Aug 19, 2016 | Comments 18
Editor’s Note: Below is a copy of an open letter by Dr. RJ Gore to the members of the Erskine board and seminary faculty. This letter is important to the life of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I encourage the reader to read it carefully and prayerfully. The existence of our seminary is at stake. (And, in case someone is interested, Dr. Gore did not forward a copy of his letter to the Editor.)
Additional Editor’s Note: I have received the following email from Dr. RJ Gore:
“Dear Chuck, as I have appealed to the Matthew 18 process in my letter, I am asking you to take down my Open Letter to the Board. I think the Board needs to be given time to meet and to act before this letter is made available to the wider public.”
Of course, at Dr. Gore’s request, I am happy to remove the post from public view in order to prosecute the path he has set. As requested, we will wait and see what the board does.
Second Additional Editor’s Note: As per Dr. Gore’s request, I removed his open letter from public view until after the board’s meeting in order for the members of the board to deal with the matters enumerated. The board met on Thursday, August 25, and, since Dr. Gore’s letter was ignored, I am reposting the letter. Once again, let me make it clear: I did not receive Dr. Gore’s letter from him.
An Open Letter to the Erskine Board of Trustees
15 August 2016
By RJ Gore
I am writing this letter because I believe that the character, the well-being, and perhaps even the existence of Erskine Theological Seminary are seriously threatened under Dr. Paul Kooistra’s leadership. Therefore, I am asking the board to take action to preserve an institution that is vital to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. My main concerns are first that the Seminary has borne a disproportionate share of the burden imposed since the declaration of financial exigency, second that Dr. Kooistra has weakened the Seminary still further by creating a leadership vacuum, and third that he has not strengthened the Seminary’s ties to the ARP Church. At the end of this letter, you will find some suggested remedial actions that I ask the board to prayerfully consider.
After nearly three decades of military service, I am well aware of the significance of challenging “the commander” and of the risks involved in doing so. However, John Calvin’s doctrine of the lesser magistrate seems to me to be applicable: When a ruler is on the wrong track, a lesser magistrate may step in to protect the people and to appeal to an even higher authority. That is my purpose here. And until 1 July when my resignation as Acting Dean became effective, I was the lesser magistrate.
I write reluctantly and in obedience to the teachings of Matthew 18:15–17, which tells Christians how we are to handle personal offenses in the church, and Erskine is an official agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Thus, it seems to me that a Matthew 18-like approach is warranted even though the issues below are much more than matters of personal offense or concern. I have spoken with Dr. Kooistra about many issues in private, behind closed doors. I have spoken with him along with a Seminary colleague about a particular issue in the presence of two members of the Board of Trustees. Now I am “telling it to the church” through this Open Letter to the Board.
At root, the issues I am addressing are not personal issues between Dr. Kooistra and me, or Dr. Kooistra and the Seminary Faculty, though some may try to portray it that way. Certainly personalities are involved, but matters of principle are foremost and have brought us to our current impasse. It may very well be that Dr. Kooistra has done more for the Kingdom of God than I ever will, but that is not the issue. My concern has not been focused on Dr. Kooistra as a person, but, increasingly, on Dr. Kooistra’s leadership of Erskine Theological Seminary.
To be fair, while I believe that the majority, if not all, of the Seminary Faculty would agree that our Seminary’s decline has rapidly increased under Dr. Kooistra’s leadership, the issues threatening the well-being of the Seminary did not begin with his arrival. Therefore, I am providing some historical background to the current tensions.
In the Seminary’s 2001 Self Study for SACS and ATS, long before Dr. Kooistra’s time, you will find these words on page 205:
However, several tensions exist between ETS and EC, as a result of the reality that in many ways, the seminary is an entity unto itself, and yet, at the same time it shares a common board of trustees with the college. College issues are sometimes quite different from seminary issues, and at times, the board seems to be less sensitive to seminary concerns than to college concerns.
The first tension has to do with the allocation of resources. Currently, the seminary is charged approximately 15% for the administrative services it receives from the college. These services include such things as the president’s office, the business office, the bookstore, and the chaplain’s office. This percentage has been questioned for a number of years. Some in the college think that it is too low. Some in the seminary think that it is too high, especially since the seminary in recent years has provided more of its own administrative support. . . .
Related to this is a second tension. The seminary receives 15% of the receipts from the living endowment campaign each year, although the campaign is led by the college administration. The problem with this arrangement is that much money comes to Erskine through undesignated giving, and the seminary gets none of that. . . . Thus it is recommended that the board of trustees carefully address the amount EC charges ETS for its services and the apparent inequality regarding the allocation of undesignated gifts. (Emphasis in original)
A third tension has to do with the role of the seminary committee on the board. As it was originally conceived, this committee was to function as a kind of mini-board for the seminary. In fact, the seminary committee has relatively little power over the decision-making process. Thus it is recommended that the board reconsider the role of the seminary committee in the governance of ETS. (Emphasis in original)
A decade later, the language from the 2012 Self Study (on pages 313-4) is almost identical. In other words, many of our current problems are not new, yet our response, for nearly twenty years, has been just to kick the can further down the road. What may have been aggravations at one point have now become existential threats to the well-being of Erskine Theological Seminary.
Prior to the 2001 Self Study, I wrote the “2000 Statement on Strategic Goals” in collaboration with the Seminary Faculty, which was fully on board with these goals and supportive of the “Erskine Ethos,” which it describes. The Erskine Ethos, which characterized the seminary for years, is defined in terms of our Foundation, our Focus, and our Faculty. In a nutshell, according to the Erskine Ethos, our Faculty seeks to wed first-rate scholarship with a genuine heart for ministry, as they invest themselves in the lives of their students.
The Erskine Ethos characterizes what is best at this Seminary, and I, for one, have always tried to shield and promote it. Now I fear we are perilously close to losing it, as we have endured leaders who “did not know Joseph” and would not put in the time and effort to learn about and appreciate the uniqueness of Erskine Theological Seminary. In the years since these documents were written, neglect by Administration and Board has increasingly impaired the likelihood of the Seminary’s long-term future. You, and you alone, can change the course and bring healing and health for a new day at Erskine. Erskine is not Covenant or Reformed or Westminster. Each of these Seminaries has an honored place in the Reformed and Presbyterian constellation—as does Erskine. Erskine Theological Seminary, with 178 years of service to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, is the only seminary that answers to the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. We are the only seminary whose mission includes preparing a new generation of leaders for the ARP.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
I hope this brief historical review clarifies the context for our current difficulties. While College and Seminary tensions have been around before my arrival (1996), they have been greatly aggravated by a sharp increase in the shared costs apportioned to the Seminary and the disproportionate financial and human resource burdens the Seminary Faculty have borne under the declaration of exigency. Much of this has occurred during Dr. Kooistra’s presidential tenure and has brought about an all-time low morale among the Seminary Faculty. What is at stake is the future of Erskine Theological Seminary and what is left of the Erskine Ethos.
Making Bricks Without Straw
When Dr. Kooistra took the helm of Erskine College and Seminary, I was grateful for God’s provision, as were many others. Faculty optimism that old problems would be dealt with in a positive new way was palpable. We all realized that financial cuts would be necessary, and members of the Seminary Faculty were willing to bear our share of them. In reality, we have sustained far more than our share of cuts. I will cite two examples. One: In Fall 2014, the total dollars that needed to be cut from the overall institutional budget were divided equally between College and Seminary, even though the College budget is more than ten times the size of the Seminary’s. This resulted in vastly larger salary and benefit cuts and a crippling faculty reduction (one-third) in the Seminary. Two: faculty members in the College continue to be paid for teaching overloads, while those in the Seminary are not so compensated, even though we have been forced to take on far more overload obligations.
One effect of the Seminary’s disproportionate financial burden and lack of leadership voice is that our faculty members and staff are disheartened and seriously over-worked. The one-third reduction of the seminary faculty meant that those who remained had to take on a tremendous increase in teaching and advising loads in order to honor commitments made to our students. For example, dissertation advisement once was optional, and not all faculty advised D.Min. students. Currently, our faculty is so small and the D.Min. program so large, that the entire D.Min. program—and thus the seminary—would crash if we did not all step in to help. To put things in perspective, over the last year, the small Faculty I served as Acting Dean carried overloads equivalent to three additional full-time faculty members. The simple fact is that the overloads have been so burdensome the Seminary Faculty are running on fumes.
Over the last two years, the small Faculty I served as Acting Dean has accumulated a total of over $146,000 dollars in overload payments and dissertation advising that has not been paid and according to Dr. Kooistra will not be paid. Remember, that these same faculty members worked in 2015 for a 10% reduction in salary and in 2016 for a 35% reduction in salary, so, the unpaid $146,000 is in addition to salary and retirement reductions already in place. Then, when extra money was found at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, it was not directed towards the Seminary Faculty, who have suffered the most, but spread widely and thinly across the entire institution.
The failure to pay for overloads violates the Erskine Seminary Faculty Handbook, which stipulates what Erskine will pay faculty members for teaching overloads and/or student dissertation or thesis advisement. By SC Law, Erskine is not bound to uphold these obligations because the proper legal jargon is in place at the beginning of the handbook. However, Scripture repeatedly reminds us that Christians are bound to a higher law (see, e.g., 1 Timothy 5:18). We need to do what is right, not just what is legal. To try to address this situation, I forwarded memos on behalf of the faculty, either to Dr. Kooistra directly (2016) or through VP Chris Wisdom (2015). These memos enumerated the amount of money Erskine owes to the Seminary Faculty for work above and beyond their normal workload. Yet nothing has changed, even though members of the College Faculty are paid for overload teaching. This is a gross inequity that takes a further toll on the seminary faculty morale. You can change it!
A Seminary with No Voice or Leadership Presence
In addition to enduring an unjust financial burden, the Seminary has also lost its leadership voice. Since the departure of Vice President Dr. Chris Wisdom last January due to health concerns, the Seminary has been in a leadership free-fall. During the February meeting of the Seminary Committee of the Board, Dr. Kooistra lamented the Seminary’s lack of leadership and of a plan, but it is not clear what he has done to remedy the situation.
Mindful that we were without leadership, the Seminary Faculty met in executive session during the March faculty meeting and voted unanimously to recommend the names of two current members to step in as Acting or Interim Vice President [my name was not one of the two]. I communicated this motion to the President, but to this date he has taken no action on it. Instead, in April he announced that he would serve as Vice President of the Seminary as well as President of the College and Seminary.
If Dr. Kooistra is indeed the Seminary Vice President, and thus our leader, then he has been a leader in absentia. Prior to his April declaration, and with his full approval, an office in Bowie Divinity Hall was set up to enable him to spend time each week interacting with faculty and students at the seminary. However, no faculty member has seen Dr. Kooistra even enter this office. At the February meeting of the Seminary Committee, Dr. Kooistra told members of the Board and others he regularly visited with the Seminary Faculty in their offices to see how they were doing. I had not seen Dr. Kooistra in my office, so the following week I polled the Due West faculty—not a single faculty member had been visited by the President in the previous two months.
There is a reason that the Seminary historically has had its own Vice President to function, essentially, as its CEO: No one individual can oversee well both the College and the Seminary. I do not fault Dr. Kooistra for failing to do what no one could do. The fault lies, rather, in his failure to appoint as Vice President one of the men requested by the Seminary Faculty motion. Either man would have been able to raise the needed funds for his position and would have spent the last six months developing and executing a plan to increase enrollment and giving. Instead, we have had a leadership vacuum at a time when we should have done a full court press to recruit students for 2016-2017. No one has consistently been out in the churches telling our Erskine Seminary story. No one has been consistently raising funds or recruiting students. Is it any wonder then that we find ourselves where we are?
The Seminary Faculty are criticized for not having students in our classrooms and for not having a plan to get them there, but what is the President’s plan? Where, under his direction, has Erskine Seminary advertised—in print, online, or on the air? Where does one go online to find out about Erskine Seminary’s online Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree? Our Seminary staff members have been on the road, doing the best they can, but they too are overworked and underpaid and they do not have the authority of a Vice President to make decisions that would benefit us. They are operating as free agents, making things up and doing the best they can in the absence of a dedicated Seminary Vice President to coordinate strategy and harness needed marketing resources. The seminary is stuck in low gear, the cruise control is engaged, and there is no one behind the wheel.
An Institution-Wide Leadership Problem
It is important to note that I am not the only person criticizing Dr. Kooistra’s leadership. At the institutional level, at least four Vice Presidents plus a significant number of directors, key faculty, and other persons have left employment at Erskine within the last year, which is surely suggestive of a broader problem. One of those Vice Presidents was Dr. Chris Wisdom at the Seminary, who found himself increasingly in conflict with the President during his time of leadership. The resulting stress may well have contributed to the breakdown of his health that led to his resignation.
With Dr. Wisdom’s departure, I became the interface between the Seminary Faculty and Dr. Kooistra, thereby inheriting the conflict. Given my Christian faith, my extensive military and academic training, and my temperament, I have found myself unable to remain silent when behind-the-scenes efforts at resolving problems and inequities have failed, but I have certainly not acted alone. The two faculty petitions that have gone out from my email address this year were signed by all of the full-time Seminary Faculty. The faculty approved those petitions unanimously and expressed the will of the entire Seminary Faculty at that time. The petitions were forwarded via my email address because I was the Acting Dean and represented the Seminary Faculty to the Dr. Kooistra and to the general public.
The first petition was addressed to you, the Board, asking you to facilitate the separation of the Seminary from the College, an issue first raised by Dr. Kooistra. Soon after, then Vice President for Administration Dr. Rob Gustafson suggested to me the Seminary Faculty might want to address the issue of separation. I raised the question during the March Faculty meeting and after discussion, all full-time Seminary Faculty voted to approve the request to separate. One or two faculty members backtracked later after they were pressured; however, at the time of the vote, everyone spoke his mind and voted freely. It is important to note that I spoke with Dr. Debbie Creamer of ATS to verify there was a path forward on accreditation if the Seminary were to separate from the College and/or move to another location. The second petition was to Dr. Kooistra, asking him to revisit issues of compensation for the Seminary Faculty. It was prompted by information from Dr. Gustafson, showing that the Seminary was paying an enormous and unwarranted amount for shared services (information available upon request). Again, all full-time Seminary Faculty signed the petition willingly and without coercion. Both petitions constitute prima facie evidence Dr. Kooistra’s leadership has not been successful at the Seminary.
Communications and ARP Involvement
Further complicating all that has been mentioned are serious communication issues. Dr. Kooistra does not communicate with the Seminary Faculty; he does not accept input from the Seminary Faculty; and he does not seek to relate to the ARP Church, our parent organization.
First, at no time since Vice President Dr. Wisdom resigned has Dr. Kooistra called a meeting with the Seminary Faculty to have an open, honest discussion about the Faculty’s dreams, vision, hopes, etc. Nor has he called a brainstorming meeting with the Faculty to determine what might be done to get our seminary out of the ditch. No time has been allocated during the regularly scheduled faculty meetings for such discussions. The closest we have come to any real discussion, and it is not very close in my estimation, were the individual meetings Dr. Kooistra held in December 2015 to ask faculty members how we might get our numbers up and how we could save money. I have already mentioned Dr. Kooistra’s unused office in Bowie Hall, a silent witness to his ongoing failure to communicate.
Second, the Due West Faculty has not been involved in discussions concerning the future of the Seminary. We are aware that Dr. Kooistra wants to move the Seminary to Columbia, but the Seminary Faculty (with perhaps one or two exceptions) have not been involved in that conversation. Rather, the President has conducted one or more meetings with a small group of like-minded individuals. If the Seminary is moved away from Due West as part of a separation process, then Greenville, where ARP headquarters are located, would be a more appropriate choice. I am certain all of the Due West Faculty would strongly support this move. A strategic planning process should not be done in a huddle, but should be open, transparent—and to be credible—must involve a wide array of stakeholders, especially ARP Seminary Faculty.
Third, key leaders in the ARP denomination have not been involved in these discussions either. In fact, apart from the Alumni Director, there is no ARP representation on the Senior Leadership Team of Erskine College and Theological Seminary. With Dr. Wisdom as Seminary Vice President, I believe we were on the right track in our relations with the ARP Church, but we have been adrift since his resignation. How has Dr. Kooistra sought to build bridges to the ARP Church? How often over the last year has he spoken to ARP Churches to promote Erskine Theological Seminary? How many ARP churches has he even visited? I understand on good authority that he was invited to speak briefly at the Friends of Erskine BBQ at General Synod— and declined that opportunity. Erskine Theological Seminary is The Seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and strengthening that relationship should be among our highest priorities.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
If I have described our current difficulties in some detail, it is because I hope you will help us by taking corrective action. Most of the Seminary Faculty of Erskine Theological Seminary are disheartened at those in the church who do not want to get involved in all of the “Erskine drama.” They may be willing to carry their onerous workload with minimal pay out of love for their students and a desire to keep the Seminary alive, but should they have to carry such a burden? Is financial exigency still necessary? If so, should its effects not be divided more equitably between College and Seminary? Should the Seminary not be represented at the upper level of institutional leadership? Should the Seminary Faculty not have a voice in setting the future course of their institution? Should the ARP Church not be better represented in the leadership and planning of its own Seminary? I will tell you that our accreditors have much to say about proper planning and evaluation, but only you can address these questions to rectify existing problems and inequities.
I would encourage all members of the board NOT to take my word on any of these issues. Please, contact members of the Seminary Faculty, particularly the Due West Faculty. Talk with Dr. Dale Johnson who was recently dismissed from our Faculty. Call former Vice President for Administration Dr. Rob Gustafson and former Vice President of the Seminary Dr. Chris Wisdom. Ask them pointed questions about where the Seminary has been and where we are going. Faculty email addresses are posted online and I will gladly provide the phone numbers and email addresses of those not on the website http://seminary.erskine.edu/academics/faculty/ . And, should anyone have need of further clarification or additional data, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 864.378.7923 (cell).
Here, then, are the remedial steps I ask you to prayerfully consider taking:
- Ultimately, physical and fiscal separation of the College and Seminary
- In the short term, revoke the declaration of financial exigency and require the President and CFO to manage the budget and stay in the black by normal means—by not cutting additional faculty
- Appoint either Dr. Leslie Holmes or Dr. Michael Milton (as per faculty motion) as Acting Executive Vice President, answerable to the board and not to the President
- Give the Acting Executive Vice President full control of seminary finances
- Reduce the 85/15% cost sharing (in place when the seminary had multiple buildings and 220 FTE) to 95/5% (seminary now has one building and 60 FTE)
R. J. Gore Jr., D.Min., Ph.D.
Vice President and Dean of the Seminary 1998-2003
Dean of the Seminary 2003-2006
Associate Dean of Ministry 2006-2010
Acting Dean of the Seminary 2014-2016
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