Monday, April 25, 2011

Major Meadville Moments

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. 

7 comments:

Bill Baar said...

Good overview (thanks) of a messey story, but I don't see this ending well. It can't be a good experience for students or good preparation for Ministry.

Mike said...

As a first-year student at Meadville, I find your words reassuring, and at the same time a bit disconcerting that this time in the school's history is more the norm than the exception. Best to expect the unexpected I guess.

ogre said...

Oddly, Bill, it's been fine for the students. The illusion that that Meadville's ever been an unchanging institution is as wrong as the idea that our churches are.

I know MLTS alums who think that the experience of wrestling with change and uncertainty has provided an excellent grounding for ministers who will go into churches that are... wrestling with budgets, struggling to change, trying to move to--or build--or retrofit--or... something--to allow the current congregation and services to fit better.

Preparation for ministry's been, if anything, enhanced. Ministers have to live with and embrace uncertainty, and then step up and preach about it, into it... and deal with impending loss and (re)birth all the time.

What better thing than to be exposed to that, in practice, as part of one's education?

Jennifer Crawford said...

Thanks for this write-up. I'm inclined to think that while some degree of change is healthy, excessive instability is unhealthy. Meadville Lombard has tended toward excessive instability in recent years. The fact that some UU congregations are also excessively unstable doesn't really make it better. It makes the overall situation that much more worrisome.

Ministry does include dealing with change and helping others to deal with change, but it also includes providing a space within which humans can flourish. Excessive instability can derail that.

At least as important as the rate of change is the tone of the change. During my ML years, the major and sometimes hotly debated shifts in faculty were accompanied by other worrisome dynamics, including the accusatory tone that accompanied the everyone's-an -evil-racist ideology that was then in vogue, and a tendency to demonize each other's personality types and to confuse personality type differences with oppression. Meanwhile, huge debt loads were being amassed by students. All of these conflicts and stresses made for a quite toxic combination. Students are in an inherently transitional state to begin with and have a certain amount of stress about MFC interviews and job searches without having to deal with a collapsing and conflict-ridden seminary community at the same time.

By itself, dealing with institutional change can be instructive, but too many stressors on an institution or on individuals can be destructive.

Bill Baar said...

Change isn't the problem. And floundering isn't change by the way, which is what M/L seems to be doing given their mission flip flops.

I spent six years working from home as a computer programmer. It's amazing how productive one can be. But you're awfully cut-off from random interactions that in my experience can be the core of eductation.

I attended Grinnell College in Iowa in part because it's a vibrant place where when learns as much in the community as in formal classes. You never get that with distance learning, or distance work.

Cynthia Landrum said...

@Bill, Per the TouchPoint curriculum and online learning in general, I have mixed feelings about the preparedness for ministry. For example, one of the advantages of a UU institution is the collegial relationships you build, and those are necessarily different when you're not put into the same physical proximity with each other regularly. I'm sure that those relationships are being built, but they're different, and I'm not sure what that will mean. That's just one example among many.

But I recognize that the shape of learning is changing, and that there are new skills that this may teach that perhaps I didn't learn, as well.

My mother has worked for colleges and universities for many years. She's director of on-line learning or something like that for the University of Michigan Dearborn right now. And she's a former seminarian, as well. I'm interested in hearing her viewpoint on the new ML curriculum. Maybe she'll weigh in on this issue. :)

@Jenny,
Certainly I experienced ML at the same time as you and much of what you say rings true with my own experience, although I might put it differently. There are ways that I responded to the stress of the institution that I'm not proud of, and only later learned to look back on and understand. And I don't think the situations ML has gone through are ideal for learning, but we did learn something from them, all the same. And I did survive, and ML did teach me most of what I expected a seminary to do. Many of our incoming class are still ministering and ministering well, so that must mean something, eh?

George said...

Thank you for your perspective and insight as a recent grad of M-L. I just happened across your blog while exploring the Wiki page for M-L, so this post is coming with about two years of "afterglow!" I started the TouchPoint program in Sept, 2011, and by the time my first J-Term occurred, the school was housed at Spertus. Some upperclasspersons expressed a bit of nostalgia for the old building, now lovingly nicknamed "Hogwarts." But most are really pleased with the Spertus arrangement. The staff, in particular, love the comfortable summer and winter climate-controlled, ultramodern Spertus building. I think that M-L might now be settled into a new, fruitful existence after what sounds like almost two decades of turmoil of various sorts. As a part-time "distance learner," I am grateful for the new TouchPoint program, as I would not have otherwise been able to attend a liberal, progressive theological school (I'm not a UUA candidate.) The faculty and staff are still feeling their way into this new physical and academic existence, but they are really dedicated to its success and actively listening to student input. Realizing they are still in uncharted waters, they have been exceptional in making adjustments without compromising academic integrity. With dwindling full-time, residential enrollment, there was little else that the board could have done. The Spertus arrangements allows the school to operate with only the space it needs and only when it needs it. I don't know the specifics, but the rent paid to Spertus is likely less than the upkeep of Hogwarts and the peripheral buildings in Hyde park which M-L owned. And, the "new" library is amazing!