When the pandemic became a blessing

Illustrations by Anuj Shrestha

On an unusually cool and cloudy day in mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 response team for the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, met for the first time. For a few weeks, the campus had been abuzz about the news of an escalating coronavirus, and the GTU group – a committee of administrators and mid-level staff members – discussed generally what the schools that operated as part of GTU might expect. The meeting was serious but speculative.

A few days later, on March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s residents to shelter in place, the first state to do so, and at GTU, “everybody was off to the races,” said Mark Richardson, president and dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), an Episcopal seminary that is one of nine member schools under GTU’s umbrella. Initially, there were daily meetings.

EDITOR NOTE:The sustained impact of the coronavirus pandemic, now in its second year, continues to shape theological education in North America – pedagogically, administratively, and culturally. As part of our mission to inform governing boards and other leaders in the fulfillment of their fiduciary responsibilities, In Trust will periodically report on pandemic news and issues from the field, and the ways our institutions are responding.

Uriah Kim, a Hebrew Bible scholar who earned his Ph.D. at GTU in 2004, has served as the GTU’s president since 2017. He organized a larger, cross-institutional response team of academic deans, administrators, and middle managers from the departments of finance, information technology, facilities, student affairs, and student life. Together the team hammered out plans to make the transition from in-person to virtual operations and instruction.

Although each school was responsible for creating its own environment of safety, cooperation came naturally, Kim said. “Everyone recognized that the situation was unprecedented,” Kim said. “We had the same desire: to make sure the safety and the well-being of our constituents was the number-one priority.”

In the ensuing year, GTU and its members confronted a variety of challenges – denominational, pedagogical, financial, legal, technical, and communal – that tested the resiliency of the relationships among the members; strengthened ties with outside partners; and accelerated the movement to rethink how online pedagogy could evolve. Kim sees blessings and opportunities in the fact that the pandemic nudged the consortium along the road to a digital revolution.

Flipping the switch

Founded in 1962 as a consortium of five Protestant seminaries, GTU today sits in an area known as Holy Hill, about a 10-minute walk from the University of California, Berkeley. It now includes degree-granting Catholic and Unitarian schools; academic centers for Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Mormonism; and certificate programs that explore the intersections of religion, the arts, culture, and science. It is home to more than 200 faculty (including more than 50 core doctoral scholars), 146 graduate students, and approximately 100 other students.

Managing a disruptive crisis where there was little precedent on such a diverse campus presented many difficulties. Many domestic students experienced financial hardships: Libraries and events, the two main sources of campus employment, shut down. GTU paid other student workers through June 30, 2020, the end of its fiscal year.

Federal money through the Higher Education Emergency Relief fund (HEERF), part of the umbrella Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, helped GTU with money for direct grants to students and funding for hardware, software, training, and professional services related to technology.

The technical part of the shift came easily for GTU. Staff started working from their homes immediately and classes went online using digital tools already in place, such as videoconferencing, email, and phone. The federal funding alleviated some of the institutional financial challenges to technology upgrades; according to quarterly HEERF reports on the GTU website, technology-based funding included $32,351 for e-lab architectural renderings and e-library resources; $4,015 for purchasing equipment, software, or Wi-Fi upgrades; and another $19,353 for e-library resources.

Jean-Francois Racine, associate professor of New Testament at the Jesuit School of Theology and member of the COVID task force, believes that GTU had previously laid the groundwork to avoid some of the more severe disruptions experienced at other schools. The technology was in place for people to work from home and the library had begun acquiring e-books and online journal subscriptions over several years.


When the pandemic became a blessing


Walking in the cloud

Even as the faculty were tackling the pedagogical challenges of online teaching and learning, the GTU schools had to face the practical and social considerations of uprooting campus life. Students from the GTU and UC Berkeley may cross-register, so it was important that the two entities coordinate their efforts. Complicating the matter, the city of Berkeley has an independent health division, and the region also is under the jurisdiction of the Alameda County Public Health Department, both of which had more stringent requirements than the state of California. The result was that GTU’s response team needed to consider and absorb data and constantly changing directives from different authorities.

Each school faced a unique set of issues. For CDSP, the most pressing challenge was scrambling to comply with the local orders to move students out of congregate living spaces. Richardson said many CDSP students were housed in 1960s- and ’70s-era buildings with shared bathrooms and kitchens. The school found housing in its own properties for every student in need, but that came at a cost: Individual students were placed in units that usually accommodate two people, and the school also reclaimed spaces it typically rented to post-doctoral students from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. As a result, the school lost two-thirds of the leasing income it ordinarily receives from these properties.

Richardson also noted that “community life on this campus is very important for the residential students, and that group was feeling fairly depressed.”

CDSP benefited from its March 2019 merger with Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan, a relationship that, in Richardson’s view, “has evolved in the right direction from the beginning.” Trinity put the theological school more directly under the priest-in-charge and hired consultants from Price Waterhouse Cooper to help CDSP align management and mission more efficiently. When the pandemic struck, Trinity advisers identified the coronavirus protection measures it wanted the school to take – like overhauling the ventilation system in every office – and paid for them.


“Community life on this campus is very important for the residential students, and that group was feeling fairly depressed.”


International considerations

International students faced distinct, and often complicated, challenges and uncertainty to continuing their studies, some related to confusing U.S. restrictions on visas, others to accrediting challenges for online classes offered to students residing in other countries.

The F-1 visa allows international students to study at approved academic institutions in the U.S., but it also requires that students take the majority of their courses in person. In 2020, the federal government granted an exemption to this rule, and then retracted it a few months later. After Harvard University and others sued the Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement departments in July 2020, the exemption was extended. GTU also lost a few students who could not arrive in the U.S. in time to get their visas.

Kim also noted that schools had to apply for waivers from regional accrediting agencies to deliver online classes to students residing in other countries, with no assurance that the waivers would last as long as students might need them.

Racine said that the Jesuit School of Theology was impacted by these considerations and other organizational challenges at Santa Clara University (SCU), with which it had merged in 2009. In fact, its most complicated challenges in relocating students were organizational rather than physical. JST students represent an international student body and include Jesuits in formation, lay women and men, and members of religious orders of all ages. A GTU member since 1969, the school enrolls 148 of the university’s 8,600 students. Most SCU students commute to, or live on, the main campus in Santa Clara, California, 45 miles south of Berkeley. JST thus falls under the jurisdiction of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department – as well as the Alameda County and city of Berkeley departments.

Some SCU students, Racine said, decided to move away from the Bay Area to escape the region’s notoriously high cost of living. A few international students from Africa went to live with relatives in other U.S. states. Some of those students say they want the new arrangements to be permanent or that they want to spend only part of the academic year on campus. This raised questions about what defines a residential student and how to apply SCU regulations, such as the requirement that in-person students carry health insurance.

Moreover, SCU deliberately creates an environment of solitude and relative freedom from responsibilities to church and family. Racine said abrupt departure from that almost monastic lifestyle infringed on academic pursuits: some students from foreign countries students felt burdened by family obligations, and bishops pressured them to assume church responsibilities. Churches make demands of Bay Area students as well, but academic advisers and deans intervene with these pastors. Students in India, 12 hours ahead of their American classmates, took classes in the middle of the night until administrators and faculty could agree on which courses might be offered asynchronously. There was an unexpected boon for some students who stayed in the local area – no more fighting Bay Area traffic between Berkeley and Santa Clara.


When the pandemic became a blessing

The longer run

In spring 2020, GTU expected campuses to reopen by the 2021 academic year. When it became clear they would not, faculty and administrators took a deeper look at how the classroom would have to change. “We tend to teach in the same way we were taught,” Racine said, “and many professors tried to replicate the classroom on Zoom. This just didn’t work.”

Kim said that while theological schools have been developing online courses and programs for years, planning for the long term poses new questions about how best to design activities to fit online modalities. The changes aren’t all problems; advantages to online teaching showed up immediately. An example: online breakout rooms that allow instructors to create and moderate small discussion groups during a session. “They can be so easily arranged online and hard in a classroom, where you have to deal with noise and moving people around,” Kim said.

Racine approaches the problem with curiosity and excitement. “We tend to have this very rigid distinction between in-person and remote learning. What about classes that are both? I’ve been asking myself how much we need to make some experiments.”



By Oct. 11, 2021, more than 90 percent of Berkeley residents 12 or over had been vaccinated. At the GTU, students are offered a vaccination as soon as they arrive on campus. Despite the emergence of the new variants, the initial crisis is receding, and schools have more decisions to make about how they will move forward. In some ways, this is trickier than reacting to the strong constraints of 2020.

Schools and centers still meet to define COVID safety protocols, and one school, Dominican School for Philosophy and Theology, broke with the consensus to mandate vaccinations. (Kim said 99 percent of GTU’s constituents are vaccinated, but some students chose not to participate.)

Racine is optimistic. An emeritus professor, George Griener, produced one of the most popular and successful online courses, an introduction to systemic theology, by making his class lively and interactive. “This isn’t a matter of age; it’s a matter of mindset,” Racine said. Still, new blood helps. Diandra Erickson, who earned her Ph.D. from the GTU in 2018 and became its director of digital learning in 2019, “emerged as a beacon,” Racine said. Faculty members who were reluctant to use digital technology learned to use it; some of them even embraced it. “Online learning will improve the educational enterprise,” Kim said. Richardson is mindful that the changes to teaching, community, and formation during the coronavirus pandemic were not the only awakening of 2020.

The past two years have raised awareness of the need to balance spiritual depth, pastoral care and, Richardson said, “turning to where the church meets the neighborhood … joining people in common concerns.”

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