Reflections from President R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
April 29, 2022

Week of Easter 2

Dear ULS Community:

As the restrictions of movement and contact we have all imposed upon ourselves in the pandemic begin to lessen, I am having a whole new wave of ULS experiences: cheerful gatherings to eat and drink and have fellowship; meetings face-to-face; just hanging out in the hall with a colleague or a student. It’s such a strange feeling to be just now “feeling at home” with people I have been communicating with for almost two years now, and to be able to look into the eyes of many whom I have only seen on the Zoom screen.

This week we celebrated the first in-person ULS Spring Convocation since the pandemic, and welcomed what seemed to me a surprisingly large number of ULS alumni to our Gettysburg campus for a couple of days of fellowship and learning. It was such a good feeling, and the spirit of the gathering was joyful, and I learned a great deal from the (other) speakers in our program. In the midst of all that joy in gathering together, I realized that I had been inhabiting my place in the Seminary sort of like a host sitting in an empty house, waiting for the guests to finally arrive. What a joy that they now have come!

Between now and Commencement on May 20 we will also have our second in-person Board of Trustees meeting on the Philadelphia campus. I’m also looking forward to that, because those meetings are productive and encouraging. As the life of the Seminary becomes more normal—as you know, the pandemic has not been the only thing we’ve had to contend with in recent years—I am happy that the Board’s work, too, is settling back into normal parameters of high-level, mission-focused oversight.

Though we have the routine financial and fiduciary work to do together, in the next Board meeting we will begin a strategic planning process for the next five or so years of the Seminary’s life. Along with that will be a gradual rebuilding of the Board of Trustees itself, as many of its most faithful members will be reaching their term limits. We can always count on them as supporters, but the normal turnover of persons encourages us to bring new voices and perspectives to the table—and that is what we intend to do.

It's not exactly “news,” (because it’s been going on a long time and is not completely, formally over) but the second of our reaccreditation processes is now nearing its end, and we can see already what it will look like: the Middle States Commission on Higher Education made a virtual “site visit” to ULS a few days ago and has now shared with us its draft report. Most of us who work in academics are here because we were once really “good” students and liked school, so I think we view with anxiety the occasional “report cards” of the kind our accreditors give us every few years. But we needn’t have worried: like good examiners, they were able to find a couple of areas that need attention; like good teachers, they help us see the path to improvement—and overall, we did quite well.

The areas we will work on for the next few years (until the process begins again) are in the areas of assessment and finance. I’ll say more about assessment in a moment. Our financial challenges are straightforward: we need to identify more sources of unrestricted income for our operations, in order to establish a completely sustainable balance of income and outlay. But on the whole we are stable and have what we need to do our work. The generosity of those individuals and congregations and synods that support us financially from year to year is strong and faithful and can even grow.

Our endowment is more than double what it was only a few years ago when ULS was consolidated, and it continues to increase both by new giving and market growth. Among seminaries, we can count ourselves as one of the lucky few in that regard. But we need more income (including endowment income) that is not restricted to a specific purpose, but more generally for ongoing use—it is our historic campuses and their upkeep that is my ongoing concern.

This is—as I have said before—NOT a matter of simply deciding we have one more campus than we really need. I believe both in Philadelphia and in Gettysburg we have precious and irreplaceable benefit from our historic and beautiful campuses. But we need to ask ourselves every year how well we are using them, and whether we can use them more efficiently, perhaps even finding alternate uses for the parts we no longer need for Seminary operations. Perhaps our footprint needs to shrink, but now our generally good financial situation allows us to decide that based not on dire need to economize, but in a thoughtful and gradual way that allows us to commit more deeply to the parts of the campuses we do plan to continue to use. We simply have more space than we need, and it seems wasteful not to have ways to have some good from all of it.

In the other area the accreditors urge us to improve, our assessment processes, I’m afraid anyone who is not a higher ed professional may not have much interest in the details. But “assessment” has become one of the staple realities of educational life, and it means the systems of data collection and review that help us know that our courses fulfill the promises they make to teach our students, our degree programs do what they are intended to do, and that we have ongoing ways of collecting and analyzing information that shows us that—and then use what we learn toward ongoing improvement—in the classroom, in our programs, for the benefit of our students.

This work of assessment is such a big task that everyone has a role to play, and we have staff who work to help us with this. Our accreditors acknowledge that we know what we are doing, and we do the largest part of it (the assessment of course outcomes) really well, but we need to establish better feedback loops into our higher-level, program assessment. I think that this, too, is a product of our being a “young” institution that is still figuring itself out. Between our response to the accreditors, and our new strategic planning process, much will become clearer in the coming year.

That’s a bit more technical that might be interesting to many of you, but it is important to us as we strive to meet all the standards set by our peers for the work we do as a seminary. We also strive to meet the Church’s needs—and not just the ELCA, but all the churches that our students are preparing to serve. We don’t have an outside accreditor to tell us how we are doing with that—instead we have relationships with the denominational and synod candidacy committees that provide us a sense of how well we’re doing our job of producing mature, able, faithful ministers for service to church and society.

Right now, I am fully caught up in the excitement and joy of another academic year coming to a close. As I sat at my desk last week and signed all the diplomas in anticipation of Commencement, I prayed for each of our graduating students (even the ones whose names I only barely recognized) that they might in their future work be successful, happy, and clear in their calling to serve God and their neighbor in whatever they do. It will be a further joy to hand those diplomas to the graduates in just a few weeks.

You will hear from me again before that, and probably once again afterwards, but I plan to take a brief hiatus from “reflecting” during the summer. I have some longer-range projects I’d like to work on while our campuses are quieter during the summer. I’ll tell you about those another time. In the meanwhile, enjoy the spring, and get outdoors as much as you can in these increasingly pleasant days.

May God fill you will all joy and hope in the Easter promise of new life!

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies

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