Recently Meadville Lombard Theological School announced that they are ending negotiations with Andover Newton Theological School to become one combined theological university. The stated reasons are that the sale of its historic building has left it in a stronger financial position than expected, and that Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton couldn't agree on a governance model. This announcement would seem to be a good thing for Meadville.
But I think we're still holding our breath out here. At least I am.
I remain committed to the institution in many ways. I see good students go in and good ministers come out. I see a committed faculty, staff, and board, with a great deal of wisdom and experience among them. I see an institution that has a very important role in our movement as one of two very different Unitarian Universalist seminaries. I believe Unitarian Universalist seminaries have an important role in shaping our movement, and in maintaining a strong cohesive sense of our history and tradition among our ministry, even for ministers who don't graduate from a Unitarian Universalist seminary. I also believe Meadville Lombard, as the home of the only specifically Unitarian Universalist library, has a resource of immense importance to Unitarian Universalism.
However, my experience of Meadville Lombard has been that while it has continually managed to provide a a solid theological education and turn out good ministers, and while it holds a very important place in our Unitarian Universalist movement, to be a student and/or alum of Meadville Lombard is to go through a constantly-changing whirlwind relationship.
When I was a student at Meadville Lombard, I entered with one faculty and staff in 1996 and graduated with an almost completely different one in 2001. To my recollection, the only faculty and staff members who were at Meadville Lombard during my entire five years of seminary were Neil Gerdes, Susan Harlow, and Jon Rice. (My apologies if I've missed a staff member; I don't think I've missed a faculty one.) Most of this was because of planned retirements from an institution that had a very stable faculty for quite some time leading up to this. But during my time there, we said goodbye to Spencer Lavan, John Godbey, Ron Engel, Neil Shadle, Ian Evison and Michelle Bentley from the faculty. That alone provided for a somewhat disjointed seminary experience, where I went off to internship and returned to a very different institution where, as a student nearing graduation I had a faculty that knew me very little. But it was a wonderful faculty that came in, too, of Thandeka, John Tolley, David Bumbaugh, Susann Pangerl, and Carol Hepokoski with Bill Murry as the new president & academic dean.
The faculty and staff at Meadville Lombard now is almost an entirely different one from when I left, and I know some students in those ten years between now and then must have felt the same upheaval I felt during my time as they've watched this transition happen. Not all faculty and staff leavings then or now are happy ones for faculty and students, and this is particularly difficult for the students who have built up relationship with them as advisors and mentors.
During my time at Meadville Lombard the curriculum changed, as well. Those of us in process, like myself, finished under the old curriculum requirements where the arts of ministry three-part sequence was the core of the first-year experience, and the new students had a three-part theology core requirement with Thandeka as the cornerstone of their curriculum. The old in-sequence D.Min. program was retired (I was one of the last two graduates in 2001), and a new returning D.Min. degree was launched.
During my time at Meadville Lombard, Ian Evison came in as the interim president of the institution. During that time, we were told that Meadville Lombard was in a financial crisis, and that cuts needed to be made. I remember that the entire budget was pasted on the wall outside his door and that all serious suggestions were entertained. While at the school, there was a lot of transparency about what was going on, and students were very involved in the discussions, although not always happy with the decisions of the board. I have no reason to believe that the experience is different for students now, but as an alum the situation is very different, because you're not living the day-to-day life of the institution, and only seeing the published decisions, of course.
Shortly after I graduated, the word out of Meadville Lombard, as I experienced it through press releases and alumni dinners, was that the position was in great financial shape, and that they were looking into building another building that would go along with the main building and help complete some of the original vision of the building (originally, I believe, intended to be a quadrangle, only one side of which was built). This seemed unbelievable from an institution that had been on such shaky ground so recently. Indeed, this never manifested.
Not long afterward, the plan emerged to sell the main building at 5701 S. Woodlawn and buy a University of Chicago building across the Midway. A lot of people were probably unhappy with this, because of attachment to our historic building, but there were a lot of sound reasons for it expressed, one of which was that the institution was now in horrible financial shape again, and something major needed to change. However, this sale & move was supposed to make Meadville Lombard financially on solid ground again and able to move forward. This plan also never manifested.
Somewhere in there, there were talks of merging with Starr King School for the Ministry, again for largely financial reasons, although it seems like this was also at a time when we were hearing from both institutions that they were financially sound. There are a lot of conflicting rumors I've heard as to why these talks ended, so I can't really speculate. And it seems like Starr King-merger talks have happened twice during the years since I graduated, so that may explain why I've heard different explanations to their ending.
Then, about a year ago, the new plan, with Meadville Lombard again in financial trouble, was to do this we-don't-call-it-a-merger with Andover Newton. Meadville Lombard was to sell its buildings and be housed in a yet-to-be-determined place with a new curriculum that was mostly distance learning (see "Touch Point"), but still somehow centered in Chicago, with some but not all of the faculty, yet be part of this new entity with Andover Newton that wasn't a merger but two separate schools in an unnamed new theological university with a library housed somewhere yet to be determined. It had more questions than answers, except that it seemed to answer the biggest question: the financial one. So the sale of the buildings proceeded, and finally the historic building was sold.
Now, we're told, the sale of the buildings have put Meadville Lombard in better financial shape than was thought to be possible (even though they were thinking of this in prior years and thought it would put them in this kind of shape), and they can continue independently. But we still don't know where they will be housed, I believe, nor where the library will go. The faculty situations seem to be getting settled, one at a time. Since one of the reasons the talks with Andover Newton fell through were because of the concern being most raised about this -- the future of a distinctly Unitarian Universalist entity, perhaps we can breathe a sigh of relief that the talks ended rather than pursue a course that might have left us with nothing we could truly see as uniquely Unitarian Universalist in a few years.
So, breath out that sigh of relief, but then we're still not breathing easy yet. It's still wait and see. I know it's a tumultuous experience for students; I know, because it was one for me. There's a lot still up in the air to be decided. I know I'm hopeful that what's coming ahead is an era of new stability in an institution that hasn't had much of that for quite some time.
Meanwhile, I still believe that this institution, Meadville Lombard Theological School, has done good work in doing what they're charged to do: preparing and educating Unitarian Universalist ministers. And they are still an institution that has an important role in our past and a vital role in our movement's future. I trust that those at the helm are doing their best to see that the institution is able to fulfill that needed role.
And meanwhile? Students at Meadville Lombard are learning what I learned -- all this talk of budgets and buildings and all this turnover is good preparation for Unitarian Universalist ministry.