EDS to merge with Union Theological Seminary

EDS to close operations in Cambridge and move to New York City

Two progressive seminaries are on the road to merging following a financial shortfall and dropping enrollment at a historic Boston-area institution affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

The Board of Trustees of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) today voted to pursue an affiliation with Union Theological Seminary. According to an announcement from EDS, such a merger would create an EDS entity to provide Episcopal theological education at Union’s New York City campus.

A corresponding vote was cast by Union trustees in support of the move.

One of ten seminaries educating students for ministry in the Episcopal Church, EDS announced in July that it will cease granting degrees at the conclusion of the current academic year, citing “unsustainable” levels of spending. At the same time, the school’s dean tendered his resignation. In November, trustees from the school released a letter revealing staggering financial losses at the troubled progressive seminary.

According to the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, EDS has four full-time faculty and 35 full-time enrolled students. EDS investments are currently valued at approximately $53 million plus the real estate value of its campus, which is adjacent to Harvard University. More than half of the endowment is restricted. In a statement made available by the school, Board Treasurer Dennis Stark stated, “We are spending six million a year from our endowment, and 30 percent of that is above a reasonable amount.”

Union was one of three finalists considered by a committee tasked with reviewing proposals for EDS’s future. Both schools emphasize progressive political advocacy. EDS describes itself as “leaders in educational programs that are enlivened by theologies of liberation, especially the many voices of feminist, congregational, ecumenical, and global studies.”

The EDS statement is below:

Episcopal Divinity School Votes to Pursue Affiliation with Union Theological Seminary in New York

Cambridge, MA – February 24, 2017 – The Board of Trustees of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) today voted to pursue an affiliation with Union Theological Seminary that would create an EDS entity to provide Episcopal theological education and other programs at Union’s campus in New York.

The Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary has voted enthusiastically to support Union’s leadership in bringing negotiations with EDS to a successful conclusion.

“We are excited to begin negotiations toward an agreement that will allow EDS to achieve the three goals we set for ourselves when we began the process of assuring the seminary’s future,” said the Rev. Dr. Gary Hall ’76, chair of the board. “EDS will continue to provide theological education within an accredited and degree-granting program, we will carry out our historic mission to place gospel-centered justice at the center of that education, and we will provide financial strength and stability for EDS’s future.”

“We are thrilled that EDS’s trustees have made this momentous decision and we are excited about all it portends for the future,” said the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of the faculty and Johnston Family Professor for Religion and Democracy at Union. “The mission alignment between our two institutions is clear and strong. You can’t miss it!  This alignment assures that the deepest commitments of both institutions will be honored and strengthened in the years ahead.”

The two seminaries will begin negotiations immediately in the hope that both boards can vote on an agreement when they meet in May, before EDS’s final commencement at its Cambridge campus.

“I am optimistic that this proposed affiliation will provide great benefits for both parties,” said Bonnie Anderson, Hon. D.D. ’06, vice chair of the EDS board. “An Episcopal entity at Union would be positioned to leverage resources for mission and attract new partners in New York City and beyond.”

Spurred by financial challenges that were depleting EDS’s endowment, its board voted last July to stop granting degrees at the seminary’s Cambridge location after the 2017 commencement in May, and to explore new ways of providing post-secondary theological education that emphasized the centrality of social justice in the Christian tradition.

The board’s New Directions Committee, chaired by the Rev. Anne Howard ’85, reviewed proposals from nine seminaries and divinity schools, and selected three finalists. After making site visits with the Rev. Dr. William C. Nelsen, EDS interim president, and Anthony Ruger, an expert on financial sustainability in theological schools, the committee recommended exploring an agreement to affiliate with Union.

“The quality and creativity of the proposals we received was gratifying,” said Howard. “After extensive research, we became clear that Union offers the best fit for EDS’s mission and historic commitment to justice.”

Union already has a strong Episcopal presence. Four of its 22 faculty members are Episcopal priests and five members of its board of trustees are Episcopalians, including the board chair, Wolcott Dunham, senior warden of St. James’ Episcopal Church in New York City and former trustee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

“I look forward to the amazing possibilities of bringing an affiliation between Union and EDS into reality,” said Union Board Chair Dunham. “Our work together will surely expand the ways we serve the world and the church.”

EDS has adopted a generous severance plan for its faculty and staff, and all of its students are being “taught out” at other seminaries with EDS financial support to avoid additional costs for those students. Seven of the teach-out students are Episcopalians in an ordination process; they come from three dioceses. A number of the students included in the teach-out, which has been approved by the Association of Theological Schools, are international students, and EDS has retained an immigration lawyer to advise the students about maintaining their visas in the transition.

The seminary’s investments are currently valued at approximately $53 million plus its campus.

This article first appeared at Juicy Ecumenism and is reprinted by permission of the author.

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