The Trustees of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary today declared that the Episcopal Seminary “is in (a state of) financial crisis that threatens survival of the institution” and has given notice to all faculty that employment will end on June 30, 2009. The school also eliminated nine staff positions. The final date of employment for most of these staff will be May 23 – a week after graduation and the school’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
UPDATE - Chicago Tribune coverage here: "Officials at the Evanston seminary insist the school is not closing, but that it is redefining its approach for preparing men and women for priesthood."
April 24, 2008
EVANSTON, IL – The Trustees of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary today declared that the Episcopal Seminary “is in (a state of) financial crisis that threatens survival of the institution” and has given notice to all faculty that employment will end on June 30, 2009. The school also eliminated nine staff positions. The final date of employment for most of these staff will be May 23 – a week after graduation and the school’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
The decision was the outcome of a special board meeting in which the trustees were presented with recommendations by a committee charged with reviewing the seminary’s finances. In February, the board was informed that income from tuition, fees, and endowment resources would be insufficient to overcome an ongoing deficit of nearly $500,000 per year. The seminary currently has an estimated $2.9 million in accumulated debt -- likely to climb to $3.5 million later this year because of transition costs. The board ordered a financial plan that brings expenses in line with revenues.
“This is an especially painful and difficult decision to make and announce,” said the seminary’s dean and president, Gary Hall. “However, it became clear during the past 18 months that the seminary’s endowment and other income sources are not capable of sustaining a traditional residential seminary program.
“At its heart, Seabury will always be a school in service of the mission of God as proclaimed and enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Hall said. “We simply cannot sustain our mission with limited resources and by using a traditional model of ministry education.”
In February the board suspended admissions recruitment for its three-year residential master of divinity (MDiv) program, its master in theological studies (MTS), two doctor of ministry (DMin) and certificate programs. Students currently enrolled in the MDiv and DMin programs will be allowed to finish their degrees at Seabury. Some courses may be taken at other Chicago-area seminaries.
Seabury is not alone among the Episcopal Church’s 11 seminaries in facing financial challenges. In recent months Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and Bexley Hall Seminary in Rochester, NY, announced decisions to sell property or consolidate operations in order to continue offering similar programs. Bexley Hall is consolidating its remaining program and students to Columbus, OH, where it will continue its MDiv program with Trinity Lutheran Seminary. EDS announced last month that it has sold some of its campus to Lesley University in order to remain in Cambridge.
All Episcopal and other mainline seminaries have faced rising costs and stagnant or declining enrollments for the past 30 years while higher education costs have accelerated. At Seabury, tuition is $13,000 while the actual cost per student has risen to more than $50,000. Sustaining that $37,000 expenditure gap over a period of more than two decades exhausted the seminary’s resources despite an increase in alumni/ae and other giving during the past few years.
In 2006 the board began a strategic planning process to identify ways to respond effectively to the shifts in the seminary market. Last October the case statement estimated at least $10 million would be needed to eliminate the current debt load and increase the endowment, while $8.7 million could be targeted program development and campus renovation to support any new programs. The $18.7 million goal significantly exceeded Seabury’s fundraising capabilities.
Declaring financial exigency – the technical term for determining a financial crisis that threatens the survival of the institution -- allows the trustees to end faculty tenure and terminate faculty positions, resulting in immediate and long-term savings. Faculty will be given one year’s notice that their positions will end effective June 30, 2009. They will receive full salary and benefits in the 2008-2009 academic year and teach a reduced course load so that they have opportunity to search for a new position. Staff will have separation benefits that include severance pay, payment for unused vacation, continuation of health benefits, unemployment benefits, and career counseling.
“Faculty understand the precarious financial situation of the seminary and have appreciated being consulted in the decisions leading to the board’s declaration of exigency,” said Dr. Ruth A. Meyers, academic dean and professor of liturgics. “While there is a range of emotion as they face an uncertain future, there is also tremendous good will and support for one another, for students and staff, and for the institution.”
“Our primary work right now is caring for the people in the Seabury community whose lives are being dramatically disrupted,” Dean Hall said. “While we need to look to what Seabury might become in the future, we have focused almost all of our energies on the immediate concerns facing those around us.”
“Seabury is an amazing community, and this process is extraordinarily difficult for all of us involved,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Butler, vice president for advancement and administration. “While we understand the necessity of dismantling the current structure of our beloved institution, the reality of doing so causes profound grief on so many levels. It is difficult to have to say goodbye to faculty and staff.”
At the same time the trustees have wrestled with controlling costs, they also have investigated future program options, including merging with another institution, offering non-residential programs, and distance learning.
The administration is optimistic that it can resume offering the doctoral programs in preaching and congregational development that have been a hallmark of Seabury for many years. The trustees plan to focus on future plans during the coming months.