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Seminaries announce plans for 'theological university'

Chicago's Meadville Lombard will combine with Boston-area Andover Newton in interfaith partnership.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
6.28.10

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Lee Barker and Nick Carter (Nancy Pierce)

The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., introduced their new "theological university" to the UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis on June 27, 2010. Carter will become president of the new university. (Nancy Pierce)

After seven months of talks, Meadville Lombard Theological School and Andover Newton Theological School have agreed to join forces.

Last week, the boards of both schools voted to establish a new interreligious “university-style” theological institution that will unite both schools under a single corporate structure. The new institution has yet to be named.

Both Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton will retain their individual names and faith traditions. Meadville Lombard, based in Chicago, is a Unitarian Universalist seminary, and Andover Newton, based in Newton, Mass., is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA. About 15 percent of the students at Andover Newton, however, are preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton, will be the president of the new institution, which will be based at the Andover Newton campus. Meadville Lombard President Lee Barker will be a senior executive in the new entity. They will also create a new governing board, drawing from current members of both boards and adding people currently unaffiliated with either school. The new institution will have a single endowment.

The schools are also seeking one or more additional seminaries to join in the venture, however, neither Carter nor Barker would disclose which, if any, schools they are in discussions with at this time. They envision that each school would retain its name and distinct faith tradition, while sharing financial and administrative resources.

Both schools are appointing members of a transition team, which will include Carter and Barker, to address the fine details of the venture. The new institution is slated to be operational by June 15, 2011.

“This is new,” said Carter. “There are many schools that have tried different combinations and partnerships. There are consortia and confederacies. But this concept is not one that has been tried before.”

He sees analogies in the business world, however. Carter compares the relationship of Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton to that of Ivory Soap and Oil of Olay. “Both are well known brands, but they are part of Procter & Gamble.”

Carter said that they are calling the institution “university-style” to give people an academic analogy. However, it does not currently meet the “distinct requirements to be called an actual university,” he said.

The board of Meadville Lombard voted to begin talks about a possible partnership with Andover Newton in November. “When we went looking for a partner for our theological school, one of the things that captivated us was this vision of creating the interreligious theological university,” said Barker. “We knew that with our innovations in educational programming, it was right to put it together with innovations in institutional theological education. It’s a perfect match.”

Barker is careful to note that it is neither a merger nor a partnership. “It’s more like a joint venture,” he said.

Rising costs

The economic downturn, along with the already-spiraling costs of higher education, have led seminaries across the country to look at ways to partner and share the expenses of running their institutions.

“Schools combine for efficiency,” said Anthony T. Ruger, senior research fellow at the Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education. He said the agreement between Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton is constructive because of greater effectiveness and sharing of resources. “There is more for less,” he said. “Less overhead and less unused capacity.”

Carter called the cost savings for both schools significant. “When you put our financials together, our assets are doubling and our costs are being cut by 17 percent,” he said.

In addition, Meadville Lombard put its Chicago campus up for sale in November. The campus, located near the University of Chicago, includes a main educational building, which houses the 140,000-volume Wiggin Library, and three large, converted houses. The campus might be sold in an arrangement that allows the school to lease the space.

Barker has stated in the past that he is hopeful the school will remain in Chicago. A property sale combined with the joint venture with Andover Newton would cut the school’s overhead costs dramatically.

In November, when Meadville Lombard announced its plans to enter discussions with Andover Newton, Andover Newton was engaged in talks with the leadership of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, in Rochester, N.Y., about a possible partnership. According to Carter, those talks “ended amicably” around the end of 2009.

Meadville Lombard discussions

Lawrence Ladd, chair of the Meadville Lombard board of trustees, said that the arrangement allows for two distinct Unitarian Universalist-identified theological schools to continue to exist and thrive. In addition to Meadville Lombard, the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., is a UU-identified school. The joint venture will allow Meadville Lombard to continue to exist on a financially sustainable basis, Ladd said.

Ladd was one of four members of the Meadville board who engaged in what he called “deep conversations” with four members of the Andover Newton board to develop the new model. Along with Ladd, the Meadville representatives included former Unitarian Universalist Association President William G. Sinkford; Craig Scholl, a director within Lazard Asset Management's Boston-based quantitative equity group and former chair of the UUA's Investment Committee; and Marjorie Girth, professor at Georgia State University's College of Law in Atlanta.

Barker said that he was very proud of the work that the entire Meadville Lombard board of trustees has accomplished. “Over the years, they’ve known that their school must change to meet the challenges of the times,” he said. “They’ve embraced change and been extremely thoughtful. I’m just in awe of their ability to lead Unitarian Universalism the way that they have.”

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