‘We Are Going Out of Business’

Bonnie Anderson, Gary Hall, and Francis Fornaro at Episcopal Divinity School’s board meeting • G. Jeffrey MacDonald

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Episcopal Divinity School will stop granting degrees after the 2016-17 academic year, its board of trustees decided Thursday during a tense meeting.

By an 11-4 margin, trustees resolved that after May 2017 students will need to finish their degrees at other schools. Faculty and staff will have job security only through mid-2017.

Trustees said swift action was necessary to keep from depleting all assets of the school, which depends on a $5 million annual draw from its $53 million endowment.

“We are going out of business,” said Dennis Stark, treasurer for the board. “What we’re doing is speeding up that process of getting out of the business we’re in because it is truly not sustainable.”

The Very Rev. Francis Fornaro, interim dean and president, surprised the board by tendering his resignation effective Nov. 19. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, chairman of the EDS board, said he learned only Thursday morning of Franco’s intention to resign and has no plans yet for the top administrative position.

“I have no idea what the plan is, and they have no idea what the plan is,” Fornaro said. “That’s part of the problem for why I had to resign. What would I be working toward or working for?”

Fornaro took the board to task.

“This is a premature decision,” Fornaro said. “We do have enough to explore and imagine and do new things without spending it down to zero.”

The board is weighing various options, chairman Hall said. It will appoint a committee to explore them in depth before making a recommendation to the board next May.

Possibilities include partnering with Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, or Boston University Theological School to fund teaching and scholarships. Other options: create a center on the EDS campus to support delivery of online courses; establish a peace and justice institute; or establish a learning institution that serves all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

“We have a big corpus of endowment,” Hall said. “We don’t know how much of it we want to take and use toward ministry education in other places, probably university divinity schools. And we don’t know how much property we’re going to keep.”

EDS is the result of a 1974 merger between Episcopal Theological School and the Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The school’s real estate, located just five minutes by foot from Harvard Square, is estimated to be worth at least $20 million.

The board’s discussion acknowledged that EDS has struggled with high overhead expenses of $130,000 per year per student. Adding to the challenge have been low enrollments in a time when attending an Episcopal seminary means incurring, on average, upward of $40,000 in debt. EDS has 44 students spread across three degree programs: Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Ministry.

The board’s discussion and vote touched off strong reactions from an audience of about 50, who were not permitted to comment or ask questions. Numerous audible sighs bespoke frustration in the room, as did occasional applause for dissenters who wanted to see EDS continue as a degree-granting body.

At times, anger boiled over into disruptions. One priest who asked not to be identified threw his briefcase across the room and yelled at the board: “I am tired and tired and I don’t have voice here. I’m leaving!” He slammed the door behind him.

Later in the meeting, an EDS staff member wearing a “tech crew” t-shirt threw to the floor the electronics gear he had been using to run the simulcast. He muttered curse words as he stormed out and could be heard screaming in the hallway.

“I feel like the Board of Trustees gave up,” said Susan Butterworth, an EDS student on track to receive her Master of Divinity degree in 2017. She had served on the board’s Futures Task Force, which compiled 47 proposals from EDS stakeholders and met for more than a year to come up with a proposal. The task force recommended that the school continue to confer degrees in new partnerships with Lesley University (which bought $33 million in property from EDS), Boston University, Hebrew College, and other Episcopal seminaries. But the board rejected that idea.

“It feels like the task force work was an exercise in futility,” Butterworth said. “I don’t think that the community feels included. This feels like an edict from on high.”

Board members, who had met privately for two days of retreat before convening Thursday for a 90-minute open session, were put on the defensive by stakeholder representatives who had voice but not vote at the table. Representing students, Pamela Conrad pressed the board to articulate the mission and tell how it might be pursued without degree programs.

“I have to be honest: I don’t trust you to hold the mission of this school,” Conrad told the board. “So I’m looking for reassurance here.”

Some trustees were skeptical as well.

“We will have a board and we will have money — a big bag of it — and alums, and that’s what we have,” said the Rev. Hall Kirkham. “Without staff, students and faculty, I think we lose something critical. EDS no longer exists.”

On both sides of the issue, trustees admitted to feeling the hefty weight of the decision. The Rev. Robert Steele, who voted against the resolution to discontinue degree programs, said he had a sleepless night ahead of the vote and found Thursday’s discussion “agonizing.” Patricia Mathis said her decision to vote for the resolution was as difficult as any she’s made in her life, including a decision regarding life and death for her mother.

By making the move to discontinue degrees at this time, the board enables possibilities that would have otherwise been lost, according to Hall. About $30 million of the $53 million endowment is restricted and not usable for operations, he said. That means the school would have run out of available capital for operations in five years or less. But now the school has options and can advance the church’s mission creatively while other Episcopal seminaries have plenty of capacity to accommodate future seminarians.

“We believe that living into those new opportunities requires that we stop doing something unsustainable now,” Hall said.

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