"Like they say about real estate--'Location, location, location"--so we must say about seminary programs--'People, people, people.'" So spoke Walter C. Kaiser Jr., president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as he summed up the underlying convictions and mode of leadership that drives his presidency--and drove the presidency of his predecessor, Robert E. Cooley. "What we have in our presidential leadership here at Gordon-Conwell is very uncommon," said longtime faculty member David F. Wells.

Walter C. Kaiser Jr.: A churchman who understands what ministers need.

Uncommon leadership, maybe, but it is an important clue to the seminary's story of solid financial growth and change over the past fifteen years. With more than 1,700 students currently enrolled, the multidenominational evangelical school is now the fifth largest institution in the Association of Theological Schools. During the fifteen years, every aspect of the institution--strategic planning and development, enrollment management, fund-raising, curriculum development, and attention to faculty and student needs--has benefited from a collaborative spirit that starts at the top and permeates administration, faculty, and board. According to Wells, who teaches historic and systematic theology, "President Kaiser is not a bureaucrat. He is first and foremost a churchman who understands the church and what ministers need to have to function effectively." Kaiser has fostered and experienced what he himself calls "an unusual sense of cooperation" on the part of faculty, board, and administrators, "who all had a mind to work together to solve the problems."

A Three-Campus School

Today's Gordon-Conwell is an organization much more complex than many free-standing graduate theological schools. In addition to its home operation on a lush, rolling campus in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, twenty-five miles north of Boston, it offers master of divinity and doctor of ministry programs in Charlotte, North Carolina, and conducts an urban ministry education program in downtown Boston that awards diplomas and master of divinity and doctor of ministry degrees to pastors and Christian leaders serving urban Hispanic, African-American, Caribbean, and Asian populations.

According to Cooley, who headed Gordon-Conwell from 1981 to 1997, initiatives launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s lead to the heart of the seminary's story of planning, innovation, collaboration, and success. "Strategic planning started in 1985 and was a continuous process from that time," Cooley recalled. "We established the endowment fund, and ran two capital campaigns that resulted in a funded endowment and five new buildings. Three of those buildings were housing, to enhance the earnings of the seminary while meeting the need for a growing student body." Cooley continued, "During that time we also established the two branch campuses in Boston and Charlotte. By the mid 1990s we had a good foundation in place to address emerging trends that were troublesome." 

Robert E. Cooley: Seeing the broad scope.

As part of his planning process, Cooley gave close study in the early 1990s to financial and enrollment data found in the Strategic Information Report, a compilation the Association of Theological Schools provides biennially to every member school. As a member of the ATS executive committee he also had access to information and contacts that helped to confirm troubling national trend lines that had emerged on his campus as well. While Cooley could see that Gordon-Conwell's student headcount was going up, he was concerned about the growing gap between that number and full-time equivalencies, or FTEs. Because the number of actual students was rising, income from tuition and auxiliary services such as room and board was also rising, but concurrently tuition and auxiliary services covered a diminishing percentage of the expense budget. In effect, the growing percentage of students who were part-time was generating an increase in operating expenses not covered by the tuition and fees they were paying. Result: Gordon-Conwell, like many nonprofit institutions, was growing ever more  reliant on endowment income and donor gifts to balance its books. Further, Cooley realized, the seminary's core of dedicated donors was aging and soon would be unavailable to fill in budget gaps with check-writing.

Each year it became more difficult to close the books with an operating surplus while concurrently maintaining excellence in Gordon-Conwell's education programs. Compounding the problem were a number of other issues: how to improve faculty salaries and benefits; how to keep facilities in top-notch condition and avoid the pitfalls of deferred maintenance; how to grow the endowment with an alumni base that is, by nature, not wealthy; and how to keep tuition and fees from becoming too expensive for students.

Model Collaboration

Enter Robert S. Landrebe, hired by Cooley in 1996 as chief financial officer to help develop an economic model for Gordon-Conwell and shape seminary planning. Landrebe is quick to explain that then, as now, a president and a CFO cannot achieve a vision of reshaping theological education in their institution without coordination and integration of many energies, especially those of the governing board, the faculty, the enrollment management team, and the development team.

Discussions involving Cooley, the school's other senior executives, and the Board of Trustees, suggested that the greatest economic leverage would come through reshaping on the academic side rather than the administrative and staff support side. Under the direction of President Kaiser (who succeeded Cooley in July 1997), Landrebe analyzed the operating budget by each campus program and saw that the underlying economics hinged on course registrations--on both the revenue and the cost side. The challenge was to determine how many courses needed to be offered to achieve optimal revenues while maintaining academic quality and appropriately spreading the faculty load.

David Wells: Leaving “a discouraging time.”

In hindsight, the message was simple: Too many students were taking too few courses per year.

This situation is easily explainable in a graduate theological school. Older students face demands from family and work as well as school. Students at G-C's South Hamilton campus were taking, on average, four or more years to complete their master of divinity work. Many thought of themselves as full-time even though at Gordon-Conwell, like most seminaries, the M.Div. is technically a three-year program.

Fred Potter, chair of the board's finance and institutional advancement committee, remembers that board, faculty, and administrators were also concerned about student debt. "It sometimes happened," he said, "that students completing their graduate degrees were so burdened with debt that they either could not afford to go into ministry or had to defer their entry into ministry. So we were concerned about these students; and we were concerned about the church not being able to reap the immediate benefits of this new pool of highly educated ministerial graduates."

Potter also reported a concern touching the faculty. "We had highly qualified teachers at the seminary who, because of the high cost of living in the South Hamilton area, were forced to take part-time jobs outside of their faculty commitment to make ends meet," he said. Faculty member Wells remembers the time as "discouraging, because the financial picture loomed over us like a dark cloud." 

Robert S. Landrebe: He became the economic model-maker.

The challenge was to get students to take more courses per year, thereby increasing tuition revenue. But it had to be done without overburdening them, without sacrificing educational quality, and without increasing their financial burden. Indeed, preferably the goal would be to reduce the burden.

At the time, Kaiser said, only 13 percent of the students were truly full-time, and projections suggested the percentage might decline even further. "With regards to our resident master's degree students on the South Hamilton campus," Kaiser said, "we saw the need to get that number of full-time students up to 50 percent. And we achieved that. Actually, we got up to 54 percent in three years."

The achievement involved several moves. Kaiser immediately drew the faculty into discussing changes in the economic model. The faculty, to its credit, was adamant that a new financial model not drive the academic program. The administration, to its credit, listened to the faculty. As conversations proceeded, and as faculty became confident about the soundness of the new model, they were able to shift their thinking about student advisement. Counselors began urging some students to take ten (instead of seven or eight) courses a year. Expanded use of Semlink, Gordon-Conwell's extensive distance-learning program, eased taking on heavier academic loads. Revised course sequencing and an increase of evening, weekend, and summer offerings also helped.

Teachers, meantime, had to deal with larger classes and heavier workloads. But extensive work on curriculum reform assured most faculty members that the new economic model was not going to harm the quality of education. Theology professor Wells, who is directing the seminary's current reaccreditation self-study, doubts the changes have led to any decline in quality. "A reason we have done well is that Gordon-Conwell has a sort of niche," he said. "People know they will get a classical theological education and a demanding standard. These are matters of conviction with our faculty and they are reluctant to have that change."

A New Recruitment Strategy

Fred Potter: Worries about student data.

Building Gordon-Conwell's new economic model required recruiting significant numbers of new students willing to study full-time. The challenge landed on the desks of former executive vice president John Lindberg and more recently Bill Levin, the new dean of enrollment. About a third of Gordon-Conwell's students are forced by family and work to remain part-time, according to Landrebe. "We did not want to influence this core," he said. "They are part-time for good reasons and we are happy to be able to serve them. In fact, we expanded our distance learning offerings, which has actually tripled the number of part-time students." Ultimately school leaders decided the most promising source of full-time students was new entrants, and the way to get them was to create a new scholarship system.

"President Kaiser clearly sensed the need for making a quality theological education more affordable to a growing student body," said Landrebe. "This overarching goal became the key feature in our five-year plan." Kaiser added, "I was convinced that we could accomplish this goal by training more students than ever before through a new, special scholarship approach targeted towards full-time students. This vision was significant to our improved financial vitality, and it resourced a strengthened educational experience for our students."

Generous donors kickstarted the new four-part scholarship program. Recipients of the new scholarships were required to take ten courses per year. Landrebe said that the financial gifts for these scholarship pools were very important in the first five years of the program in order to build economies of scale. His projections showed that after five years the net contribution of additional students, even without the funding, would provide economic benefit to the school.

The four scholarships--the Graham Scholarship Program, the Jonathan Edwards Scholarship Program for students wishing to pursue ministry in New England, the Trustee Scholarship Program, and the Pierce Scholarship Program for students interested in discipleship--are not based on financial need in the traditional sense, and a limited number are available. Landrebe reported that currently 318 of the 670 students on the South Hamilton campus are attending on scholarships that average a $4,200 discount from the base yearly tuition of $10,860 for ten courses. "Students," he said, "have a real incentive to apply early for both scholarships and housing."

Herb Hess, treasurer of the board, believes that one of the seminary's primary institutional objectives, in addition to stabilizing its financial position, has been to reduce the student's education bill. Said Hess, "Many students come to the seminary with debt from prior education and have the prospect of incurring more debt to finance their seminary education. The new scholarship program has had the benefit of (1) reducing student tuition bills, net of scholarship, and (2) encouraging master of divinity students to complete their studies in three years, thereby containing the number of years in which students must borrow additional funds to complete their education. Also, most students have an additional year of income through earlier entry into full-time, paid ministry."

The experience of student Barbara Cannistraro vivifies the effects of the scholarship program. "I was working full-time during my first year of seminary study, and only going to school part-time," she said. "I now have a Jonathan Edwards scholarship, which pays half of my tuition. This is extremely helpful--I love being able to be a full-time student, something I could not have afforded without the scholarship." Cannistraro, who looks forward to the Episcopal priesthood and pursuing her ministry in New England, is midway through her studies.  

Barbara Cannistraro: An eased path to priesthood.

Raising More Money

The third important piece in Gordon-Conwell's planned change came in the area of fund-raising. Landrebe reported: "Our development office, under the active leadership of President Kaiser and the Board of Trustees, started a 'Seminary Campaign" in 1997. It is a six-year campaign to raise $54 million. With thanksgiving to God, I am happy to say that as of June 18, 2003, we reached $54.1 million."

Added Kaiser: "The 'Seminary Campaign" became an opportunity for me and the leadership team to present our five-year plan in the form of a case statement to our friends. The 'Seminary Campaign" allowed us to integrate the new economic model for scholarships with the need for improved facilities for a growing student body. Because improved faculty compensation was integral, too, we put before the Board of Trustees a phased five-year faculty compensation package. As a result, the case for funding included scholarships, paying attention to deferred maintenance, building a new academic center in Charlotte, building the endowment, and increasing the operating budget to support a growing faculty." According to Landrebe, board-approved increases in faculty pay and benefits made possible by the campaign results have already hoisted Gordon-Conwell faculty compensation from the bottom quartile to the top quartile among its peer institutions.

"Each of our three campus programs operates on a different model," Landrebe explained, "but the South Hamilton campus master's degree program was the economic engine that propelled the rest of our financial modeling and planning. Based on what was learned through our South Hamilton campus scholarship programs, we modified our tuition pricing for the Charlotte and Boston campus programs--creating appropriate financial incentives for students to take more than one course per semester." All Charlotte and Boston students are nonresident, and few seemed candidates for full-time study, he said, but nonetheless inducing them to carry somewhat heavier academic loads is paying off in a way analogous to the experience at South Hamilton.

Landrebe, perhaps not so incidentally, now is executive vice president as well as chief financial officer of Gordon-Conwell.

The Message for Other Boards

"All of our success is a result of extraordinary leadership," said Tom Colatosti, chair of the board's leadership and human resources committee. "With Cooley we had someone who could see the broad scope of things. He's probably an administrative genius, able to integrate all aspects of the institution--political, educational, economic, theological--and set a course. And with Kaiser we have a person with tremendous interpersonal and pastoral skills, who could take the vision and make it happen. Such extraordinary leadership is a blessing, but a big message we all understood as board members working with these leaders was that we had to be mission-focused and we had to know that there were standards to be upheld. As a board, also, we learned that we could not rely on a few large benefactors and so we set out to broaden our base."

Trustee Potter added: "Looking back at all this work, I think we were able, right from the start, to articulate the real purposes of the institution. We understood that our mission is to provide the church with well-educated ministers. Also, it is important for a board to recognize that there are new ideas worth trying, and to try them on a limited basis. For example, when we began the scholarship program, we tried it with fifty students.

"Sometimes starting something new on a systemwide basis can be frightening. By initiating new programs on a small scale we could see what was working and what was not. Then we could move to involve the entire system. And, I have to say that our combination of people--faculty, administration, board--was a gift from God. As we know, change is a conflict generator, but with strong collegiality we were able to maintain a systems perspective to resolve problems."

That is, as Kaiser so succinctly put it, "People, people, people." 

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