From July 19 to 21, Episcopal Divinity School’s board of trustees will meet to take the next decisive step in a two-year process to determine the seminary’s future.
“The board is not yet of one mind about what the future shape of EDS should be,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, chair of the EDS board of trustees. “But we all share a love for and commitment to EDS and its values, traditions, and history. As trustees we are committed to acting in good faith to advance the seminary’s mission and preserve its resources for future generations.”
Trustees will meet in retreat in Maine on July 19 and 20 and in public session on campus on July 21 to adopt a plan for the future of the school. The on-campus meeting will take place in Sherrill Library on the EDS campus and be simulcast at http://eds.adobeconnect.com/edscommunity.
“Determining a new path for the future of EDS is difficult, but the work is truly a labor of love,” said Canon Bonnie Anderson, vice-chair of the board of trustees. “The trustees and the interim president and dean will meet together off-site and discuss openly the specific options before us. This will be the first conversation the trustees have had about specific future options. In the continued spirit of collaboration and transparency, the trustees will return to EDS to finalize their decision and vote. I hope and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit at our gathering and that we will clearly hear her.”
At its meeting, the board will consider proposals including those put forth by the “Futures Task Force” formed last September of students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni/ae to consider various options and recommend “a compelling future direction” for the school. The group delivered its final report to the trustees on June 30.
In February 2016, the board set out four criteria for scenarios that it will consider for the school’s future. Those criteria, as summarized by Hall are “1. No small-to-small institutional mergers. 2. No business as usual. 3. The proposal must carry forth the historic mission of EDS. 4. The proposal must be financially sustainable.”
“The task force approached its work with a willingness to explore new ideas and develop a creative synthesis, but with a firm grasp on the financial realities the seminary faces,” said the Very Rev. Francis Fornaro, EDS’s interim president and dean, who is a member of the task force. “As the task force wrote in its report to the board of trustees, we and the EDS community are eager to work together to realize the kind of adaptive, transformational change that we were charged with envisioning.”
The current planning process began in early 2015 when trustees retained AGB Institutional Strategies, a consulting arm of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, to study options for its future, and when the EDS administration retained Concord, Massachusetts-based Maguire Associates, to assess its enrollment situation.
While both studies noted that most mainline seminaries are faced with questions about how to remain sustainable, and that EDS is faced with particular challenges resulting from public perceptions stemming from recent internal conflict, the studies also suggested ways that EDS could build on its identity and its Cambridge location, and ways that the school might partner with other institutions. “All of the people at EDS will have to align themselves in a conscious way and head in one direction for the common good of this special institution,” concluded the Maguire report. “Without this alignment, EDS will have a very difficult time navigating the challenging waters it faces.”
Since it was delivered in November 2015, EDS has implemented several of the Maguire report’s recommendations. In early 2016, the school created the position of vice president of enrollment management, which oversees student recruitment, admissions, financial aid, housing, and coordinates student services. The June 2016 entering class of 10 students represents an increase of 150% over 2015, while the September 2016 class is expected to have 10 students, a 25% increase over 2015.
The board’s decision to retain AGB was prompted by an October 2014 visit from an Association of Theological Schools evaluation committee, which recommended that EDS assess its board governance and overall condition. Shortly afterward, in January 2015, the Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale announced her decision to step down as dean and president. In 2014, a pattern of conflict within the seminary resulted in a team of consultants withdrawing from a previous governance assessment project.
In February 2016, the Futures Task Force held a joint session with trustees at which it heard presentations from the board’s investment and finance committees and from Anthony Ruger, former senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary and an expert on financial sustainability in theological schools. Ruger had met previously with the task force in December 2015.
“The challenge facing EDS is intimidating,” wrote Ruger in a report delivered to the board in May. “The school is weakened each day by its ongoing deficit … The intermediate and long term viability of EDS as a quality accredited institution is genuinely threatened. The trustees have both the fiduciary and moral responsibility to see that EDS’s mission is perpetuated, sustained, and strengthened. Thus the need for progress in planning is the highest priority of the EDS community.”
After the meeting, Hall wrote to the Futures Task Force saying, “I don’t think any dispassionate observer could come away from Friday’s presentations without realizing that EDS, in its current configuration, will not be viable in the coming years. If we are to ensure the future sustainability of the mission for which ETS and PDS [Episcopal Theological School and Philadelphia Divinity School, the two schools that merged in 1974 to create EDS] were founded and which EDS has enacted since 1974, we must act imaginatively and boldly in the current moment.”
Although the board had originally asked the Futures Task Force to issues its report in time for the board’s May meeting, in April the group petitioned for more time and was given until July 1 to complete its work.
“The Futures recommendations include ideas whose implications could significantly reduce operational costs,” Ruger told the trustees in a July 12 report. “The clear call for an educational partner implies that substantial educational expenses could be shared … The recommendations also point to reconfigured or shared administrative services, student services, and space.” In the report, Ruger also noted that the task force recommendations imply “a thorough commitment to advancement,” “the potential use and/or monetization of property,” and significantly lower draws on the endowment.
The executive committee of the EDS Alumni/ae Association registered its dissent to the timeline the board had established in May in an open letter to Fornaro and the trustees. “We urge provision of time and space for the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit to enable the necessary process to unfold,” the group wrote, asking that the futures process be tabled or the timeline be suspended.
The group also asked that a search for a new dean and president begin immediately. In his reply, Hall noted that two extensions of time had been given to the task force and assured the group that its concerns would be addressed by the trustees during their July 21 open board meeting. “Because the future shape of the school will be the main topic of discussion, we will address the question of framing the search for the next President and Dean once we have a better sense of the outlines of responsibilities the new shape of the school would demand of its leader.”
For more articles about EDS’s transition and future, visit eds.edu/news/transition.