonstrate compassion to students and sensitivity to students’ needs.”

Neither Zelaya nor Wilmot is transgender. In a video posted to YouTube, they said one reason they included their pronouns in emails is that their unusual given names could be used for either gender. Listing pronouns, they argued, is a standard industry practice. Wilmot also mentioned another reason—“it normalizes a less laborious way for gender expansive individuals to out themselves.”

But pronoun use wasn’t the only point of ideological tension Wilmot and Zelaya had with their employer. A second reason for Zelaya’s dismissal was a quote attributed to her in Houghton’s student newspaper, The Houghton STAR, on April 14. Zelaya called the university’s decision to shut down its diversity space—the Mosaic Multicultural Center—“outrageous” in light of the school’s stated commitment to diversity. Her hand-delivered dismissal letter labeled that comment “false and defamatory.” (In a statement, the school’s president attributed the decision to an “exclusive and unwelcoming” environment fostered by the space.)

For his part, Wilmot’s firing came on the heels of a letter he sent to Wayne Schmidt, the general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church—Houghton’s sponsoring denomination. Wilmot urged revision of the church’s published viewpoint on gender identity and expression, arguing the document “twists Scripture in order to uphold a tradition of injustice and unacceptance towards gender-expansive people.” Wilmot sent a follow-up email to Schmidt on April 16 asking him to forward the letter to the church’s General Board and suggesting he might publish it as an open letter. (Wilmot later did so.)

Zelaya did not respond to a request for comment. Wilmot referred us to his comments in the YouTube video.

In an interview, Houghton University President Wayne Lewis declined to comment on all the reasons for the firings, but he noted the school recently changed its policy to streamline email signatures, forbidding not just pronouns but quotes or Bible verses. But there’s another reason Lewis objects to pronoun use specifically.

“There is no question that when you include preferred pronouns in your email signature or in your videoconferencing name—whether you intend to or not—you are communicating to the public that at the very least you have an openness to ideas about sex and gender that are different than the positions held by the university and by the church,” Lewis said.

Johnson acknowledged that the fired employees’ pronoun use was intentionally ideological: “We do have a lot of students who identify as nonbinary or some other queer identity.” By including their pronouns, Johnson said, Zelaya and Wilmot were identifying themselves “as a safe place for those students.”

Lewis, who became president in 2021, said he is implementing changes to ensure the university hires only “mission aligned employees” in the future. Those changes will include having personal meetings with job candidates and requiring employees each year to “make an affirmation that they do understand who we are and that they will be respectful of the positions, the beliefs, the doctrine of the university and our sponsoring denomination,” he said.

Still, the firings sent a shock through the student body. Miller, the resident assistant, agrees with Houghton’s Biblical stance on gender and sexuality, but she, too, was uncomfortable with the abrupt dismissals and what she felt was the administration’s lack of communication with students. The situation has become so heated it has made conversations between students of differing views on gender and sexuality more challenging, she said.

Miller said RAs on campus debated whether to approach administrators about how the firings were handled. They even discussed staging a chapel walk-out. Instead, Miller says, they chose to let the matter settle. They also hosted a sit-in on the chapel steps for students to process their feelings.

Another RA planned a student worship night. It was supposed to last for an hour—but students stayed until the building closed at 3 a.m.

“I think it was the best response that could have been had in regards to everything that people were feeling,” Miller said. “And just really directing all of those emotions and things towards God and giving them to Him and recognizing His sovereignty in everything that was happening.”


Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, Md., with her husband and three children.

@freire_emma

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