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Meadville Lombard, Andover Newton end plans for 'theological university'

Meadville will remain independent; ANTS to move ahead with other partners.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
4.25.11

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The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard Theological School, and the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological School.

The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., introduced their new "theological university" to the UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis on June 27, 2010. (Nancy Pierce)

Talks between Meadville Lombard Theological School and Andover Newton Theological School to create a new multifaith theological university have ended. In announcements on Thursday, April 21, the two schools indicated that they will go their separate ways.

In June 2010, the boards of both schools voted to establish a new interreligious “university-style” theological institution that would have united both schools under a single corporate structure. They announced plans to bring the new theological university into existence by June 15, 2011.

Meadville Lombard, based in Chicago, is a Unitarian Universalist seminary, and Andover Newton, based in Newton, Mass., is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA. About 15 percent of the students at Andover Newton, however, are preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton, said that he was disappointed that the talks with Meadville Lombard fell through. However, he said, “the vision for multifaith theological education is alive and well,” and that ANTS was still exploring it with other partners.

Larry Ladd, chairman of the Meadville Lombard Board of Trustees, said he felt very positive and upbeat that Meadville Lombard would be maintaining its independence. “We reached a point were we could see that we would be financially sustainable and educationally sound in maintaining our independence,” he said.

In January, Meadville Lombard announced that it had agreed to sell its main academic and administrative building to the University of Chicago for an undisclosed price. Meadville Lombard is in the process of searching for new space. The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, told UU World in January that the seminary was seeking a long-term lease in a Chicago building that will help establish a new physical identity for the school. The school has selected four potential sites, and it is expected to make an announcement soon about where it will relocate the campus.

In an email announcement, Barker emphasized that Meadville Lombard had found “renewed strength” over the last year “to proceed as an independent graduate seminary.” He also wrote that as talks about the new theological university unfolded with Andover Newton, the transition team from Meadville Lombard “could not find assurance that a new university would be more financially sustainable than remaining on our own. Moreover, we could not establish a governance structure for the university that gave enough assurance to Meadville Lombard representatives that the Unitarian Universalist identity of Meadville Lombard was guaranteed.”

From the outset, Barker had maintained several conditions for the partnership. One was that Meadville Lombard be able to maintain its new educational model, which it has developed over the past several years. In addition he said the school must retain its UU identity and have clear financial sustainability. “As it turned out,” Barker wrote, “the latter two points became the reasons why we concurred with the ANTS representatives on the Transition Team concerning an end to our talks.”

Carter said that Andover Newton will continue to pursue other partners to create a center for multifaith theological education. “The task of pioneering a future for theological education is one that we can’t assume that the very first time we set out on the path, we will have success,” he said. “We were trying to create something together. This was not an acquisition or a merger. There were two venerable schools trying to envision creating something that has never existed before. It’s important not to fall into classic definitions of winners and losers and arm-wrestling imagery. That’s not the way it was.”

Dogged by the economic downturn, shrinking endowments, and ever-spiraling costs of higher education, seminaries across the country have been looking at ways to partner and share the expenses of running their institutions. For a consolidation to be successful, however, it has to demonstrate a clear advantage for each school, said Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.

“I think it became less obvious what the advantage was for Meadville Lombard in the merger,” he said. “In the end, it will be more financially beneficial for Meadville Lombard to remain separate. I don’t think the Meadville Lombard negotiating team was able to demonstrate that there would be increased viability in the merger. So the board did what a board should do as a fiduciary, and that was to say that school is going to have a better financial future as an independent institution than as a merged institution.”

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