Before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders at educational institutions were often challenged with hard questions, but now — with hemorrhaging enrollments, plunging donor income, and reduced endowment values — boards and administrators may be asking a much harder question: “Can we go on?”
In a recent post in Inside Higher Ed, former Reed College president John Kroger predicts that the pandemic may lead to the closure of 750 to 1,000 colleges (bit.ly/pandemic-predictions). Many seminaries, with their small enrollments and weak balance sheets, are likely to be among the institutions that will be reckoning with dramatic changes. Some may have to consider a merger or a consolidation. Some may have to close.
I have been down that road. After 15 years as president at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, I began questioning the long-term sustainability of the school. After the president at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia suggested once again trying to unite our two schools (it had been tried several times previously, but never successfully), I encouraged the board to give it strong consideration. Within 18 months, the two schools consolidated to form United Lutheran Seminary (ULS). As has been widely publicized, the new entity navigated through heavy turbulence in its early years, but now things are looking up.
Based on my experience with the transformative (and disruptive) process that led to the creation of ULS, as well as personal observation and studying how other schools have made transformative decisions, I offer the following counsel to boards, presidents, and other key decision-makers.
Steel yourselves to face reality. Leaders of seminaries tend to be optimistic and hope-filled, as we should be, but refusal to acknowledge consistent year-by-year declines in enrollment, in income, and in the condition of our facilities will prove disastrous. Failure to respond in a timely way precludes creative realignments — new arrangements into which a school can bring both assets and influence.
First ask, “Can we go on as we are?” Then ask, “But should we?” With its relatively strong balance sheet, Gettysburg could have continued on its own for perhaps another decade. But as I grappled with the enrollment decline and other factors, I repeatedly encouraged the board to ask, “Is this our best stewardship?” Too many schools press on, year after year, until endowments are below water, physical plants are crumbling, and major indebtedness has been incurred. Would it not be better to bring a school to a gentle final landing, one that allows all aboard to survive and move on to a new future?
Expect transformative change to be messy and unpopular. Trustees and administrators who lead institutions through closures or consolidations must be prepared for criticism and even anger from many quarters. Employees, graduates, and other key stakeholders will feel deep disappointment and a sense of loss if their school closes. While there may be less grief over a formal partnership because the school’s identity lives on, one can still expect sharp critique, blaming, and a barrage of “if only we had done this or that.”
For dramatic change to occur, shared governance must be rebalanced. In normal times, the board and faculty work closely as partners in guiding a school, but that is not likely if closure or reconfiguration are on the table. Faculty tend to be deeply committed to their students, their scholarship, and their institutions, but financial forecasting is not their job. They are unlikely to look at the numbers and say, “This is unsustainable.”
If faculty and staff are unable to back the decision to close or consolidate, they will naturally feel the action was done to them, not with them. Trustees and presidents must bear the burden of knowing that the lives of valued colleagues and friends will be severely disrupted by a move like this. In the consolidation process of which I was a part, despite early and on-going efforts to provide support to employees of both schools, some long-term faculty and staff members felt betrayed and some were harmed.
Consultants can help guide the process. Any institutional closure or reconfiguration requires assistance from attorneys, accreditors, governmental regulators, and other professionals, but often overlooked is the need for coaching in communication, group dynamics, and “human factors.” While navigating our process, I benefited greatly from a workshop on consolidations sponsored by the In Trust Center, and from studying the previous attempts to combine our school with our sister seminary. Looking back, the turmoil that arose in the first year of governing United Lutheran Seminary may have been partially due to not recognizing the dramatically different styles in the way the two predecessor schools’ boards operated.
When the going is roughest, fall back on the bedrock of faith. When I taught congregational studies, I introduced students to a typical parish lifecycle curve. I pointed out that in their future ministries, some of them might be called to help close a dying congregation. Human institutions are born, they live and carry out their missions, and at some point, they conclude their ministries.
Those who lead institutions through great transformations or into their final chapters may require special charisms. Wallowing in self-doubt and personal “if onlys” may stand in the way of getting the job done. Confidence in St. Paul’s promise that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God” is especially important for those called to confront the hardest question of all: “Should we go on?”