"Do you have any help for the academic affairs committee of my board?"
Of all the queries In Trust receives about committees, this is the most common. That prompts us to surmise that this traditional way of dividing up the board's work is no match for today's institutional realities. As a result, committees devoted to academic affairs often lose their way. Boards do not have the luxury of treating educational programs and goals apart from enrollment or economic goals. They can't afford to engage in "silo thinking."
I married into a dairy-farming family and have a healthy respect for silos. They hold complex mixtures of grains and other nutrients that generate chemical reactions in the feed, maintaining the herd's health and level of milk production. Yet because the silo's airtight walls cut off ventilation, they also exude toxic fumes and, if the chemistry goes wrong, they can contaminate that same feed. By the same token, if a board committee limits its air intake to its own work or doesn't recognize that its reactions can affect the whole institutional system, then its deliberations could be dangerous to itself and others.
Recent news makes clear that pressing issues are too big for silo thinking. Recognizing this, governance leaders at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary have favored us all by openly sharing the process, decisions, and implications of their action to change course. As you will be able to read in full in the Summer 2008 issue of In Trust, the school has announced three immediate plans:
Suspend recruitment and admissions to all degree and certificate programs.
Enable all current D.Min. students to complete their programs.
Assist all current M.Div., M.T.S., M.A., and certificate students to find alternative arrangements for the completion of their programs as may be required.
Seabury-Western has faced up to dipping enrollment, unused capacity, higher costs, and increased debt, including student debt. So the dean-president, board, and academic and church leaders have entered a process of discernment to develop a more "economically feasible" and "pedagogically innovative" operation while also caring for students, staff, and faculty. Clear public communications will keep the seminary community, alumni, diocesan officials and donors in the loop.
Speaking on behalf of the board, Dean Gary R. Hall said:
We believe that the [Episcopal] church does not need Seabury in its present form; there are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do. But we also believe that the church very much needs a seminary animated by and organized around a new vision of theological education -- one that is centered in a vision of baptism and its implications for the whole church, one which is flexible and adaptive and collaborative in nature.
Shortly before Seabury went public, The Christian Century interviewed the president of the founding school of the Protestant graduate-level seminary movement -- Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. In the Century's annual issue on theological education, Andover Newton's president, Nick Carter, argued that for smaller seminaries, "our special calling" may be "to break down institutional barriers, share resources and reinvent the structural model for seminaries." Carter holds that with this reinvention, schools can better prepare Christian leaders who are "grounded in the Christian tradition, agile in moving across boundaries, and capable of drawing upon different styles and resources." Carter's words could have been spoken just as well by an evangelical denominational seminary president.
The boards of denominationally based freestanding seminaries face hefty agendas these days. Are they organized for it? Now's the time to line up teams that crisscross the system and include board members and other experts who bring wisdom and can locate the necessary information to address the economic side of pursuing an educational mission faithfully. Governance leaders who don't want to sell the farm face a tall order.