Missing this year from his regular spots in the Exley lobby and Usdan patio is former University Catholic Chaplain Father William J. Wallace, better known as Father Bill. In addition to holding weekly mass at Memorial Chapel and providing pastoral care for the Catholic community, he often walked through campus, introducing himself to students and asking how they were doing. Among the Wesleyan community, Wallace is known for his knack for remembering people’s names. He became a mentor, advocate, and friend to numerous students, faculty, and staff members over his seven years as chaplain.
On June 8, 2022, University administrators terminated Wallace’s employment. They instructed him to turn in his laptop and locked him out of his University email account and office.
Without his University laptop, Wallace no longer had access to the list of Wesleyan and Middletown community members to whom he sent a weekly email newsletter. On June 30, 2022, after retrieving the email addresses of many of the students and staff members he knew, he sent a message notifying them of his firing.
“I do not want anyone to think that I quit my job or resigned from my position, or that my ‘departure’, as the administration calls it, was for something improper or illegal,” Wallace wrote. “It was not. It was not a voluntary ‘departure’ or resignation, but a forced termination.”
Due to Connecticut state laws that prevent employers from discussing personnel information, as well as issues of potential liability, University administrators declined to comment on Wallace’s firing. In his June email, Wallace suggested that his firing was due to his outspokenness about several recent events in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL).
“[The firing] comes after my recent and outspoken advocacy for certain causes and people, especially the former Muslim chaplain and Muslim students, and for holding people in senior management accountable for their misguided decision-making, mismanagement, and lack of leadership,” Wallace wrote.
For example, Wallace pointed to his outspoken opposition to ORSL’s 2020 plan to scale back its programming, which Vice President of Student Affairs Michael J. Whaley described as a response to pandemic-related budget cuts. At the time, ORSL intended to cut the four chaplains (Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic) to just one. This chaplain would oversee all religious life on campus but also direct students to Middletown resources for spiritual services specific to their religions, significantly affecting the on-campus accessibility of pastoral care.
In an October 2020 Letter to the Editor published in The Argus, Wallace argued that the plan’s financial benefits were far less significant than the harm it would cause to students’ spiritual lives. Wallace argued that chaplains provide personal support and help students reckon with questions of morality and meaning.
By Fall 2021, in response to pushback from across the University community, as well as the availability of more funding, the University began developing a plan to employ three full-time chaplains.
While describing the series of events that led up to his firing, Wallace also referenced his support for former University Muslim Chaplain Omar Bayramoglu, whose employment was terminated by the University in July 2020 when the plan to scale back ORSL was still intact. Bayramoglu learned that the University had chosen not to renew his contract after Wallace saw an all-staff email from Human Resources that listed Bayramoglu as a departing staff member. Bayramoglu did not receive the email himself; Wallace emailed him personally to ask if the news was true.
At the time, Wallace expressed deep disapproval of Bayramoglu’s treatment in a July 30, 2020 email to Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and and University Jewish Chaplain Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, on which he copied Whaley, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rick Culliton, and Associate Vice President of Human Resources Lisa Brommer. He repeated these sentiments in a Nov. 12, 2020 interview with The Argus.
More recently, Wallace objected to several aspects of the University’s search for a new Muslim chaplain, which included a failed search in Fall 2021 and a successful search in Spring 2022. In both cases, the first round of interviews was conducted by a search committee consisting of Caleb T. Winchester University Librarian Andrew W. White, who served on search committees frequently; Head Coach of Squash Shona Kerr; Leipziger Teva; and two students. Wallace was involved only with the second round of candidate evaluation, when a wider range of students and staff met the applicants and provided feedback that could influence hiring decisions.
Wallace believed he should have been included on the search committee since he had put pressure on the University to fill the Muslim chaplaincy and since the new hire would be one of his close colleagues.
“[I took] strong exception to being deliberately excluded from the Search Committee for a new Muslim Chaplain despite the strenuous objection of the Muslim students, with the threat by a manager of abandoning the search entirely,” Wallace wrote.
Muslim Students’ Association Co-President Sumaiya Sabnam ’23, who was on the search committee for a Muslim chaplain in Spring 2022, agreed that many Muslim students believed Wallace was a logical candidate for the search committee.
“A lot of students, including myself, we were like, ‘Why isn’t Father Bill in the search committee?’ because as an ORSL staff [member], he should be on it, since he’s been a very vocal advocate for [the search],” Sabnam said.
Sabnam emphasized that after Bayramoglu’s contract was not renewed, Wallace had strongly encouraged the University to fill the Muslim chaplaincy position.
“We had multiple conversations together where he was like, ‘Look, I want to get a Muslim chaplain on campus, and I’m doing everything in my power,’ and that power includes talking to administration face to face [and] sending emails to the administration,” Sabnam said. “He was one of the biggest supporter[s], one of the biggest fighter[s], for the Muslim students.”
After the failed search in Fall 2021, Wallace vocally condemned the University’s inability to promptly find a suitable candidate as well as the fact that it had made a tentative offer to a candidate with an arrest record. In his email to students and staff, he linked these objections with his termination.
“[I criticized] the lack of proper due diligence by that Search Committee and HR, which resulted in a six month ‘failed search’ due to the selection of a candidate who turned out to have an arrest record for assaulting a student and who was arrested in his underwear up a tree,” Wallace wrote.
Sabnam stated that when the University conducts personnel searches, search committees initially receive only the information provided by the candidates, such as resumes and cover letters. Human Resources does not conduct background checks and share the results with search committees until the candidate has been through two rounds of interviews.
Ultimately, the Spring 2022 search led to the hiring of a new Muslim chaplain, Jamir Meah. In the summer of 2022, the University began searching concurrently for either a Protestant or a Catholic Chaplain, since both positions were vacant. Tracy Mehr-Muska was eventually hired, resuming her position as University Protestant Chaplain, which she previously held from 2012 to 2020.
Wallace also pointed to a workplace disagreement as an event that could have contributed to his firing.
“[I objected] to a manager’s directive to a student to call a staff member who was not showing up for work and ask him to do his job,” Wallace wrote.
Whaley stated that the University currently has no plan to hire a new Catholic chaplain due to a lack of funding. Formerly, the Diocese of Norwich funded part of the Catholic Chaplain’s salary. Now, the University’s portion of this funding goes toward Mehr-Muksa’s salary. Whaley said the diocese had not planned to stop contributing to Wallace’s pay. However, he was unsure whether they could resume this arrangement if the University hired a new Catholic chaplain, since the diocese is experiencing financial stress.
“Dean Rick and I met with the diocese over the summer, and they’re going over some of their own fiscal issues, which I didn’t even realize until we met with them,” Whaley said. “They’re essentially in bankruptcy.”
Many Catholic students and faculty members were disappointed that on-campus Mass, which Wallace held on Sunday evenings, would no longer be available, though several Catholic churches hold services near the University. Chair of Classical Studies Andrew Szegedy-Maszak said that the Masses at Memorial Chapel often brought Middletown residents to campus.
“It didn’t pack the chapel, but week in, week out, there were 20, 30, 40 folks,” Szegedy-Maszak said. “There were students, there were members of the local community…. I’ve heard from Middletown folks who were distressed by what happened, whose only connection to the University was going to Mass, the Mass that Bill led on Sunday evenings.”
A Catholic student who has attended St. Sebastian’s Church, located on Washington Street, said the experience was not as comfortable as on-campus Mass.
“It just feels different because here, you’re among people who know you’re a student, who know where you’re coming from, who know the struggles you’re going through, and more people look like you,” the student said.
Wesleyan Christian Fellowship leader Charissa Lee ’23, a Protestant student, remarked on the particular benefits that on-campus religious services provide. Having experienced a period of time without a Protestant chaplain and attended services off campus, Lee believes on-campus chaplains are uniquely suited to provide guidance for college students.
“I think a lot of students come to Wesleyan with a lot of religious trauma, and people are rediscovering their faith without the supervision of their parents,” Lee said. “That exploration requires not only freedom of expression, but also guidance from someone who understands the cultural politics of this campus. If you push students out to local communities that are actively disconnected from Wesleyan, those ministers will not understand what it is like to be both a person of faith and also a student on a hyper-liberal campus that often demonizes religiosity.”
Catholic student Christa Ishimwe ’23 said most local churches hold Mass in the morning, whereas Wallace’s evening Mass was often more convenient for college students’ schedules. She pointed out that while religious leaders from other faiths can provide personal support for Catholic students, they no longer have access to types of pastoral care, such as the sacrament of confession, which only ordained priests can provide. Ishimwe also said that while few Catholic students had shown up in recent years for organized events like Bible study or group dinners, Mass attendance was usually fairly high.
“If you are not having Mass, as Catholics, there isn’t something that can bring us together,” Ishimwe said. “Everything else comes after Mass. Mass is the most important thing, and we cannot do that without a priest.”
Tommy Whelan ’21 said Wallace created a welcoming atmosphere that made students feel more comfortable practicing religion on a largely secular campus.
“Wesleyan is not an easy place to loudly proclaim ‘I am Catholic’, but somehow Father Bill built up such a sense of community and belonging that I was always happy to tell my friends I was going to Sunday night mass,” Whelan wrote in an email to The Argus. “I’ve seen MANY priests in my upbringing, and I don’t think any of them could galvanize college students like Father Bill.”
One Catholic student, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had met some of their closest friends at Wallace’s start-of-year brunch for Catholic students, and they were disappointed that current first-years would not be able to experience this. Wallace also ran field trips, such as an annual ski retreat, that helped to bring students together. Wallace’s presence was foundational to the Catholic community in a more concrete sense as well—the Catholic community did not have a cloud-based email list, and the email list was located on his laptop, which the University required him to turn in. Currently, Catholic students don’t have a list with contact information for one another.
On an individual level, many Catholic students regarded Wallace as an important figure in providing pastoral care and day-to-day support.
“He helped…make my transition into Wesleyan very easy, and I just knew that I had backup, and if anything happened, I had someone to go [to],” the anonymous student said.
Notably, Wallace’s absence has also affected non-Catholic members of the University community. Lee believes his work included contributions that weren’t easily quantified.
“[Wallace provided] comfort and care to a lot of students who needed it, and a lot of staff and faculty who needed it, even though they were…non-Catholic,” Lee said. “I think that’s something that the administration doesn’t understand. Because those things don’t go into his annual report—the number of people that he has interacted with, outside of his official chaplain capacity. So what goes into a typical annual report would be things like the events that [chaplains] host, how many people attend, how many students they see during their one-on-one pastoral counseling sessions. But a lot of his work extended beyond his official job description.”
Melat Amde Gebremeskel ’25, a non-Catholic student, said that Wallace provided support during the adjustment to living far from home, and even invited Gebremeskel and some friends to celebrate Thanksgiving when they weren’t able to spend it with their families.
“Since the first day I met him at Usdan [Wallace] has been one of the kindest people I’ve ever met at Wesleyan,” Gebremeskel wrote. “He always checks up on me and my friends and genuinely cares about what’s going on in our lives.”
John E. Andrus Professor of History William D. Johnston, a practicing Zen Buddhist, said he enjoyed discussing spiritual life with Wallace.
“[We] had many conversations about spiritual life on campus, especially among students, as well as about religious life in general and the rigors of monastic training,” Johnston wrote in an email to The Argus. “On more than one occasion I referred students to meet with him, and on at least [one] occasion that kept a student from transferring out of Wesleyan.”
In addition to his recent advocacy for more support for Muslim students, Wallace helped members of the Protestant community when Mehr-Muksa left in 2020. He provided administrative help, such as booking the chapel for their services and verifying that their emails were received.
“[Wallace] provided pastoral care to myself, and I’m sure to other Protestant students as well,” Lee said. “When he left, we recognized that we had lost a huge ally within the administration.”
Wallace was not available for an interview in time for this article’s publication and instead opted to share his perspective through a Letter to the Editor. Material from a potential future interview may be included in further reporting on this subject.
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