General Seminary’s Wounds on Fresh Display with Recent Allegations

The highest-profile seminary in the Episcopal Church is still struggling after turmoil between the dean and faculty members temporarily crippled the school early this academic year.

The highest-profile seminary in the Episcopal Church is still struggling after turmoil between the dean and faculty members temporarily crippled the school early this academic year.

 

A letter from 20 students, alumni and former trustees to the Attorney General of New York dated April 20 asks for an investigation of the actions of General Theological Seminary Dean and President Kurt Dunkle and the Board of Trustees. The letter, originally made public on Facebook and reprinted on the blog Episcopal Café, charges that Dunkle and the trustees “may have abandoned their fiduciary responsibilities and taken actions which are likely to result in the closing” of the 198-year-old institution and the sale of its remaining real estate in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The letter restates earlier allegations against Dunkle while noting that fallout from the initial turmoil resulted in several students departing midyear, while the board “provisionally” reinstated the faculty only for the rest of the academic year, while canceling their academic tenure.

 

“No new hires have been announced and several top librarians have left,” the letter reads, claiming that “only one entering student has paid a deposit for admission next fall” and that the seminary’s accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools is under review.

 

The letter closes speculating about “alleged egregious conduct by the administration calculated to force the seminary to close” and “appears to have been groomed for failure” noting that the nearby High Line park makes the already-desirable seminary property “one of the hottest places in the city right now” for commercial redevelopment.

 

General Theological Seminary has sold or redeveloped property in order to pay down $40 million in debt. In 2007, the school redeveloped three buildings into the Desmond Tutu Center, a hotel and conference center that seminary officials hoped would sustain itself with new revenue. In 2012, the center was sold to a property developer and is now the upscale High Line Hotel, advertising “dazzling views of the High Line Park or our enclosed private-garden oasis” of Chelsea Square.

 

GTS Board of Trustees Chair Bishop Clifton Daniel of Pennsylvania authored a letter of response addressed to the GTS community in which he defended the seminary board and leadership, insisting it was “diligently addressing its very serious decades-long financial issues.” Daniel also pushed back on enrollment, stating that GTS continues to receive applications for the 2015-2016 academic year.

 

“We have accepted many students in advance of our June 15th deadline for applications,” Daniel revealed. The board chair did not offer statistics on the number of students who have placed a deposit on an acceptance offer from seminary. Faculty departures were also unaddressed.

 

Dunkle has presented the seminary’s situation as gradually improving, writing in a March 23 letter to seminary supporters in which he acknowledged that “the past six months at General have been challenging for everyone.”

 

“Our recent upheaval has been painful and revealing,” Dunkle wrote. “General faces many challenges–financial, missional and cultural–and all of them have been highlighted over this past year.”

Among those challenges has been a $3 million cash deficit last year, which seminary officials “anticipate” to be another $1.5 million this year.

 

“Next year, we are working hard to cut it in half again,” Dunkle wrote hopefully. “General’s long-term financial stability depends on achieving a balanced budget–or at least being within a horse-shoe throw of one. We can no longer rely on band-aid solutions and will continue to do the tough work to make General sustainable for another 198 years.”

 

“Again, change is not easy,” Dunkle concluded, stating that “we have real lives to heal” and noting reconciliation efforts facilitated by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.

Of the ten schools that educate Episcopal seminarians, GTS is the only one chartered by the church’s General Convention, and among the oldest. The developments at GTS come as ongoing difficulty at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts resulted in Dean Katherine Ragsdale’s departure from the seminary, with an interim dean announced in late March.

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