Saturday, June 26, 2010

Blogging from GA: Meadville Lombard

We have two Unitarian Universalist seminaries in this country, Meadville Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry. Together they educate a sizable percentage, but not nearly all (or even half, I believe), of our ministers. I went to Meadville Lombard (although I attended Starr King for a semester, as well). One joy of GA is usually the Meadville Lombard Alumni Dinner, where we all get together and hear about how the school is doing, catch up with old friends, hear some wonderful speakers reminisce about the old days, and eat some good food.

This year, as we were setting out for GA, Meadville Lombard released a big announcement--one we knew was coming, but I didn't know the extent of it.  Meadville Lombard has been trying to both sell its buildings and merge with another institution, and now it is announced that they will merge with Andover Newton Theological School in Boston.  And while there is a great deal of potential in this new model, it gives both alumni and students a great deal of anxiety because what the final product will look like is still so unknown.  Of no small concern is the fact that Andover Newton looks like the bigger partner in all of this, and we're afraid our UU identity will get lost in the new identity.  It's been pointed out more than once that Andover Newton was founded in opposition to Unitarianism.

There's a lot of confusion and rumor right now.  For example, I heard one place we won't retain our name at all, and yet the press release says we will.  Another example: we're selling our buildings, yet we're remaining in Chicago, yet almost all or perhaps all of the students will be distance-learning students.  What sort of presence will we have in Chicago, and what exactly will it say on their diplomas?  This is the confusion that is still out there.  And for our entire movement, I hope you're wondering what will become of the library.  The Meadville Lombard library is the only substantial Unitarian Universalist library in the country.  It is an invaluable collection of resources and history for our faith.  Surely some other library will be taking it, but will it be safeguarded, and will it be cared about, and will it be added to?  These are the concerns we have.

I'm hopeful about Meadville Lombard's future, even in the midst of this uncertainty and fear.  I do think they're doing innovative things with their new "Touch Point" approach to theological education.  I'm going to be immersed in that myself as a Teaching Pastor.  I know they're doing a lot to bring distance learning students together through conference calls and other distance learning tools.

Meadville Lombard was in a lot of transition in my day, too.  I entered with one set of faculty and staff, and left with an almost entirely different one with only one faculty member and a few minor staff members the same.  And yet, in the midst of all that, I gained a strong education which grounded me in our faith and I also built strong collegial ties that have supported me in my ministry.  I trust that this will be true in this new period of transition, in part because it's something the seminarians themselves are seeking and helping to create.

7 comments:

RevEliot said...

I am a M/L grad as well but I may be a little less worried about the UCC-ness of the proposed "university" than most. It is probably worth noting that ANTS currently has a large population of UU students (I have heard that at times this number is larger than M/L's student body). Also, since the UUA and the UCC share numerous churches in New England (I serve one), it is pretty safe to say that the history of opposition is mostly in the past. Not entirely, of course, but certainly not a day-to-day thing for the UU's in the ANTS community. If anything, the greater connection between the UU's at ANTS and M/L can't help but strengthen the whole.

This isn't to say that I have other worries, and the selling off of the campus will be a painful event for most of us who studied there...

Jim said...

As a member of the entering MDiv class at Meadville, I am excited by this development. I believe it expands opportunities for students and will serve as a new model for theological education. In terms of what's on the diploma, my understanding is that I will be getting my degree from the Meadville Lombard Theological School of the As Yet To Be Named Theological University.

I know there are a lot of concerns and anxieties (along with a lot of rumors), but the bottom line is that Meadville Lombard will still exist. Without some bold action at this point, it might have limped along for a few more year, but it almost certainly would have died very soon.

Cynthia Landrum said...

I agree, Jim. I've been talking about it with more people today. The consensus is, as you say, that without this we would have certainly ceased to exist, and, while this is very painful for the alumni, it's necessary and gives us potential for the future.

And while rumors about the school say we'll lose our name, that is definitely not the plan as it's being expressed. But it brings voice to the real fear that we'll lose our identity.

I still wait to hear what exactly will happen with the library.

Doug Davidoff said...

Dear Cynthia,

I'm Doug Davidoff, external communications consultant to Meadville Lombard. I apologize for taking so long to respond to your blog post and the excellent comments appended to it.

First, thank you for attending the alumni/ae association dinner at GA in Minneapolis. It was a satisfactorily large event; I think that a large percentage of the school's living alumni/ae were in the room.

Second, thank you for your support of the new TouchPoint curriculum and volunteering to be a Teaching Pastor. That's wonderful!

On to your comments …

It's a mistake to characterize the new theological university as a "merger." It's a "partnership," and this is not at all the proverbial semantical distinction without a difference. In a merger, the original entities disappear inside the new entity. In a partnership, the founding entities produce something new and apart from them. The new university will have two and -- we hope -- more individual component schools. One of the non-negotiable points for MLTS was to insure its own identity and its status as a UU-identified institution. This will be achieved in the new university.

The founding of ANTS is an interesting history and even ironic, but can we get past that? I think that to suggest otherwise paints ANTS and its graduates as some kind of modern-day fifth column, trying to attack UUism from within.

As for names, yes, the name of the new theological university is now unknown. But it's pretty clear that Meadville Lombard will be retained as the name of the ML college within the university. The question of names on the future diplomas is addressed in the newly released FAQs from Meadville Lombard; it's a PDF download at http://bit.ly/9q697m. As the FAQs state, "The current plan is for Meadville Lombard students to receive degrees from the Meadville Lombard school of the new university."

Indeed, the campus is for sale. No, ML is not leaving Chicago. The campus is financially non-sustainable; too many resources are either devoted to ongoing maintenance or too many burdens on the future are being loaded by way of deferred maintenance, which reduces the current capacity of the campus for learning. Where ML will be housed is not yet certain. What is known is that the current campus will probably remain in operation for at least another year or so. Faculty will remain in Chicago and all the on-campus learning will take place in Chicago; this includes January and summer intensive courses.

Your question about the Wiggin Library is important. It's an open question; it has not been answered. I think that during the next year, you're going to see a lot of planning attention given to the library. Look for answers, but don't look too soon. If you have ideas, I'd address them to President Lee Barker at lbarker@meadville.edu. He's concerned about the library's future.

Responding to RevEliot's comment, I think ML's student body is two or three times larger than the UU contingent within ANTS' student body. I appreciate RevEliot's comments on the bonds between the UUA and UCC. And I appreciate Jim's comments and his excitement upon entering MLTS.

Thanks for reading this response.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Dear Doug,

Thank you for your time and attention to this post. It's very helpful to have some of these rumors that I was hearing answered.

I know the alumni, and surely the board, students, faculty, and staff, are all very concerned about the future of the school, and it's clear that these steps are something that needed to happen in order to save it from what looked like probable ruin.

There are, clearly, a lot of unknowns that still exist--where ML will be housed, what the name of this larger entity will be, where the library will go.

I do think we can get past this founding of ANTS issue. But I think it'll be a while before it stops being brought up by people, partly because this future is so uncertain with so many unknowns.

Thank you for your clarification about the "merger" vs. "partnership" -- it's something that will become more clear as the new theological university emerges.

I remain hopeful and optimistic about ML's future, and a strong supporter as they move forward. And, yes, I am anxious too. This is a lot of changes with an uncertain future. But I trust the thoughtful process that went into finding the best possible future for ML.

Clyde Grubbs said...

Eight decades after Andover's founding Congregationalism in New England was becoming almost as liberal as Unitarianism. Andover moved from Andover Massachusetts into Cambridge and develped a partnership with Harvard. Andover Hall is the Divinity Schools main building. But Andover was forced by the Massachusetts courts to stay independent and not merge with the Divinity School. So Andover moved to Newton and merged with the Baptist school there.

The UU presence at Andover Newton goes back decades and the present President has brought UUs on the board of trustees. The UU contingent at ANTS is the second largest denominational grouping. The student body comes from a range of denominations and other than faiths.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Glad to hear that there are UUs on the ANTS board. That was a piece of info I hadn't heard before. And yes, they're definitely UU-friendly as of late. The bringing up the origins by so many people, at least the people I've heard, goes to an underlying fear that in all of this we will lose our UU identity and have one less UU theological schools. It's possible that will happen, although there are strong safeguards against it happening, but surely we would lose one UU theological school if we didn't take these actions. I am, as I've said, optimistic. But that doesn't mean the underlying fear goes away entirely.