Erskine Theological Seminary – R.I.P.

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. Dr. Norman has asked Dr. Lowe to develop and “lead a regular class and lecture series on peacemaking, dealing with division in the church.”
  8. Dr. Max Rogland will oversee curriculum and class scheduling for the seminary/GSR from his office in Columbia.
  9. 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

 

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  1. Donn R Arms says:

    Thanks for your good work on this blog Chuck. I believe the blame for where we are at with Erskine does not lie entirely with these administrators. For years the APR has passed resolutions, motions, and memorials and then folded when they received push back, satisfied that they were “working on it.” It is the ARP that is feckless in all this, not the folk at Erskine who required, and were owed, the supervision the ARP refused to give.

     
    • Dear Mr. Donn Arms,

      Thank you for your comments.

      Amen.

      We in the ARP Church love to pass statements about what we believe. However, we make what we believe inconsequential by not standing by what we publicly affirm.

      Regards,

      Chuck Wilson
      ARPTalk

       
  2. Dear Readers of ARPTalk,

    Some of you may be wondering if the Editor’s information for this article is correct. See below for an e-mail sent out this afternood by President Norman. Warning: Read with care. There is disinformation contained in it.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

    **********
    Dear ETS Students,

    We have had an eventful summer! As your President I want to briefly explain some changes that are taking place this summer and why we are making them.

    At the risk of sounding cliche, I will point out that every new day is a gift from God. I say that only to incorporate a passage from James that I have been thinking about a lot lately: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

    As you know, Christian colleges and seminaries in this country are under significant economic pressure. All such schools are making necessary fiscal and staffing adjustments in order to operate with prudence while maintaining their commitment to quality Christian education. As one of the oldest institutions of theological education in the country, however, change here at Erskine can be particularly difficult.

    While our endowment remains strong, ensuring our existence for many, many years to come, we face financial challenges similar to those facing our sister schools and institutions. Like them, we seek to balance responsible Christian stewardship and our commitment to quality Christian education.

    In keeping with recommendations from our accrediting bodies, we have been making a number of structural and staff changes in both the College and the Seminary in an effort to streamline administrative services. All full-time administrators (Admissions, Registrar, Financial Aid, etc.) are being relocated to Belk Hall. Drs. Steve Lowe and Robert Bell are returning full-time to the seminary classroom. The academic head of the seminary will be the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs. This is a new position that we are in the process of filling. In the meantime, Dr. Brad Christie (Interim Vice President and Dean of the College), who himself is a graduate of Erskine Seminary, will handle all academic matters. All faculty will remain in Bowie, although a few will be relocating their offices. The information board in the main entryway of the seminary will be updated accordingly.

    We are seeking to provide better services with fewer staff. We are also seeking to optimize course offerings in light of what we learned this past spring. This work is not always easy to do, but we prize the ministry of the Seminary and all whom God has called to this place in His Kingdom. The long-term financial stability of the organization, therefore, is something we must take very seriously.

    Change is almost always hard, but a radical faith in the sovereignty and goodness of our God gives us a light heart for a life of praise and heavy boots for joyfully walking a straight and decisive path.
    The best years of Erskine College and Seminary lie in the future. I consider it both a privilege and a responsibility to provide each of you with a quality theological education to equip you in serving Christ’s church. This is Erskine’s commitment to you. Thank you for being gracious with us as we refine our plans for most effective service. I look forward to seeing you soon.

    All for Christ!

    David Norman

    Dr. David A. Norman
    President
    Erskine College and Seminary

     
  3. Eric Goodwin says:

    Chuck, what impact does this have on the College?

     
    • Dear Mr. Eric Goodwin,

      Thank you for your comment and question.

      Before I answer your question, what are you thoughts?

      This is not a game. I honestly want to know your thoughts.

      Regards,

      Chuck Wilson
      ARPTalk

       
      • Eric Goodwin says:

        I’m concerned that it will siphon money away from the College. The College is already dealing with financial issues – the increases in tuition over the last decade have certainly highlighted that – it doesn’t seem as if this will help resolve those and will likely exacerbate them.

        I want College money, focus, and energy directed at the excellence of the College. That is why I have always been in favor of greater distance between the two institutions, now we have a merger at the time when Erskine College is struggling to keep its own head above the waters.

         
  4. Dear Mr. Eric Goodwin,

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    Here are a couple of my thoughts:

    1. The endowment of the seminary is somewhere between 6 and 8 million dollars and will disappear into the college endowment if the seminary folds. Those monies were designated for a seminary. Therefore, if the seminary folds and the seminary endowment is absorbed into the college endowment, faith and trust are broken with donors and the ARP Church.

    2. As far as the college is concerned, you might want to ask some questions about the incoming class. My sources tell me there are presently about 160 paid deposits. Of those 160, about 110 are athletes. That’s about 70 percent of the class, and that doesn’t bode well for a high SAT. I don’t think many of those guys will major in the “hard” disciplines; nor does it bode will for a high retention rate. At this point, “the excellence of the College” is not threatened by events regarding the seminary. In my opinion, Erskine has become a “jock college.” Is that what you signed up for?

    Do you have other thoughts?

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    ARPTalk

     
  5. James Curtis says:

    Chuck,

    To clarify, Erskine is not, in any explicit form, calling the Seminary a “Graduate School of Religion,” correct?

    James Curtis

     
    • Jim Curtis,

      With reference to your question: (1) official designation and reality are sometimes different – but as they say about a rose; and (2) according to my article as I have quoted Dr. Norman, the seminary is now the “graduate” school of the college. That is, “Erskine Theological Seminry” is now a “graduate school of religion.” Whether that specific language is going to be used is anybody’s guess. However, I don’t know how that classification can be avoided apart from creative mental gymnastics. I also expect to see the practice of mental gymnastics employed if this restructuring doesn’t fly well. After all, the funding of the ARP Church is crucial to Erskine’s financial life.

      Regards,

      Chuck Wilson
      ARPTalk

       
      • James Curtis says:

        Chuck,

        You misunderstand me. All I’m asking is if Erskine, themselves, have used the language. I am not implying you’re wrong, or that I disagree. I just wanted to know if Erskine was calling it the Erskine GSR to the best of your knowledge.

        Thanks!
        James Curtis

         
        • Dear Mr. Jim Curtis,

          Thanks for the clarification. Let me try again.

          At this point, it seems Dr. Norman is unsure of the language he wants. The
          “restructuring” is still in process. So, the specific language of “GSR” has not been used. However, Dr. Norman’s description of the seminary “restructured” looks like a GSR instead of a traditional seminary. The historical “stand alone” from or “stand beside” Erskine College nature of ETS has disappeared in this “restructuring.”

          Does that help?

          From your reading of Dr. Norman’s description, what does it look like to you?

          Regards,

          Chuck Wilson
          ARPTalk

           
  6. Rhonda says:

    Continuing to pray for the Leadership and students of Erskine College. It is my prayer that they will continue to make changes that point to a Christ centered education filled with students that have a passion for Christ and his will for their life. May they be surrounded by coaches, mentors, professors and professionals that will help them in their daily walk with Christ.

    It is my prayer that Erskine, continue to be a Christ centered institution and that our Lord will give Erskine College supernatural favor in growing HIS church and student enrollment to overflow capacities in the future with blessings that require everyone to stand in awe and acknowledge the changes before their eyes knowing that The Lord blesses those who seek him and his will.

    God bless Erskine, the Leadership, and the beautiful town of Due West S.C.

     
  7. Rhonda says:

    But let all who take refuge in you be glad;

    let them ever sing for joy.

    Spread your protection over them,

    that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

    For surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous;

    you surround them with your favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:11, 12 NIV84)

     

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