In 2012, the board of trustees of the Franciscan School of Theology announced that the school would be leaving Berkeley, California, for a new home in Southern California. The following year, the school moved 450 miles south to Mission San Luis Rey, severed its relationship with the Graduate Theological Union, and entered into a resource-sharing agreement with the University of San Diego (USD).


Father Joseph Chinnici was the rector and president of the Franciscan School of Theology during this period of change. (This past August, he was succeeded by Father Michael Higgins.) According to Chinnici, the move was motivated by several factors. The most pressing issue was financial sustainability, but beyond that was a desire to exercise the school’s mission more fully.


“Basically, the decline in enrollment in theology schools across the country, the changing contours of the Graduate Theological Union, and the need for the school to sustain an infrastructure were all presenting problems,” Chinnici says. “We had done a market study and analysis with lots of consultation for over a year, and the recommendation was that we seek affiliation with a larger university, larger than the Graduate Theological Union was at that time.”


Mission San Luis Rey, the new home of Franciscan School of Theology.

Credit: Franciscan School of Theology

The school’s leadership began by initiating conversations with individuals at a number of schools and eventually came to an understanding with the University of San Diego. The university was a good fit for several reasons, not least of which was location. 

“There’s no graduate-level Catholic theology program south of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles,” says Chinnici. “By locating ourselves in a very large demographic space — in San Diego County, on the Pacific Rim — the school is in closer contact with the problems of poverty, immigration, new ethnicities, and multiculturalism. And this location offers opportunities for outreach to Asia, including Vietnam and Korea.” 


Chinnici adds that the move is “beneficial to the Franciscan mission of solidarity with the poor and the future direction of the church in the United States.”


An affiliation with the University of San Diego provides benefits beyond those that come with sharing technology and infrastructure. It also allows faculty and students the opportunity to develop professional relationships outside the school of theology and gives them the ability to consult with people in various fields.


Franciscan School of Theology did not merge with USD. Rather, the two schools entered into a “robust service and curricular agreement.” The nature of the agreement made formalizing the relationship much simpler. There was no need, for example, for a re-evaluation of the school of theology’s accreditation. And the school of theology maintained its own governance structure — keeping its board of regents and its board of trustees — and still has full control of faculty appointments and curriculum.


The agreement was negotiated by Chinnici and several key individuals at the University of San Diego — in particular, Julie Sullivan, who was the provost of USD at the time, and university president Mary Lyons. Both schools were also represented by legal counsel. 


The Franciscans sold their building on Berkeley’s Holy Hill to Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and moved into underused space at Mission San Luis Rey, one of the 21 California missions founded by Spanish friars during California’s colonial period. San Luis Rey was established in 1798 and is still operated as a church and mission by the Franciscans. Grant money and a substantial bequest gave the school the opportunity to create three classrooms, a chapel, a library, and offices for faculty and administration at the mission, which is located about 40 miles north of the University of San Diego. 


Franciscan School of Theology students now have access to a wide range of USD resources. “Our students receive a University of San Diego ID card and have access to all of USD’s services, including the library and career counseling,” says Chinnici. “They can participate in USD’s activities — a large Catholic university with international and national outreach. They’ve made available to our students four or five times the number of services that would have been available in a smaller institution like we had in Berkeley.”


At least once a month, a meeting of the USD Deans’ Council is led by Andrew Allen, vice president and provost of USD. The school of theology’s chief academic officer is invited to participate. “Franciscan School of Theology is invited to be a part of that so they know what’s happening on our campus and they can fill us in on what’s happening on their campus,” says Allen.


On the university side, at least two anticipated benefits have come to light, according to Allen. For one, the relationship gives the university access to faculty who have particular strengths in philosophy, theology, history, and Franciscan spirituality. The University of San Diego is not attached to a religious order. 

Graduate Rebecca Freeman and Professor Darleen Pryds.

Credit: Franciscan School of Theology


“A lot of the other Catholic schools have this charism attached to the school,” Allen says. A charism refers to the particular emphasis or gift that a religious community tries to embody — often something emphasized by its founder. “We don’t have that. Affiliating with Franciscan School of Theology means that on campus we can get the perspective of the Franciscans on different issues.”


The Franciscan charism has been especially influential in the university’s Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, which helps to educate non-Catholic faculty about the Catholic perspective on various issues. New faculty members are required to participate in the center’s classes during their first year, making it an important tool for maintaining the university’s Catholic identity. 


Church historian Jeffrey Burns, a professor at the school of theology, is now serving as the director of the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture. He has already helped the university address several contemporary issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the concerns of Native American students about the legacy of newly canonized St. Junipero Serra, founder of many of California’s missions.


The other benefit is less tangible. “Being affiliated with the Franciscan School of Theology builds our reputation indirectly because of the school’s reputation,” says Allen.


Chinnici credits the decision to pursue an affiliation, as opposed to a merger, with the success of the move. “On both sides, we looked at the complications of merger very clearly,” he says, “and we came to the same conclusion — that in the long run, it would not work for the smaller entity.” 


The school of theology’s relationship with its new neighbors at Mission San Luis Rey has been positive.


“I refer to the location itself as a ministerial laboratory,” says Chinnici. The mission’s retreat center hosts 6,000 visitors every year, and the parish serves 6,000 families. “We have the outreach of the mission itself in terms of evangelization,” he says. “We’re well-located in terms of immigration, migration, issues of poverty, plus the relationship of the university.”


The initial agreement reached by Franciscan School of Theology and USD lasts for five years. It is intended to be open-ended, allowing both institutions an opportunity to reevaluate the relationship. 


“I would encourage anybody doing this to look at the institutional weight over time,” says Chinnici. “Things may work out with the first generation of administrators but not with the second or third generation of administrators, faculty, and staff.”


For now, the Franciscan School of Theology and the University of San Diego seem like happy partners — not married or joined at the hip, but colleagues with complementary goals and overlapping ministry.  

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