Confronted by steady opposition from a coalition of faculty members, alumni, preservationists, and heirs, Yale University president Richard Levin announced in September that the university had abandoned plans to demolish four Yale Divinity School buildings as part of a $38 million renovation of the divinity school’s seriously deteriorated facilities. 

Instead three of the buildings will be repaired and “mothballed” for future use; the fourth will be reconfigured to house part of the divinity school library.

The opponents—banded together as the Foundation for the Preservation of the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle—had suffered a major reverse in August when a Connecticut appeals court threw out their lawsuit against the university. The court said the litigants lacked legal standing to bring the suit.

But the opponents’ vows to continue their campaign unabated in other forms plainly figured in the decision by university leaders to back off their earlier plan. That plan in turn represented a retreat from a still earlier strategy that proposed to reduce the size of the divinity school student body, move the divinity school into much smaller quarters on the main university campus, and amalgamate the divinity school library with Yale’s main library.

Levin told the Yale Daily News his mind had been changed by the threat of prolonged litigation.

“In the best of worlds, we would rather not have empty buildings,” he said. But he went on: “We thought if we proceeded with the original plan, it could be years before these buildings are finally done.”

What to do about the divinity school’s striking but crumbling facilities on a hilltop three miles from the main Yale campus has been a matter of controversy through most of the 1990s. Even after university leaders agreed to keep the divinity school at its present location and collaborate in a major fund-raising effort to pay for the renovations, opponents continued to press for preservation of the divinity school quadrangle in toto. Their campaign culminated in the filing of a lawsuit whose plaintiffs included Cynthia Sterling Russell. She is an heir to the Sterlings whose gift financed the construction of the quadrangle in 1932. The suit alleged among other things that Yale had mishandled and misused money it had received specifically for the benefit of the divinity school.

Last February in a striking move to demonstrate his support for the divinity school capital campaign, Levin directed that a $7.7 million unrestricted gift the university had received be used as a lead gift toward the cost of the renovation project. That gift, $16.5 million from other university resources, $1.3 million in hand from other gifts, and $3 million pledged by the Institute of Music and $2.4 million by Berkeley Divinity School (both of which will be housed in the renovated quadrangle) leave the divinity school with just over $6.1 million still to be raised for the project, according to figures provided by the university. 

President Departs

The board of directors of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, fired Mark Coppenger, the school’s president, on September 14. Coppenger’s dismissal was sparked by his tendency to indulge in public outbursts of anger, a spokesman said, a tendency that had “irreparably damaged his ability to lead the seminary.”

The ouster followed a July meeting between Coppenger and the board’s executive committee about his temper. At a news conference following that meeting, Coppenger said, “At Midwestern, we pray that the Lord will show us any obstacles to revival in our own lives and on our campus. This summer the Lord has graciously answered that prayer for me. We speak of the prairie fire of awakening and note that prairie fire serves to burn out the clutter in our lives. In my own life, I’ve come to understand that the misappropriation of anger has provided such an obstacle.” 

After that meeting, fifteen of the board’s thirty-five members called for a special meeting to discuss the issue: the meeting was scheduled just a month before the regularly scheduled October meeting. Twenty-nine board members met in executive session for thirteen hours over two days before opening the meeting to media when a motion was made to, “dismiss Mark Coppenger immediately.” No discussion preceded the secret ballot, no report was made of numbers voting for it, and it was announced that board members would not be available for comment. 

Two hours later, the board issued a statement which began, “MBTS faculty, students, trustees, and the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole will be eternally grateful to Mark for his four years of outstanding innovation, creativity, and dedication to the Lord’s work at MBTS....The board and MBTS family have suffered an enormous hurt as a result of the board action today,” and went on to announce the firing.

Coppenger left the Kansas City, Missouri, school for Franklin, Tennessee, ten days later. Reached there by telephone, he said he is writing, preaching, and “waiting on the Lord’s will.” Before leaving Kansas City he told the Kansas City Star, “I wish the best for Midwestern, and I will be cheering from the sidelines.”

Coppenger, 51, had been president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s smallest seminary for four years. During that time the enrollment increased from 494 to 705. He succeeded Milton Ferguson, who retired after twenty-three years in the post.

2 Seminarians Killed

Two students and an alumna of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, were among the eight people killed in a shooting spree at Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church September 15. Two other Southwestern students were among the injured. 

Killed were Susan Kimberly Jones, a new M.Div. student, Shawn Brown, a second-year student pursuing an M.A. in Christian education, and Sydney Browning, a Southwestern graduate who was children’s choir director at the church. The five SWBTS casualties were among some 200 people attending a Wednesday night youth rally and concert when Larry Gene Ashbrook entered the church, shooting. The evening event followed up on “See You at the Pole” prayer meetings that had taken place that morning at high schools around the country.

At first many in the crowd thought that Ashbrook’s appearance was part of a skit about the Columbine, Colorado, school shootings. Ashbrook realized this and shouted, “This is for real!” as he continued his rampage. He concluded by killing himself.

Southwestern’s regularly scheduled chapel service the next day became an impromptu memorial, with crowds overflowing the 1,600-seat Truett Auditorium. Wedgwood Senior Pastor Al Meredith said, “‘See you at the pole’ became ‘See you in church’ became ‘See you in heaven.’”

The seminary has set up memorial funds honoring the slain students.

On September 23, the school hosted a symposium titled, “How to Respond to the Violence at Wedgwood,” featuring speakers who have encountered violent situations in their work with young people. Transcripts of their presentations and a list of resources on the topic are available at Southwestern’s web site: <>.

Changes at the Top

The Reverend J. Bryan Hehir has been named chair of the executive committee of Harvard University Divinity School. The title was invented for Hehir, the first Roman Catholic priest to head the school. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Hehir served a number of years as the principal adviser to the Catholic bishops of the United States on war-peace issues and international affairs. He has served as interim head of the divinity school since Ronald Thiemann left the deanship last year; it has since come to light that Thiemann resigned after it was discovered that he had been using the university-owned computer at his residence to collect pornography.

The Reverend Michael F. Burbidge is the new rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He previously was administrative secretary to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Philadelphia’s archbishop. The Reverend James Malloy, St. Charles’s previous rector, is now pastor of St. Agnes Church in Sellersville, Pennsylvania.

The Reverend George Sumner became the principal of Wycliffe College in Toronto on September 1. Most recently rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Geneva, New York, Sumner has also taught at St. Peter’s Anglican Theological College in Tanzania. His predecessor at Wycliffe, the Reverend Michael Pountney, is on the pastoral staff of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Toronto.

Charley Holmes assumed the presidency of Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary in May. Holmes has spent the last six years at the Jacksonville, Texas, school as professor of biblical studies, development officer, and itinerant evangelist. His predecessor, Philip Bryan, is returning to full-time teaching in the school’s theological and historical studies department after sixteen years as president.

Evertt Huffard was installed as the sixth dean of Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee, September 30. He has taught missiology at the Churches of Christ school since 1987. He succeeds Bill Flatt, who retired in July.

Michigan Theological Seminary’s new president is Bruce Fong, who comes to the multidenominational evangelical school from Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he was professor of homiletics. His predecessor, John McLean, has become pastor of a church near the seminary.

Dr. Douglas Oldenburg announced he will retire from the presidency of Columbia Theological Seminary in December 2000. He has headed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) school in Decatur, Georgia, since 1987. A search committee has been formed with an eye to having the president’s office filled by July 2000; Oldenburg will spend the last six months of his presidency on sabbatical. Dr. William M. Howard has resigned the presidency of New York Theological Seminary effective at the end of the academic year to become pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Howard has headed the multidenominational school since 1993. 

William H. Brackney is resigning as principal of McMaster Divinity College in June 2000 to become chair of the department of religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He has been principal of the Baptist school in Hamilton, Ontario, for ten years. 

The Reverend Robert Hughes is stepping down from the presidency of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia at the end of the year. Hughes, who has served as president for eight years, will return to full-time teaching. 

The Reverend Darold H. Beekmann is retiring from the presidency of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) at the end of the academic year. He has been at the post for nine years. 

The Reverend L. Dean Hempelmann has left the presidency of Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, after six years to become director of pastoral education for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The school has named Edwin Lehman, advisory faculty member at the school and former president of the Lutheran Church-Canada, as acting president during the search for Hempelmann’s replacement.

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More