January 29, 2021
Dear ULS Community:
It was a very busy week! Many regular and long-planned events came together in a short span of days, and I’ll admit to being a bit tired on account of all of it. We started with the normal January faculty meeting on Monday, followed by the ULS Board of Trustee’s executive committee meeting; then the full ULS Board meeting all day Tuesday, with their attendant committee meetings. Then the following day the semester formally began, with worship and (for me) a Cabinet debrief of the board meeting. Thursday and Friday have been times to catch up on the normal week-to-week work that got pushed out of the first part of the week. I love being busy, but this week was a little more than I enjoy, and I look forward to getting a little extra sleep this weekend.
This is not a formal report on the Board meeting—which I don’t normally do anyway—but I would like to reflect on the Seminary’s position from a 30,000 foot perspective for a moment. We are in generally good shape in all the material ways such things are normally measured: the endowment continues to grow at an encouraging rate, though we are cautious in our investment strategy; giving is steady and our donors remain faithful and generous, even in challenging times; and our enrollment is strong and stable. We have weathered the pandemic with only moderate and predictable loss in income, and some savings on the expense side because of not being able to do some things we would normally do. We have been able to retain all our staff at current levels, so that no one has had to fear a loss of employment. We have been helped (as most non-profits have) by the programs put in place by the Federal government to assist us. We are OK.
But of course there are long-term challenges to wrestle with that are not at all unique to ULS: the cost of maintaining aging facilities and carrying out necessary maintenance; the decline in the number of people desiring (or able to undertake) the kind of traditional full-time, residential degree studies that seminaries like ours have long made our specialty, and some likely reduction in institutional support from the church side, as denominational, synodical, and congregational resources shrink. The world is changing, and we have long known that we must change with it. But we are also committed to fulfilling our mission to prepare leaders for service in the church and the world, and to lifting up the gospel message of God’s inclusive, justice-bringing love of all.
That’s the best part of board meetings for me: to see our trustees—all of them volunteers giving their time and concentrated attention (and often considerable personal financial support) to an institution they value—and to renew in them the enthusiasm for our mission, our people, and our programs that led them to become trustees in the first place. We have complex structures that relate to our complicated origins as a denominational seminary with significant ecumenical commitment, and as the consolidation of two older traditions that were in many ways different. But increasingly, we are “United” both with a capital “U” and a lower-case one: united also in our sense of being one institution moving forward together. I rejoice in that, and in the joy and dedication our board and volunteers bring to our common work.
What is on my mind most these days is how we will come out of the pandemic into more “normal” ways of working, without assuming that everything we have learned during the pandemic will suddenly change back completely to the “status quo ante.” Because of our experience with digital and hybrid ways of teaching and learning, ULS was in a better situation than most schools to go into an “all-distributed-learning” mode when the pandemic began. Now, coming out of it, what have we learned? This question will occupy us, both from the academic side and the administrative, for some time.
We do know, as was announced earlier to students, faculty and staff, that we will continue with all online courses and events through the spring semester and into the summer. Unfortunately it is unlikely that there will have been enough progress in the vaccination status of the nation to make it safe to gather until the fall, so Commencement this year will be virtual again. Since we have more experience and lead time than we did last year, we hope to make it as nice an experience as we can, and both for 2020 and 2021 graduates, we will have some in-person celebration when it becomes safe to do so. Likewise, we are pushing back to fall of 2021 (maybe around Reformation Day or the Luther Colloquy) any ceremonial observance of my taking office as the seminary president. We will have time to celebrate all these good things when it is safe to do so, and I anticipate we will have a strong hunger for some happy times together.
On the equally important community life side, what have we learned? ULS community life is not just about the experience of residential students, but the building of community among populations separated by distance: two campuses two hours apart and a large (and growing) non-residential student body. Restoring patterns of togetherness among the small residential groups is not difficult, and they have retained some of that even in lockdown and quarantine—but how do we use what we have learned to strengthen our communal experience beyond residential life?
I remain committed to residential seminary life (as does the board) but we have to be realistic about its costs and willing to take a look at our aging residential facilities. A recent bequest will give us what we need to make the most urgent repairs and catch up on some neglected maintenance on both campuses, and will help us do some planning for the future. The board understands as I do that if we are going to house people we have to do it safely and comfortably, and I believe that we can do that better.Doing housing better will not reverse the trend of students wanting to study at a distance, but the housing we have should be the kind students want. And we should be able to be proud of what we offer. Part of the short-term plan is to make an assessment of some of the Gettysburg campus housing in the next week while our Director of Operations is on that campus interviewing candidates for Gettysburg manager of campus maintenance—a position we hope to be able to fill quickly.
We also continue to think of longer-term ways that ULS can use our rich assets in space and buildings to sustain our mission. By bringing in new income and working to achieve greater efficiency in the use of existing structures, we can keep our campus useful and beautiful, especially in regard to the historic buildings we are obligated to preserve. But I am also concerned not to take unnecessary financial risks, or to indebt the seminary beyond its current significant indebtedness. We are happy to have a strong working relationship with our immediate neighbors both in Mt. Airy and Gettysburg, and want to preserve that and be a good neighbor to them. All these considerations make the conversation about what to do a complex one, but we will continue to have it, including all parts of the community in the process in appropriate ways, and—I hope—preventing surprises of any kind for anyone. Right now there are no concrete development plans in place for either campus, partly because we are still in the phase of figuring out what makes sense financially, but also because we need to do some more long-term planning about potential future need.
Right now, we are caught up in preparing for the virtual “campus visits” of our accreditors, the Association of Theological Schools and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The preliminary work is done, thanks to the hard work of a very able group of colleagues, and the Board of Trustees has signed off on the “self-study” report we were expected to provide. Now we wait for the questions and review of the visiting committee. I am looking forward to this process—we have learned a lot and I appreciate the reasonably good place we’re in—but I will also be happy when it’s over in a few weeks. There are some longer-range thinking it is hard to do while this is the center of our focus.
All in all, United Lutheran Seminary is in as good a place right now as we could be, considering the pandemic. Our amazingly resilient faculty and students are keeping at the work of teaching and learning, and though it has been exhausting for everyone, I think we can be proud to have kept things together quite well. But we’re all running out of gas a bit, and this semester will be a slog. I hope the light at the end of the tunnel intensifies sufficiently by the end of this semester that we will be able to predict an end to our time of separation by then, even if that target is still some months away. Until then, we have to be patient with ourselves and each other while the frustrations and limitations linger.
I have a good feeling about the months ahead. I see progress in many things, great and small, from our anti-racism work, to questions of staffing, campus space use, and financial health, to our community life—all of these ways to live more authentically into our Seminary’s mission. I see Lent as a chance for us to deepen our collective commitment to worship, and I am taking part in a set of daily prayer services the ULS faculty is offering in those days.
I ask God’s blessing on all of us: for strength and patience, for safety and health, for consolation in our losses, and for hope for tomorrow and every day thereafter.
May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary