ARPTalk 122 – Decimation of Erskine Seminary: Interview with Dr. Chris Wisdom, former Erskine Seminary VP
Jan 30, 2016 | Comments 15
The information in this article is based in part on an interview with Dr. Chris Wisdom, who, until a few weeks ago, was the Vice President of Erskine Seminary. Dr. Wisdom’s concerns are twofold: one, the welfare and continuance of Erskine Seminary; two, the telling of his story. All inferences and conclusions in the article are the opinions of the Editor of ARPTalk (and Dr. Wisdom may or may not agree with the Editor). The interview is framed as an article. The story is told as dispassionately as it is possible for one who still loves the grand vision that has been so tenaciously held by many of us in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for a thriving Erskine Seminary: “The resurrection of old Princeton in the South.”
The Oxford Dictionary’s website traces the history of the word “decimation” as “the killing of one in every ten of a group of people as a punishment for the whole group (originally with reference to a mutinous Roman legion).” (1)
One such “mutinous Roman legion” was the Theban Legion, the only known Christian legion. The officers of the Theban Legion, led by a captain named Maurice, roused their troops to refuse the order by Emperor Maximian (285-305 AD) and his colleague Diocletian to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods of war for a victory. Maximian had also ordered the slaughter of the Christian population near Lake Geneva. Under the leadership of Maurice, the members of the legion remained faithful to their baptismal vows to renounce idolatry and the devil. After the first decimation execution was carried out, the soldiers persevered in their faithfulness to Christ. Ultimately, the entire legion was slaughtered by order of the Emperor for their stand against idolatry and murder (2). The Roman Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church each canonized Maurice as a saint, and they recognized the Theban martyrs for their courage (3).
The practice of decimation still lives. Recently, the Muslim terrorist group ISIS ordered execution by decimation when their troops failed to hold the city of Ramadi in Iraq. Being a Muslim terrorist with ISIS is perilous. Death may come not at the hands of the infidels but at the orders of the leaders of the Caliphate.
Institutional decimation is the topic of this article. It is even practiced by people who call themselves Christian leaders. It is even practiced in Due West, South Carolina. Indeed, this article briefly summarizes and chronicles a series of institutional decimations over the last ten years carried out against Erskine Seminary by a college-driven Erskine College & Seminary administration. After 177 years of service to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the wider Christian Church, institutional decimation now threatens the existence of Erskine Seminary.
2010, the Elimination of Erskine Seminary’s Dedicated Senior and Support Administrative Staff.
The first decimation of Erskine Seminary took place in 2010 when the Vice President of Erskine Seminary was relieved of his duties and nearly all of the seminary’s leadership and support staff were either released or realigned to subordinate staff positions at the college. Those who disagreed with this realignment left for other jobs. The Board of Trustees subsequently fired the Erskine President who did this, but no restoration of leadership and support staff was provided to the seminary, and that has greatly crippled the seminary. The 2014 Strategic Information Report of the Association of Theological Schools records the drastic effects of these cuts in the rapid drop in student enrollment that took place that year.
The strategy of decimation has proceeded unabated from that time despite efforts to discern, decry, and derail it. The shattered pieces of the seminary’s administration should have been reassembled in order for Erskine Seminary to function as a seminary. The voices of those who attempted to warn the board and the General Synod of the seminary’s impending “death by a thousand cuts” were ignored.
There has been a long-standing intramural conflict at Erskine among the members of the administration, the board, and the General Synod. This conflict has critically injured Erskine Seminary. The controversy had its most public display in the “Snow” Synod of 2010.
Not so well known, however, is the private meeting of administrators in April 2014, where then-Acting President Brad Christie secured an affirmative vote from the Cabinet for an independent and self-perpetuating Board of Trustees apart from the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was also deemed that Erskine College and Erskine Seminary should be separate institutions. How these things were to be accomplished in the face of board opposition was not made clear. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the then-board Chairman resigned a few weeks later.
Accordingly, Dr. Christie in his role as Senior VP for Erskine Academic Affairs as recently as 2014 affirmed the geographical separation of the college and seminary. Accordingly, Dr. Christie has not necessarily been a friend of the seminary as constituted. In the Editor’s opinion, the seminary’s facilities in Due West are now a target for plundering.
Dr. Christie has overseen what some are calling the confiscation of the seminary’s campus in Due West. He advised that eleven faculty members were not needed at the seminary in Due West. Somehow, he ignored the fact that more than half of those faculty members based in Due West taught at more than one of the seminary’s campuses or extension sites. He also overlooked that, in order to sustain and attract seminary students, a sufficient faculty and staff were necessary. In Dr. Christie’s opinion, the only component of the seminary that is successful and worthy of maintaining is the Erskine Virtual Campus (EVC). In the past, this was the ministry of the seminary in distance-learning; currently, the EVC is in the process of being subsumed for college use (and an explanation is below).
The following represents a summary of Dr. Christie’s options on the seminary. Furthermore, since President Kooistra has not disagreed or reined in his Senior VP, how can this not also represent President Kooistra’s opinion?
- That the Erskine Seminary’s Virtual Campus (EVC) stay in Due West for the benefit of the college, with certain faculty retaining priority as full-time professors. Of course, the programs for the seminary now compete with and become secondary to the college’s needs. That is, the college takes over the EVC in the absence of an Assistant Dean or a Seminary VP.
- That preparations be made to transition the DMin program and the MEDCOM contract to Columbia, perhaps to secure use of the facilities of the VA Center and their CPE program. However, under the present conditions imposed by the Obama administration, permission is highly unlikely. What has not been discussed, is the willingness of the leadership of First Presbyterian Church of Columbia to house the programs. According to sources other than Dr. Wisdom, the financial practices by the administration in Due West have driven a wedge in the Due West-Columbia relationship. The spending down of the fully subscribed DeWitt Chair was not received well by the congregation’s leadership. At least 1.5 million dollars were raised by the congregation for the chair, and that 1.5 million dollars has been reduced to $800,000.
- That the Assistant Dean for the EVC be offered a full-time salary and faculty position. Of course, this was done when Dr. Mary Lowe was offered full-time status, and more will be said about the EVC. At this point, note that the Lowes, who were the masterminds of the program, have left Due West for greener pastures. As one person laughingly quipped (and this was not Dr. Wisdom): “I think they have had enough of the Due West mafia.”
Faculty (2014-2016) — Due West Seminary Faculty Reduced by More Than Half Through Release, Retirement, and Resignation.
When the requirement for cuts was put to the Seminary in the Fall of 2014 to reduce the seminary’s budget by $300,000, the faculty responded by proposing the elimination of three full-time faculty positions and came up with a plan that asked the remaining full-time faculty members to take a voluntary 25% cut in pay in FY 2015-2016 (and, at the end of the day, for some the cut was as deep as 35%). The faculty members, with only one dissenting vote, approved the plan. President Kooistra initially approved the plan but recanted. Thereafter, he (1) imposed a demand for $200,000 in new tuition revenue, (2) eliminated the College Bible Department, (3) released one college Bible professor and transferred one college Bible professor to the seminary, and (4) fired the Dean of the Seminary. The result was a cut of one third of the faculty in Due West. This action demoralized the seminary’s faculty. The cut was also out of proportion to the cuts at the college. An example of the unbalanced nature of the cuts is seen in this: both college and seminary were asked to cut $300,000 (however, the cut for the seminary ballooned to $500,000). For comparison, a $500,000 cut in the college’s budget of about 27 million dollars hurts; a $500,000 cut in the seminary’s budget of about 2 million dollars is decimation-on-steroids.
True to the trajectory described above, the eleven Erskine Seminary faculty members who were on the payroll as of September 2014 at Due West, will, by June 30, 2016, have been reduced by more than half through four dismissals made by presidential decision, attrition by retirement/relocation (Steven Lowe), and relocation and/or resignation (Mary Lowe, and Vice President of the Seminary Chris Wisdom). Only Drs. Evans, Eves, Gore, and Melton remain based in Due West (and now without benefit of direct seminary leadership and with very few support staff). The result is far beyond decimation — a cut of more than half of the seminary’s faculty members based in Due West. As discussed above, this plan seems to follow closely the plan outlined at the April 2014 secret meeting of the administration (and a copy of the minutes of the meeting is not too difficult to obtain.)
These actions have rendered the seminary crippled and ineffective in its ability to attract students. However, despite all this, according to the Association of Theological Schools, Erskine Seminary was still growing slightly in new student applications, admittances, and enrollments in 2013 and 2014. (ATS Strategic Information Report, Erskine Theological Seminary 2014 ‐ 2015, Figure 1-14a, “Applications, Acceptances, and New Enrollments”)
How then did Erskine College & Seminary manage to have its accreditation reaffirmed by SACS after only a year on probation? This is the Editor’s conjecture, but given the pattern described in this article on the decimation of the seminary’s resources, could it be that the financial resources of the seminary have been offered up as the means to balance the institution’s budget by June 30, 2016? (With only one year of an expected two years of probation, one wonders how the accreditation reaffirmation rabbit was pulled out of President Kooistra’s hat?)
President Kooistra announced to the Executive Committee of the board in a November phone conference that he was going to encourage seminary faculty members in his private conversations with them in December 2015 to seek other employment if available. In the face of sharp disagreements, President Kooistra was apparently dissuaded from this course of action. He had to stand down. He has yet to speak with the remaining members of the seminary faculty.
The Third Decimation:
Diminution of Erskine Seminary’s Public Presence as Academically Significant.
In the spring of 2015, for the first time in the history of Erskine Seminary, there was no separate graduation ceremony. The seminary’s graduation ceremony was merged into the college’s graduation. The seminary was treated as an after thought. The Editor must ask: does this portend a future without a seminary?
In the Opening Ceremony this past Fall, for the first time in memory, there was no public presence provided for on the dais for the seminary. Erskine Senior Vice President Brad Christie spoke, the College Chaplain Paul Patrick prayed, and President Kooistra presided and addressed the students. As ever, the Chair of the Seminary Faculty carried the crucifer in the processional and the recessional, but it was a silent “sign of the cross,” because no explanation was given to the incoming students regarding the existence and significance of the seminary in Due West. (It is the Editor’s opinion that this was no oversight. Indeed, this was a pointed barb that was meant to wound. The Editor asks: was it a statement that the seminary is now a non-entity for President Kooistra’s administration?)
In the fall of 2015, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools conducted its follow up focused evaluation visit on October 2, no one from the seminary was invited by the administration to the out-brief with SACS. Thus the seminary had no voice. A SACS representative did contact seminary leaders indirectly. He requested and received an interview with the Seminary VP, Dean, and Faculty Chair. (The Editor asks: knowing who this individual is, one wonders if someone called him and informed him of the snubbing that had taken place?)
The Fourth Decimation:
All Seminary Divinity Halls taken for college use.
McQuiston Divinity Hall, bequeathed by donors for the seminary’s use (hence the title, “Divinity Hall”), was the seminary’s classroom building for decades. Thereafter, it served as dormitory for the seminary’s DMin program and space for some seminary students who were single or needed lodging in Due West. McQuiston was confiscated and converted by the administration in Fall 2015 to be a college freshman men’s dormitory. This was done despite the intent of the donors, and the history of the Divinity Hall, which is enshrined on a plaque that still hangs in the corridor (to the best of the Editor’s knowledge). The Editor asks: was it also done without financial consideration to the seminary?
The seminary’s Bowie Divinity Hall, likewise bequeathed for dedicated seminary use, as of last Fall, became populated with college students taking required general education Bible courses taught by the remaining seminary’s faculty. The faculty was also tasked to teach upper level Bible courses for Bible majors and Christian Education majors. This appropriation by the college of the seminary’s facilities and faculty, creates an insurmountable cost in the seminary’s use of remaining space and faculty skills. This was done without financial recognition to the seminary. This has hindered the seminary’s ability to grow its student body in Due West and other campuses and extension sites. To date, it does not appear that the college has reimbursed the seminary for use of the dedicated facilities. Consequently, the financial goals President Kooistra set for the seminary have not been met but exacerbated. In essence, he crippled the legs of the seminary and then asked the seminary to run. Despite this, the seminary grew in calendar years 2014 and 2015, most notably in its DMin program, centered in Due West.
It is reported that in spite of strong protests from seminary leaders, among the flawed decisions imposed on the seminary by President Kooistra is his demand that the seminary double its net tuition revenue in one year. This means doubling the student body in 2015-2016. How is this to be accomplished with a decimated faculty and support staff and also with minimal assistance from the folks in Belk Hall? President Kooistra’s goal is to grow the college to 700 students. The seminary, with minimal staff, is at the mercy of the college for recruitment assistance. Resources have been commandeered for college use. The Editor’s opinion is that the seminary has been put in a drought and asked to spring up and grow without water. In others words, this is a plan to kill.
In case someone is interested, in accordance with the policy of the Erskine Faculty Handbook and the data in Erskine’s academic management system (CAMS), the remaining Due West seminary faculty members have already taught 68% of their annual student teaching limit in the summer and fall terms, with the winter and spring terms not yet accounted for on the books.
In the Fall of 2015, the Senior VP for Academic Affairs Brad Christie tasked the Erskine Virtual Campus (the seminary’s dedicated distance-learning program) with responsibility for hosting the college’s distance-learning summer school program for 2016. Since 2005-2014, there have been at least two and sometimes three employees running the EVC. There was an Assistant Dean and a Technical Manager until Summer 2015. The college had no online educational program. The EVC had been radically cut back during Dr. Jim Meek’s tenure as the seminary’s Dean, but the staff of the EVC had succeeded by the end of 2015 in re-growing registration.
When the EVC Director resigned last summer in order to pursue another position and the technical manager was promoted, President Kooistra was advised that there was a need to hire a second technical employee for the EVC. The EVC had required two employees to administer it. Presently, with both the college and the seminary using the EVC, there is a need for a separate EVC program for the college. However, at this time, the gap in the EVC’s staff has not been filled (or even advertised).
This further limits and encumbers the seminary’s facilities and staff with college workloads. The effect of this is a reduction in the number of courses that the EVC Director can develop for the seminary. The addition of summer college online courses creates an obstacle that hinders a staff of one person from editing and producing new seminary courses. At this time, at least, two courses have been recorded but not edited and finished for posting due to staff shortages. Obviously, this diminishes the financial success of the seminary in distance learning.
The Fifth Decimation:
The Redirection and Overdraw on the Endowment and its Respective Funds.
One of the reasons SACS placed the Erskine institution on probation in 2014 was financial instability. One reason for this instability was tied to the extent to which the members of the administration had drawn on the endowment at a rate of 10% or higher in order to conduct day-to-day operations for both the college and seminary. A significant portion of the seminary’s endowment in 2005 consisted in faculty chairs bequeathed to the seminary for the appointment of faculty. The recession in 2008 was alleged as the reason for endowment’s decimation. What does that mean? It means that the administration came up short and drew down on the monies given for the chairs. Were these not restricted funds? Did the board give permission for this or was it simply done? Does this explain why there have been board resignations recently due to questions regarding financial practices? Furthermore, have the trustees yet determined exactly what restricted funds at the college and seminary have been redirected to other uses not authorized by the donors? The Editor suspects that the answers to these questions would be surprising indeed to donors in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and beyond!
Institutionally, Erskine has been forced to reduce its draw on the endowment from 10% to 7% to 5 % by SACS. If this had not been done, Erskine was at risk of losing accreditation by SACS. The Editor asks: before intervention by SACS, did anyone on the board or in the administration think this reduction was simply the right thing to do? If so, why did it take SACS forcing Erskine to do what is clearly written in the protocols of SACS?
A second issue is the alleged redirection of funds originally designated by the donor for a particular faculty chair. The latest apparent “smoking gun” is the reported absence of a complete list of donors for the recently re-encumbered James H. Ragsdale Chair for Missions and Evangelism. Responding to a recent comment in response to a request for a list of historic donors to the James Ragsdale Endowed Chair, a member of the Office for Advancement inadvertently remarked that many of the initial gifts towards the Ragsdale Chair did not go into the endowment for the chair. Rather, in order for the administration to have immediate access to operating funds, the Business Office handled those transactions.
What then will happen to the gifts that endow the seminary’s faculty chairs and scholarships if the seminary loses its accreditation and folds? There is only one legal tax accounting entity that comprises the college and seminary: Its legal title is Erskine College, Inc. The monies will go to the college as the successor in trust. (The Editor asks: with the demise of the seminary, is there a plan to use these monies to launch a college football program? Indeed, a football program is on the agenda for the February 4th board meeting. Indeed, if a football program is launched and the proposed 130 athletes are recruited, where will they be housed? Is there a plan to renovate Bowie Divinity Hall into an athletic dorm?)
The Sixth Decimation:
An Apparent Reluctance or Inability to Provide Timely Institutional Support for the ATS Evaluation in March.
In early October, President Kooistra held a meeting of Erskine senior academic and administrative leaders regarding the September 18 letter from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) announcing a focused evaluation visit to determine whether the seminary loses its accreditation for reasons of financial instability. President Kooistra was overheard saying words to the effect that he was quite upset with ATS for “piling on” with a threatened loss of seminary’s accreditation. He was further heard to express the opinion that he had a good mind to let ATS accreditation lapse, rather than go through all the work again that Erskine had done to regain affirmation of accreditation by SACS. The reason given was that he considered ATS accreditation to be of less value than accreditation by SACS. However, if ATS accreditation lapses or the seminary fails to retain ATS accreditation, Erskine College and Seminary’s accreditation with SACS may be in peril again. The accrediting associations work in tandem. President Kooistra and his VPs are playing with fire.
As the story continues, following the meeting about the ATS letter, a committee was appointed for revising the Strategic Plan, framing a viable economic model, and demonstrating progress in student learning using approved measures for academic effectiveness. The seminary and the committee were advised to request a date for a focused evaluation visit on March 7-9 to determine whether the seminary had a viable economic model, strategic plan, and measures of academic effectiveness.
When asked by the committee’s Chair for information in the development of the seminary’s economic model, the Erskine CFO Greg Haselden replied that such an economic model could not come from the Business Office.
(The Editor has to ask: What? That is balderdash. The Business Office is where the bean counters live! Has not the Erskine administration through its CFO effectively handed the seminary its budget as a fait accompli for the last two fiscal years under the board’s financial exigency, which was declared in August, 2014 and during the probation period imposed by SACS in December of 2014? Is this an open attempt to arrange the demise of the seminary by college administrators? How could the CFO not have the information for when he was asked?)
Final Thoughts by the Editor
Will the seminary finally “die the death of a thousand cuts”? To change the metaphor, if the seminary goes over the cliff, it is not necessarily because the seminary failed to maintain its balance, but perhaps because it was pushed to the precipice.
In the end, the question is not whether the seminary survives or dies. The Lord holds the decisions of men in His hand. Nevertheless, the Lord does hold the Associate Reformed Presbyterian General Synod accountable as “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (I Timothy 3:16). The stewardship of the funds given to Erskine Seminary, and the manner in which we have overseen our seminary to train our future church leaders fall to us in the General Synod.
Sadly, in conclusion, one must ask, “Has President Kooistra failed in his stewardship of Erskine Seminary?” Using the words of Harry Truman, the buck stops at President Kooistra’s desk. Honestly, if what is reported in this article is true, have President Kooistra and his senior staff failed the stewardship they were entrusted with by General Synod through Synod’s Erskine board?
Compiled and written by,
Charles W. Wilson
Photo Credit: David Pacey
Filed Under: Newsletter