Because of an error in editing, an earlier version of this story identified Barbara Wheeler’s current affiliation incorrectly.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Conflict at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) has derailed a core piece of an incipient strategic review aimed at making the seminary sustainable for the long term.

A team of consultants canceled a governance assessment project in June in the wake of public protest from dissenting faculty, who said they were shut out of planning. The consultants’ decision to withdraw leaves EDS unable to launch the review, which was supposed to lead to a new business model at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school.

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Faculty are “trying to unravel the consultation and delay our going forward,” said the Very Rev. James Kowalski, chair of the EDS board of trustees and dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Consultants will not interview faculty and others this summer.

Those interviews were to be “the heart and soul of beginning seriously to engage the whole community and its various stakeholders in this question about sustainability,” Dean Kowalski said. “What’s our next step? We’re not sure.”

Faculty members, who last year voted “no confidence” in seminary President Katherine Ragsdale, dealt a blow to the strategic review by posting a June 1 open letter to the EDS community on their Facebook page. In it, signatories said the “faculty was not consulted about our views about the consultants, nor were we part of the hiring discussion.”

After reading the faculty’s open letter, consultants concluded the faculty had “judged in advance our ability to conduct the process fairly and insightfully.” In a June 10 letter, they announced their decision to withdraw.

“It seems likely that because the faculty has already taken their case against the board, the president and us to the court of public opinion, they would circulate any criticisms of our conduct of the assessment and our findings just as widely,” wrote consultants Martha Horne and Barbara Wheeler to the board’s executive committee. “Our professional commitments would prevent any response from us, raising the possibility that the public and the press would be seriously misinformed about our work. That would be damaging to the school as well as to us.”

Horne is the former dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. Wheeler is the former president of Auburn Theological Seminary and now conducts research under the auspices of the Association of Theological Schools.

The current debacle comes amid fallout from a moratorium on hiring for tenured faculty positions. Last year EDS trustees voted to fill a tenured position in church history, but reversed course in April as the search neared its conclusion. The position was revamped to be a contractual position at the same level of salary and benefits as a tenured position, but without tenured status. All hiring of tenured faculty is now on hold, pending a decision on whether to retain, eliminate, or reinterpret tenure for new EDS faculty after the strategic review.

In their open letter to the EDS community, faculty members encouraged readers not to be “distracted by ancillary issues of governance or tenure,” and instead critiqued the process.

“The faculty had asked several times to be part of the planning process, and our requests were rejected by the President and Dean,” said the June 1 letter, which was signed by all EDS faculty and posted on Facebook. “The faculty was not consulted about our views about the consultants, nor were we part of the hiring discussion. To our knowledge, none of the three consultants identifies as a person of color.”

Dean Kowalski said faculty members interviewed Horne and Wheeler on campus and raised no objections before the board’s vote to hire them. EDS faculty members, including Kwok Pui Lan, liaison to the administration, did not respond to requests for comment. In a June 25 Facebook post, however, Professor Gale Yee took issue with Kowalski’s understanding of events, including the consultant screening.

“The faculty had not been told that the consultants were being ‘interviewed’ at the Board meeting as the letter states,” Yee wrote. “The consultants were simply introduced and spoke briefly.”

Stakes are high for EDS, which has 72 students and a tradition of welcoming gays, lesbians, and liberation theology in its classrooms. The school is facing “soaring costs [and] declining full-time on-campus enrollment,” Kowalski said.

The situation is not dire. EDS steadied its finances through a $33 million deal that included sale of property to Lesley University in 2010. But EDS still needs to reduce how much it takes annually from its $66 million endowment, according to Dean Ragsdale and Kowalski. EDS draws 7 percent from the endowment to cover operating costs; 5 percent or less would be considered sustainable.

The urgency for a strategic review at EDS, however, is driven by non-financial factors. Of core concern is how best to fulfill EDS’ mission in the 21st century and how to structure the seminary to do that work,” Ragsdale said.

“The market is shrinking,” she said in her May 8 State of the School address, as dioceses and congregations “don’t have money to support people coming here.” She described a need “to create a business model to embrace what we’ve always done and embrace new things.”

Among the hot topics is whether EDS will offer new faculty tenure, which “generally boils down to a lifetime job,” Ragsdale told TLC. The strategic review will consider, among other things, whether long-term contracts can preserve academic freedom for new faculty while giving the school more flexibility to adapt to changing times.

Most current EDS faculty members are expected to retire within the next five to six years. Hence now is the right time to take stock of hiring practices, Dean Ragsdale said, adding that she’s not surprised the prospect of making systemic change has stirred up resistance.

No-confidence votes and resistance from faculty “are a dime a dozen, pretty much since the 1980s,” she said. “It’s just a way of doing business, especially for places that are facing the need to potentially make significant change. It goes with the territory.”

Theological education experts are likewise not surprised to see faculty throwing a wrench in a process that stands to disrupt business-as-usual at their institutions.

Upheaval across theological education is creating anxiety for faculty, boards, and administrators, and those dynamics can easily surface in a high-stakes strategic review, according to Christian Scharen, vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.

“When faculty feel like they’re not consulted,” Scharen said, “it heightens their feelings of anxiety about job security and the future of the institutions they’re working at. It creates a context of distrust and the need for transparency.”

The trustees, who want to restart the strategic review, are assessing what the next steps might be. Dean Kowalski said one option might include assembling a new team of consultants who would have the confidence of faculty as well as other stakeholders. Wheeler, meanwhile, has said she will work with colleague Anthony Ruger on an analysis of enrollment and other statistical trends for EDS.

What’s not an option, Kowalski said, is to let the status quo go unchecked. The Episcopal Church is enriched by the diversity of its seminaries, in his view, and would be impoverished if some were to close under the weight of financial pressures.

“If you spend down that endowment, you can’t keep selling property if you don’t have it anymore to sell,” he said. “Now you have an opportunity, but it could be squandered. It’s a Biblical notion: you were bestowed with these incredible gifts. You were imbued with the Spirit. But you could waste it.”

TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, pastor, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

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