Jul 09, 2012 | Comments 13
Since 1836, Erskine Theological Seminary (ETS), located in Due West, South Carolina, has been the seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 2003, when Dr. Harvey N. Gaston became Executive Vice President, the seminary was flourishing financially and had a burgeoning enrollment with expanding programs and what, at the time, was a bright future – even national recognition. However, during Gaston’s kakistocracy,
- he alienated the ARP Church;
- he launched poorly planned attempts at expansion – one in New York City nearly landed the seminary in court;
- he lost the endorsement of the United Methodist Church when he refused to heed warnings regarding their audit;
- he offended the presiding Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who accused him of racism;
- he crippled the theological integrity of the seminary by promoting and protecting neo-Barthian professors;
- he terrorized and fractured the faculty and staff with a leadership style reminiscent of Genghis Khan;
- he emptied classrooms of students;
- he paid little or no attention to developing the seminary’s endowment; and
- he proposed unattainable and reckless budgets that have resulted in shortfalls and, in the last four years, very large deficits of $350,000 a year or more.
Without regard for the health of ETS or the welfare of the faculty and staff, Gaston plunged the seminary into a lethal financial crisis.
Incredibly, having been warned numerous times of Gaston’s extraordinary failings, then President Dr. Randy Ruble sat inactively in his office and watched the many foolhardy misadventures of his protégé. When the board met, trustees reported they were baffled by the outrage of many of us in the ARP Church regarding the goings on at ETS. While congratulating themselves on their “fiduciary responsibility,” “competence,” “knowledge,” and “independence,” they ignored obvious warning signs of impending doom and allowed a calamity to unfold and envelop the seminary. Sadly for ETS, few educational institutions in America have received more harmful “fiduciary responsibility” than that inflicted on ETS by the Erskine board.
Finally, when Gaston was forced to resign and exit Due West in January, 2011, he left ETS on life-support, awaiting “death’s cold, sullen stream.” In June, unceremoniously and without anyone to mourn or remember or even care, the passing of ETS, the oldest seminary in South Carolina, was announced by President David Norman with perfunctory e-mails sent from his office on June 1 and 20.
Founded in 1839, three years after ETS, Erskine College sat beside ETS in Due West. For more than 60 years, the two institutions remained separate institutions, sharing a board, president, library, and some administrative services. Nevertheless, the two institutions operated separately in that each had its own budget, recruitment office, administrative offices, and endowments. Erskine College functioned as the “agency” of the ARP Church in baccalaureate education. ETS functioned as the “agency” of the ARP Church in professional training of candidates for the gospel ministry.
According to President Norman, the following restructuring has occurred: Erskine College has absorbed ETS into what looks like “Erskine College and Graduate School of Religion” (GSR).
The following has taken place:
- Erskine College and ETS are now ONE institution. As noted above, the college and seminary were historically two distinct institutions. The seminary had its own leadership. Depending on the time frame, the Dean and Vice President of the Seminary or the Executive Vice President of the Seminary, though officially under the authority of the President, functioned as the “head” of the seminary – a mini-President. The office of the Dean and Vice President of the Seminary or Executive Vice President of the Seminary, the administrative offices of the seminary, and the seminary’s professors’ offices were housed in the Bowie Seminary Building. The seminary leadership oversaw the budget of the seminary, development, and recruiting. Though the “head” of the seminary sat on the President’s cabinet, he also reported directly to the board. The administrative offices of the college are in Belk Hall. The administrative offices of the seminary are now being re-located to Belk or incorporated into the administrative scheme of the college. Except for classrooms and faculty offices, the Bowie Seminary Building will be empty. A rather bleak greeting for a prospective seminary/GSR student.
- The operation of the budgets of the college and seminary/GSR have been unified under the oversight of Mr. Greg Haselden. Presently, according to a highly placed source, the “seminary endowment” is being maintained separately from the “college endowment”. Since money is fungible, one wonders how long this will last. Presently, institutional history is not a high priority for the administration. Look for a merging of the two endowments in the not-too-distant future.
- Two staff positions (one in Due West and one in Columbia) and one seminary faculty position have been eliminated. According to sources in Due West, the former registrar for the seminary has also resigned. As one Due West insider said: “Others are going to leave as soon as they get employment elsewhere.”
- Other changes include: (1) Interim Executive Vice President of the Seminary, Dr. Steve Lowe, has resigned and is returning to teaching; (2) the position of Dean of the Seminary has been eliminated and Dr. Robby Bell, whose tenure as an academic dean was marked by ineptness, is returning to the classroom; (3) others holding the title of “Dean” are now designated “Associate Dean”; (4) staff director positions in the seminary are now re-designated “Associate Director”; and (5) a number of positions are now “part-time.” Needless to say, salaries have been adjusted downward.
- At this time, the seminary/GSR is without specific leadership. Dr. Lowe’s duties “will be divided among other administrators and a new Administrative Dean for the Seminary position” will be created; however, the position will remain open at this time.
- According to President Norman, “Moving forward . . . senior administrative positions will be organized institutionally. A new position of Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs will be created which will oversee all faculty departments, undergraduate and graduate, as well as student services and recruitment functions. . . . Dr. Brad Christie, while continuing in his role as Interim Vice President and Dean of the College, has agreed to lend his assistance to this function while a search is ongoing. Mr. Greg Haselden will take on the role of Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations, taking a more active role in overseeing the finances related to the seminary.”
- Dr. Norman has asked Dr. Lowe to develop and “lead a regular class and lecture series on peacemaking, dealing with division in the church.”
- Dr. Max Rogland will oversee curriculum and class scheduling for the seminary/GSR from his office in Columbia.
- President Norman created a new role for Dr. Mark Ross. Dr. Norman announced at his “Town Hall” meeting in Due West that Dr. Ross is now “Dean of Church Relations.”
For one who is an ARP, an ETS alum, and a former board member, this restructuring of ETS is breathtaking, if not heart-stopping. In conversations with a number of trustees, we learn this plan has not been presented to or approved by the board. Certainly, the ARP Church was not consulted. Does permission from or what the ARP Church desires matter any longer in Due West? Dr. Norman has simply acted. As usual, the trustees will “rubber stamp” this fait accompli at the board’s August meeting. Hopefully, the trustees will pause for a moment of silence to show respect for the memory of Erskine Theological Seminary.
From the Editor’s perspective, President Norman’s plan is materializing on the “fly.” There are more than a number of things unexplained and troublesome. Consider the following:
- There are significant differences between a “seminary” and a “GSR.” A GSR is an extension of the college. A seminary is a professional school aimed at the needs of the church. Both a seminary and a GSR are able to offer the same degrees; however, the directions the seminary and the GSR face are different, and the direction is pivotal.
- How is the new “Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs” going to serve both the college and the seminary/GSR? The college is an academic community. In Due West, the seminary/GSR is a church community – especially if the relationship with the ARP Church continues.
- This leads to the most obvious question: Why is Dr. Norman waiting to find an “Administrative Dean” for the seminary/GSR? The obvious answer is money; however, for the seminary/GSR growth (students and money), a “head” is necessary. Dr. Norman’s appointment of Dr. Mark Ross as Dean for Church Relations is not going to fill this need. He is not the one who is going to be responsible for setting the course of the seminary/GSR. And why is Ross “Dean” and not “Director”? “Dean” is an internal designation, while “Director” is external. Is Norman making it up as he flies by the seat of his pants? In the opinion of the Editor, the appointment of Ross and the title of “Dean” are the reward for his “Academy Award” performance at General Synod this year.
- According to Norman, Dr. Steve Lowe is going to “lead a regular class and lecture series on peacemaking, dealing with division in the church.” Really!?! What a patronizing and insensitive act by Norman! The “boy” who helps to set the fire wants to give lessons in putting out fires!? This is about as smart as appointing a “United Methodist” to lead a “Presbyterian” seminary – well, the seminary once was an ARP seminary! Norman’s concern is not “peacemaking”; rather, it is the funding (money) of the ARP Church.
- The following statements were passed by the 2012 Synod: “We affirm that the account of creation of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis 1 and 2 is history” and “We deny any teaching that claims that the account of creation of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis 1 and 2 is mythology.” With regard to his views of anthropological monism, Norman stated to the Editor that “whatever the church says” on this issue, he would modify his beliefs to be in accord with the church. One wonders if the case is the same on “Adam and Eve.” After Synod passed the above statements, Norman was overhead saying something like this: “This is terrible! What am I going to say to my science people?” Well, maybe this will give him the opportunity to develop “peacemaking” skills!
- Unless it has been removed, on Dr. Robby Bell’s door is this sign: “As of July 1, I am no longer Dean. If you have any questions, contact Dr. Brad Christie.” Good grief! Who is in charge? According to Bell, Christie is in charge. That is not heartwarming; Christie is an “academic” and a PCUSA laymen who has no experience in running a seminary. According to Dr. Norman, he, a layman who knows nothing about the ministry or running a seminary, and Mr. Greg Haselden, a Roman Catholic who knows nothing about the ministry or running a seminary, are going to deal with the “day-to-day” details of Erskine seminary/GSR. According to a former Erskine College alum who took courses at ETS, and who is presently a student at Reformed Theological Seminary-Charlotte and attempting to get academic information transferred, he cannot find anyone who presently is in charge of the seminary/GSR.
- Eight weeks before the start of the fall semester, the seminary/GSR was without an Administrative Dean and a schedule for the fall. Six weeks before the beginning of the fall semester there is still no Administrative Dean; however, Dr. Max Rogland has posted a fall schedule of classes. The result is that faith has been broken once again. Dr. Richard Burnett is teaching the only Systematic Theology III course being offered. Burnett is infamous in the Erskine-ARP Church controversy for his neo-orthodox views. A “deal” was stuck that when Burnett taught a “core” course there would be an alternative “core” course taught by someone who is orthodox. What happened to the “deal”? Is this another “You don’t understand; let me explain” thing? Perhaps this is an opportunity for a “peacemaking” exercise.
- Dr. Norman is fond of using the phrase “Moving forward.” Perhaps, he should “look back” and see if he can learn something from the past. From the Fall 2001 issue of Inside Erskine, we learn of a record start: the largest class in 30 years – and that without “bottom-dredging” recruiting. That class had the highest SAT average in the college’s history; 13 states and 2 foreign countries were represented; 13 valedictorians and salutatorians were in the class. One year later, ETS’ “head count” of new students nearly equaled the college’s “head count”. Now, the college and the seminary/GRS share a common office for recruitment. This office is run by the same folks who are now busy “bottom-dredging” and “buying” students for the Freshmen class this fall. If these folks are struggling with Dr. Norman’s goal of 230 to 250 new college students for the fall, how are they going to do justice by the seminary/GSR? Sorry, but Dr. Norman’s “moving forward” does not look like going forward.
The aforementioned actions at Erskine College and Semianry/GRS demonstrate to the ARP Church that Erskine College and Seminary/GSR and board are, in fact, “independent” of the the ARP Church. Now, if someone is looking for a sign that Erskine is “independent” of the ARP Church and the ARP Church needs to be done with the Due West disaster, there it is. The somnolence of Dr. Randy Ruble during his presidency, the execrable and irresponsible mismanagement of Dr. Harvey N. Gaston as Executive Vice President of ETS, the feckless leadership of board chairmen, Mr. Scott Mitchell, Mr. Joe Patrick and Mr. David Conner, the faithlessness and disloyalty of the trustees to the church that appointed them, and the inexperience of President Norman who has had only one real job, President of Erskine, have erased the bright future of 2003 and doomed to ignominy Erskine Theological Seminary. RIP, ETS! All hail, “Independent” Erskine College and GSR! How long before Erskine College and Graduate School of Religion is also RIP?
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
Filed Under: Newsletter