Financial crisis hits Seabury

Elise Foley

Frank Yamada was awarded tenure at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary on April 24 after eight years of teaching.

Fifteen minutes later, his job security was taken away.

Seabury’s board of trustees voted to dismiss all faculty members after their next school year ends in June 2009 as part of a dramatic overhaul of the seminary, 2122 Sheridan Road.

After decades of financial trouble and months of deliberation, faculty, administrators and students said the decision was painful, but not a surprise.

“There’s an odd sense of relief, because I think that the faculty has known all along that the seminary was in trouble,” Yamada said. “It’s like we’re not denying the economic realities that are in front of us anymore.”

The seminary has about $2.9 million in debt, which is expected to reach $3.5 million later this year due to additional costs related to transition. Tuition, fees and the school’s endowment are insufficient to overcome these expenses, and a capital campaign did not earn enough to offset the costs.

The board of trustees suspended admissions in February and asked a planning committee made up of board members, administrators and faculty, including Yamada, to create a financial plan to make the seminary earn as much as it spends.

After hearing different options, the board chose to declare a financial crisis, meaning they could terminate even tenured faculty. They also voted to eliminate nine staff positions.

“All of us hoped that we could raise the money necessary to avoid this. I’m in charge of that, and I certainly hoped to,” said Elizabeth Butler, vice president for advancement and administration. “We did raise quite a bit of money that we hadn’t seen before. We just didn’t have enough to continue business as usual.”

A wider problem

As costs of education skyrocket and demand for religious education shrinks, Seabury is not the only seminary facing financial problems. Of the 11 Episcopalian seminaries in the U.S., two others also had to downsize recently.

“It’s not just Seabury’s problem, it’s a problem in theological education in general,” Yamada said. “It’s becoming increasingly expensive, and there are fewer and fewer students.”

Seabury charges about $13,000 in tuition but spends about $50,000 per student each year, Butler said. But raising tuition was not an option.

“We can’t charge what Kellogg charges, because we don’t have people graduating from seminary going into positions with salaries that can pay back that cost,” Butler said.

The market has also had an effect, Butler said. As Episcopalian priests are increasingly trained in non-Episcopalian seminaries, there aren’t enough students to continue offering a Masters degree in Divinity, a three-year program that was once a Seabury staple.

Jim Hamilton, who is in his third year of the Masters of Divinity program at Seabury, said the problem is bigger than Seabury and the other Episcopalian seminaries.

“It has to do with the lack of calling and discernment within the church,” he said. “Our church in general is experiencing a shift in its relevance in society.”

An uncertain future

Seabury is not closing its doors, administrators insist, although it is one year away from being without a faculty and two years away from being without students.

The planning committee is considering several options, including merging with another institution and offering non-residential programs or distance learning, Butler said. Current students will be able to complete their degrees by taking courses at Seabury and other seminaries.

Faculty will have to find positions at other schools, or even change careers. Yamada said some faculty members are in “vocational discernment” and might leave theological education. His position at Seabury, where he is a professor teaching the Hebrew Bible, was his first job, and he does not know what he will do next.

Milner Seifert, a lecturer in Sacred Music, has worked at Seabury for four years after teaching at Evanston Township High School for 34 years. He said he has a pension to fall back on, but he worries for his colleagues.

“I feel very, very sad for them and concerned for them,” Seifert said. “Some of them have worked all their professional career to get to this point. When you’re highly educated in a specialized field, there aren’t that many jobs out there.”

After working and even living on the campus, faculty and administrators said they are still grappling with the idea that Seabury as they know it will no longer exist.

“It’s a very challenging time, but one that I do hope we will come through on the other side,” Butler said. “God is at work in these things, and while all of us tend to like to preserve things the way they have been, that’s not how things are in life.”

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