Episcopal Divinity School enters university partnership

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Deal will 'secure the financial future of the school,' says dean
March 6, 2008

Episcopal Divinity School and Lesley University announced March 6 a new partnership that will involve the two schools sharing the EDS campus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lesley University, a 12,000-student, multi-site university, will buy seven buildings from EDS for $33.5 million, while EDS will retain ownership of 13 buildings on its eight acre campus. The partnership also includes academic program enhancements and shared facilities for uses such as library, student dining and services, and campus maintenance, according to an EDS news release.

The deal will do "at least two major things," EDS President and Dean Steven Charleston told ENS. "First, it will help to anchor EDS into a financial foundation that will secure the financial future of the school for many years to come. And the second thing it will do is open EDS up to continue its innovative work in theological education for the church."

EDS' news, rumored for some time, comes within days of announcements of major changes at Bexley Hall and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, two other Episcopal Church-affiliated seminaries.

"We're seeing a lot of ferment and change in our seminaries, and we're likely to see a great deal more" Charleston told ENS. "These changes that we're seeing are not signs of weakness; they're signs of growth within our church in how it is approaching theological education. We are evolving as an institution and our seminaries are evolving along with that."

Charleston said there will be more changes in the years to come.

"Some will be discouraging and others will be enormously exciting," he said. "What we need to do as the church is continue walking in a balanced way through this time of change until we can create the type of educational ministry that this church expects and needs from its leaders for its leaders for the future. We should not be afraid of change. It's time for change; we need to make changes and it's good to know that some of our seminaries are already actively doing that."

The announcement of the Lesley partnership also comes a week after Charleston announced that he will resign from EDS on June 30. Brett Donham, chair of the EDS Board of Trustees called Charleston's work at the seminary "instrumental in helping restore EDS' reputation as a valuable resource to the Church as well as reinvigorating the spiritual life of the School."

Charleston told ENS that he has "absolutely no idea" what his personal plans will be after June.

"I wanted to do everything in my power to help EDS be all that it can be for the church," he said. "I have been so focused on that, I haven't really had time to think about myself or what I'll do. It's a parting whose time has definitely come. It's time for EDS to take the next big step forward."

Details of the partnership
Lesley University President Joseph B. Moore said in the EDS release that the partnership is a "unique opportunity for Lesley to move closer to our goals of increased student housing and classroom space and improved library services, and in a manner that makes the great[est] use of institutional space in Cambridge."

EDS and Lesley will become two members of a condominium association governing much of the EDS campus while maintaining individual identities, the release said. Lesley will own seven of the buildings on campus, including residence halls and the dining facility; provide some student services for both schools, and collaborate on exploring new academic opportunities for EDS students through Lesley's Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Lesley will provide EDS with apartment-style housing for its students and their families within walking distance of the EDS campus, while taking over three EDS dormitories (Winthrop, Kidder and Rousmaniere halls) to house 200-250 of its undergrads.

The two schools will share ownership of Sherrill Hall, where they will collaborate on library services to meet the needs of students of both schools.

EDS "will remain a free-standing, independent institution with our own trustees, our won budget, our own faculty," Nancy Davidge, EDS director of communications, told ENS. "We are basically out-sourcing some of our student services and other operations to Lesley."

There's not much land left in Cambridge to build new buildings, Davidge said, and the city is not favorably inclined towards an institution that would buy up residential land to turn it into student housing.

EDS has been leasing Lawrence Hall to Lesley since the fall of 2005 for use as an undergraduate dorm, Davidge said. In addition, EDS closed its dining hall a year ago and students have eaten at a nearby Harvard University dining hall.

"We, like many seminaries, like many parishes, had a lot of 100-plus-year-old buildings that are very costly to maintain and we find that an increasing percentage of our resources necessarily have to go to physical plant and with a limited number of resources, that's money you're not able to put into theological education," she said. "So this really for us represents an opportunity to get out from under that burden of being property owners and at the same time presented Lesley with the potential of having a large number of dormitory beds for their students."

EDS' board of trustees began in 2003 to explore options that would ensure the seminary's continued viability in the 21st century. Those options included developing "alternative delivery systems" for education, according to the news release. A team of trustees, faculty, and administrators began to look at ways to redeploy EDS' resources to better support its "mission of educating lay and ordained leaders for Christ's Church and the world who serve and advance God's mission of justice, compassion, and reconciliation," the release said.

Charleston told ENS that the arrangement with Lesley is part of EDS' effort to stay on what he called "the cutting edge of what seminaries will be like in this century."

He said the seminary is developing new models for dioceses to use in partnership with seminaries by way of the use of technology and new approaches to spiritual formation.

"That's the kind of work that we think will really be of great benefit not only to dioceses but to students to help meet the financial cost of seminary and still be able to achieve their goals for their vocation," he said.

Ninety-seven students are enrolled in EDS' degree and certificate programs this academic year. That number includes 38 masters-level and Doctor of Divinity students in its "flexible study option." The alternative delivery system includes two-week, intensive January and June terms during which students live on campus. Other course work occurs online or during weekends, while formation and community building occurs throughout the year via the school's virtual community portal.

Charleston called the flexible study option "one outstanding example of what we're trying to describe as the path to the future of the church."

The school's leadership rejected many strategic options, according to the release, including selling the campus and moving to another location, partnering with other schools, and transforming the school into a think tank or foundation.

EDS also plans to conduct a market research project designed to help the school further adapt its programs to the needs of the church, along with strengthening EDS' core programs, increasing financial aid for students, building a strong development culture and program resulting in a capital campaign, exercising fiscal discipline and considering the possibility of selling or leasing additional property, according to the release.

"The school is confident that the income from the sale of buildings to Lesley in combination with the student services provided by Lesley and the resulting decreased operating costs will provide a strong financial foundation that will support our mission for the next 50 years," according to the release, which noted that the EDS trustees were confident enough in the schools future that at their February meeting they approved two new faculty positions.

Latest of three major seminary announcements
The Episcopal Church-affiliated seminary Bexley Hall recently announced that it has decided to close its Rochester, New York, campus.

"We were too thin on the ground there to meet the labyrinthine requirements of the state and the accrediting agency," the Very Rev. Dr. John R. Kevern, Bexley's dean, said in a written statement sent to ENS. "So, with reluctance and no great pleasure, the Board acquiesced to the analysis of both entities, and decided to terminate the satellite M.Div. program as of this May."

The school will continue its affiliation with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio,

And on February 20, Seabury in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, announced a major restructuring and discernment period. Saying that the seminary "cannot continue to operate as we have in the past," officials announced that the school will stop offering the traditional version of a Master of Divinity degree and would soon develop "a detailed plan for the future operation of Seabury, including a financial plan that brings expenses in line with revenues."

Seabury will have only limited course offerings for the 2008-2009 academic year. "We do not yet know whether Seabury (in some reorganized status) will offer any instruction on our Evanston campus in the 2009-2010 academic year," Seabury Academic Dean the Rev. Dr. Ruth A. Meyers wrote in a February 28 letter to seminary students. "We are negotiating the details of a 'teach-out' agreement with [nearby] Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary to enable students to complete their studies.

Part of a much larger trend
The deans of the 11 Episcopal Church-affiliated seminaries have been discussing for more than a year how their schools must adapt to major changes in forces influencing how theological education is provided to members of many faith traditions. Seminaries are increasingly faced with a shrinking number of people pursuing ordination and parochial employment, many of those who do attend cannot or do not want to get their education in the traditional three-year resident model that has been the hallmark of Episcopal seminaries.

That challenge is paired with growing deficits incurred through the high costs of providing theological education on campus whose aging buildings demanded an ever-larger portion of the schools' budgets. The deans have been clear to say that their context is similar to that facing many other denominational seminaries, and both undergraduate and graduate education in general.

The Very Rev. Ward Ewing, dean and president of the General Theological Seminary (http:http://www.gts.edu) (GTS) and convener of the Council of Deans, told ENS in the fall of 2007 that the deans have realized that because of financial restrictions faced by all the seminaries, "every seminary can't provide everything for everybody." Thus, they are exploring how to develop "the kind of coalition so that each seminary becomes a gateway to the resources of all the seminaries."

As part of that exploration, EDS, Bexley and Seabury had agreed earlier this year to participate with most of the other Episcopal-affiliated seminaries to consolidate their efforts in four areas of theological education. The three are to be part of a group that also includes the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, looking at ways to cooperate in the area of local ministry development programs. Bexley, CDSP, and EDS are also joining with the Austin, Texas-based Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (ETSS) to explore similar cooperation in distance learning programs.

CDSP, ETSS, GTS and Seabury are exploring a collaboration on Hispanic-Latino ministry preparation, drawing in the experiences of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS). Meanwhile, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Nashotah House, GTS, the School of Theology at the University of the South (known as Sewanee) and VTS are considering how to respond to a request from Anglican Communion officials that the seminaries will explore the possibility of offering a collaborative Doctor of Ministry degree in Africa.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.