The EDS Board decision: a reply from the Alumni/ae Executive Committee

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The Alumni/ae Executive Committee has replied to the decision by the Episcopal Divinity School Board of Trustees:

We’re not saying things can go on as they are (even though the draw on the endowment has been steadily coming down), but are asking for time to explore some really interesting possibilities for partnerships or mergers with other institutions that will allow EDS to continue to have a voice in the Episcopal Church. Shutting down the degree granting at this point effectively shuts down EDS’s ability to offer itself as a viable partner. (Karen Meridith, Executive Committee member)

Following is the complete letter:

July 22, 2016

Dear Alumni/ae Friends:

Following the July 21, 2016 vote by the Board of Trustees to cease the granting of degrees at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, the members of EDS’s Alumni/ae Executive Committee feel compelled to write to our friends, classmates, and colleagues in the wider EDS community across the church and across the world. We reach out to you with heavy hearts—in solidarity and in profound concern at the present action. We had expected that the Board would be meeting on Thursday to discuss, debate, and approve the proposals recommended by the Futures Committee, not voting with a steely resolve to cease the granting of degrees with no further plan or vision in place. We are shocked and disappointed in what seems a precipitous action.

While it is impossible to speak for the entire alumni/ae body with its diverse perspectives, and acknowledging that many will find hope for needed transformation in the trustees’ action, the members of the AEC are united in sadness. Even more, we are deeply troubled by this decision, which from our perspective is unnecessary and most certainly premature, given the School’s considerable financial, human, and physical resources. As we noted in our May 6, 2016 letter to the trustees and shared with the School’s various constituencies, EDS’s net assets as of March 31 were nearly $63 million, with over $30 million in unrestricted assets. This figure does not include real estate and property owned by the School. Investment figures are stated at over $53 million.

For perspective, we note that these figures are second highest among free-standing Episcopal seminaries, and in terms of available, unrestricted funds, EDS is in the 90% percentile of seminaries in the Association of Theological Schools. We continue to agree with the trustees that EDS’s current endowment draw is unsustainable over the long term. However, some of the significant draw overage—$5 million over the past five years—is due to extraordinary capital expenses to support the physical plant, not general operations.

EDS has worked assiduously over the past several years to bring the endowment draw closer to 5%. We are not yet there, with a draw of around 7%, but this is down from over 10%. With new senior administration hires in admissions and institutional advancement, the future has looked far brighter than in recent years. In fact, it was on May 25, 2016—less than two months ago—that the Board of Trustees authorized the search for two tenure-track faculty members in the areas of Anglican/Episcopal studies, church history, and pastoral theology and practice. This hopeful action pointed to the dawn of a new day for EDS with a revitalized faculty, student body, and fundraising capabilities.

Our concern is compounded by the fact that the decision to cease the granting of degrees is not one that was recommended as a first or best choice by the multi-constituency Futures Committee, tasked by the trustees with envisioning a sustainable and vibrant future for our School. In its final report the Futures Committee proposed a multi-tired approach, grounded in an enhanced relationship with Lesley University. One option suggested the creation of a center for education in the Abrahamic Faiths on the EDS campus—joining with potential Jewish and Muslim partners to offer much needed interfaith theological education. This proposal did not envision the cessation of academic degrees by EDS, but the creation of an interfaith learning environment for seminarians and others of diverse traditions on Brattle Street, including an ongoing commitment to theological education in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Potential partners for this exciting venture had been identified by members of the Futures Committee; although, no conversations with such partners had begun.

Another strong proposal, also building on an enhanced relationship with Lesley University as our campus partner, was for a federated relationship with Boston University’s School of Theology for Anglican/Episcopal Studies—similar to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University model. This option was proposed multiple times by members of the wider EDS community in the Futures visioning process. Finally, as a third option the Futures Committee proposed exploring a consortium relationship with several other Episcopal seminaries. We would note that the Futures Committee was explicitly told by the trustees that small-to-small seminary mergers would not be acceptable and none were offered in the final Futures Committee report.

The Boston University proposal ultimately might have led to the cessation of academic degrees by EDS, following the Berkeley at Yale model, but to date no significant exploration of the feasibility of that option or any of the others with potential partners has been undertaken by the trustees, administration, or faculty. Sadly, when firmly and repeatedly pressed by student and faculty representatives during Thursday’s meeting, the trustees voting in the majority articulated no shared vision for the future of EDS, beyond the cessation of academic degrees. We thus conclude that the present action is premature, until an actual and feasible future vision is articulated by the Board. Even better would be such a vision reached with considerable affirmation by the wider EDS community. At that point we would hope to be able to enthusiastically endorse the trustees’ action. Unfortunately, this important work has not yet been done.

We recall from our own history that Episcopal Divinity School was created in 1974 by the merger of Episcopal Theological School and Philadelphia Divinity School only after considerable and ongoing student, faculty, and trustee consultation. While the Boards of Trustees were ultimately responsible for the merger, they did not make their decisions in isolation but in concert and in mutuality with the schools’ multiple constituencies. Not everyone approved of that decision, of course. It was particularly painful for our Philadelphia alumni/ae. But, an extraordinary new reality was brought into being—including the integration of both schools’ faculties and student bodies and, through deep mutual consultation, the adoption of much of the innovative teaching ethos developed at PDS, refined for use in Cambridge.

The birth of EDS was a careful, albeit imperfect, process that involved and was informed by the schools’ many constituencies. We would urge that a similar participatory process continue to be employed today as EDS looks to its next incarnation. It is not only the right way to come to such a monumental decision, it is the EDS way—informed and guided by our long-standing commitments to justice and inclusion for all of God’s people. Decisions reached by the trustees in a closed executive retreat do not reflect and, in fact, fall far short of the best of our heritage.

Several members of the Alumni/ae Executive Committee were in attendance for Thursday’s public trustees meeting—in person and online—as were numerous other alumni/ae and friends of the School, along with students, staff, and faculty. In stark contrast with other EDS trustee meetings, visitors were not permitted to speak as the trustees announced their decision and held a limited debate, with the result apparently largely agreed upon in advance. Beyond the trustees, only one non-voting student representative and one non-voting faculty representative were given voice. Others were forced to watch in silence. Though, as one might expect of an EDS community event, not all present accepted that silence and made their feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness known.

The AEC commends those few who were permitted to speak at the meeting, offering an articulate and passionate defence of the School and its mission in the face of this dramatic change: the Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin, faculty representative to the Board of Trustees, and Dr. Pamela Conrad, student representative to the Board of Trustees. We likewise commend the four trustees who voted and spoke in opposition to this action: the Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin ‘06, the Rev. Hall Kirkham ‘08, the Rev. Dr. Robert Steele ‘68, and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Carol Gallagher ‘89, our elected alumni/ae trustee. We are tremendously grateful for their witness. Dr. Conrad’s wise and courageous statement merits repetition: “Justice is never for sale. And justice always operates at a deficit.”

Following the vote, we witnessed the public resignation of Interim President & Dean Frank Fornaro ‘96, who expressed his own firm opposition to the trustees’ action. We are deeply sorry he has felt it necessary to resign, but we understand his reasoning and we share in his sadness and frustration with the decision taken. Considerable work has been done to bring reconciliation to the campus over the past year, such that it has once again become a joyful and spirit-filled place. Dean Fornaro deserves particular credit for fostering a climate of openness and gospel hope for the future. His steadfast leadership has been a manifestation of the love of God for EDS’s students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae and friends. Thankfully, his resignation does not take effect until Nov. 19, 2016. We look forward to the opportunity to thank him for his dedicated service properly in the future. We invite and encourage you to thank Frank as well.

Those of us present on campus experienced God’s incarnate and abiding love at a service of prayer and song in St. John’s Memorial Chapel following the trustees’ vote. Dean Fornaro’s prayers, joined with those of the gathered community, lifted us in love. It is salutary to remember that for thousands of years people of faith have come together in prayer both in times of joy and in sadness. This life of prayer continually sustains us and leads us to hope for a better future. Thursday was most certainly an occasion of sadness, as well as anger, frustration, shock, and bewilderment. Thankfully the walls of St. John’s Chapel are sturdy enough to contain it all. That sacred place is steeped in the fervent prayers of generations students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and trustees, too, both longing for justice and being empowered to work for and incarnate it, in the church and in the world.

Among the trustees who voted with the majority were also alumni/ae. We do not doubt or question their loyalty and appreciation for the transformational education they received at PDS, ETS, and EDS, even as we firmly disagree with their decision. We know that their decision must have been reached in great pain and difficulty. The AEC holds them in prayer and is committed to working with all of our trustees to ensure that EDS has a strong and vibrant future. Even with this coming change, we are confident that there are tremendous possibilities for our beloved School. We enjoy considerable financial resources, a beautiful and well-maintained campus in the midst of one of the most significant educational centers in the world, and a deeply committed faculty, staff, and student body. There is no reason that EDS cannot thrive in a new way. We dare to hope for that future.

In coming to their decision, the Board of Trustees made several promises. First, they have promised that there will be no staff or faculty layoffs over the next year. The staff are the strong backbone of EDS, consistently and faithfully serving our constituencies with grace and dedication, often without recognition. We are profoundly grateful to them. Generations of faculty have formed us with their teaching and mentorship. We are the people we are because of them. The faculty and staff deserve the School’s very best, just as they have given us their very best—in the classroom, chapel, refectory, and beyond.

Second, the trustees have promised that current and incoming students not prepared to graduate in 2017 will be supported as they transition to compatible programs in other institutions. There is some question about how that can be accomplished within accredited ATS standards, but we are hopeful that it is fully possible if the current plan is enacted. Even in the midst of recent crises, EDS has attracted extraordinary students. They, too, deserve our very best. We look forward to counting those currently enrolled among our alumni/ae community upon the completion of their programs. The AEC will stay in close contact with the faculty and staff to ensure that these important promises to the EDS community are honored.

Most significantly, the trustees have promised that they will engage in a process of discernment over the coming academic year as they consider the future for our beloved School and discern a shared vision. In particular, they have promised to engage with the thoughtful and creative recommendations offered by the Futures Committee as they look forward to a sustainable Episcopal Divinity School and the continuation of our longstanding mission. We are dedicated to partnering with them in this work.

EDS not only has an incredible history, we believe it still has the potential for an incredible future, bearing witness to the justice-focused values and commitments of the gospel. These values and commitments are deeply needed as peoples and societies face hatred, violence, religious extremism, and discrimination of every kind. EDS has offered and continues to offer a different and better way, inspired by justice, inclusion, love, and hope. We dedicate our individual and collective wisdom to discerning this future together. If EDS is true to its values, this work must be done together—by trustees, faculty, students, staff, and alumni/ae alike—discerning and working in mutuality, in trust, and in shared vision.

This letter necessarily comes with deep reflection and gratitude for the generations of faculty, staff, and student colleagues who have shaped us for ministry. Our history goes back to 1857 and the founding of the Philadelphia Divinity School. For nearly 160 years, our graduates—prepared for lives of ministry and service on our campuses in Philadelphia and Cambridge—have been drawing people of every background ever closer to the heart of God. We have every confidence and hope that this ministry can and will continue long into the future.

Be assured that your Alumni/ae Executive Committee will do everything we can to ensure that EDS continues to embrace and fulfill its sacred mission and purpose. Those wishing to contact us may do so via this email address: alum@eds.edu.

In love and gratitude for our School and for you and your ministries,

The Rev. Dr. Matthew P. Cadwell, EDS ’99
Co-President

The Rev. Stephen O. Voysey, EDS ’77
Co-President

The Rev. Deborah A. Phillips, EDS ’90
Secretary

The Rev. Jane MacIntyre, EDS ’06
Recording Secretary

The Rt. Rev. Carol J. Gallagher, EDS ’89
Alumni/ae Trustee

Ms. April Alford-Harkey, EDS ’09

The Rev. Cn. Dr. Katharine Black, EDS ’86

The Rev. Elizabeth Colton, EDS ’04

The Rev. Dr. Koshy Mathews, EDS ’00

The Rev. Tom E. Mathews, EDS ’03

Ms. Karen M. Meridith, EDS ’05

Dr. Jennifer Lynne Morazes, EDS ’00

The Rev. Harry E. Walton, Jr., EDS ’14

The Rev. Diane C. K. Wong, EDS ’99

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Robert Edson '66
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Robert Edson '66

I have seen the demise of EDS coming for a long time. It began with the 1974 merger resulting in more faculty and staff and less students and continued with selling off the campus to Lesley. What has happened to a once great School is totally inexcusable and unacceptable. It all could have been prevented with better management.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

EDS is a beacon of progressive Christian education. EDS has served as a refuge from oppressive theology and a balm for those who have been wounded elsewhere trying to proclaim the Good News. Why stewards of this institution would permit it to implode, is beyond me.

In this case, I fear EDS will close its doors due to a tragic lack of radical imagination. Does this portend more of the same in our Church?

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Rev.Dr.Mary J.Korte
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Rev.Dr.Mary J.Korte

Indeed it feels like lets take our ball and go home even if that is not the intent. The EDS witness is needed more than ever in this climate infused with daily showers of vitriol.

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