Flags raised over UUA building sale idea

Today’s new story from UUWorld online (“UUA looking into possible sale of Boston buildings“) raises more questions (and red flags) than it settles. In short, the indebted Hebrew College — whose campus was carved out of the Andover-Newton Theological School campus — is selling its admittedly impressive building. (The first and only time I was at ANTS it was going up.) And remember, Meadville-Lombard, one of the two Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleges, is selling its Chicago campus to Godknowswhom to create a multifaith theological university or somesuch at ANTS, details TBD.  (Let’s leave to one side the irony that Andover was founded to get away from Harvard Unitarians.)

I grant that the UUA’s current cluster of buildings on Beacon Hill are old and difficult for persons with disabilities. But even if all were sold — a politically difficult position, and besides UUA president Peter Morales says there’d be a continuing presence there — the proceeds wouldn’t come close to buying the Hebrew College property, even if their $32 million debt is double the sales price of the property.

So would the idea be that the UUA and Meadville-Lombard share the property? Sounds a bit like a solution looking for a problem.

Would there be a capitol campaign to raise the difference? With service cutbacks so severe it threatens to reshape the Association, not likely. What then?

And here’s the thing that worries me. If ANTS and Meadville-Lombard are serious about creating a multifaith university, you’d think that there wouldn’t be a lot of room available for the better part of a denomination’s administration to move in.

Something doesn’t add up. And there’s a lot of detail missing from the Meadville-Lombard process that would be helpful to understand the motives here.

Comments and thoughts, please.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. The devil and god are both in the details to be sure. And many details are still being worked out.

    Meadville Lombard’s clearly stated intention is to sell its property but remain in Chicago. There is no intention to move across the country to be physically near the other founding member of the as yet unnamed theological university to be rolled out next summer, if plans unfold as scheduled.

    The Meadville Lombard educational model is now designed primarily with distance learners in mind. There are almost no regular courses offered through the regular semesters. Rather, intensive courses are offered in January, with a few also being offered in July and a couple being offered over spring break.

    Additionally, the two required Bible classes are offered only online, taught by adjuncts who (recently and currently) are non-UU liberal Christians with no particular knowledge about what the UUA or UU congregations require a UU minister to know regarding Bible or why it is part of a specifically UU curriculum.

    And the two required (Christian) Church History classes are not taught by Meadville Lombard in any format. Students must take them from other institutions.

    As currently structured, Meadville Lombard needs classroom space only at the few times of year when intensives are scheduled. Owning classrooms means wasting the space most of the year. And with the numbers of residential students waning very quickly, there will in future be no reasonable excuse to own student housing.

    The Theological University is intended to provide all administrative functions for all member seminaries. So, provided that work is done in Andover Newton facilities, Meadville Lombard needs no space for administration. So Meadville Lombard’s continuing Chicago presence needs only space provisions for faculty offices and permanent housing for its library, with limited rental of classroom facilities.

    But the details are to be forthcoming. We know Meadville Lombard is considering a few rental arrangements in Chicago upon the sale of the current buildings.

    It will be interesting to learn what the UUA plans are and what if anything they have to do with Hebrew College…

  2. Sorry, my final sentence should have read: “It will be interesting to learn what the UUA plans are and why they see a benefit to acquiring the Hebrew College building when it was too expensive for HC…”

    And of course, why Newton Centre? If the UUA is moving, why just go down the road a stone’s throw from where they are? Why not move somewhere more centrally located? Like Kansas City… Where is the UU center of population?

  3. I am skeptical of the arrangement which would split headquarter facilities between two locations (Newton Center for UUA staff, Beacon Hill for everything else). If one is going to move operations, then why not move the whole thing to Newton Center? Why awkwardly split operations into 2 locations somewhat distant from one another?

    I also wonder how the move next to the ANTS campus would change the relationship between the denomination and the ANTS/ML partnership (and I think this partnership is going to be more problematic than anybody admits – consider the problems with the Graduate Theological Union). It also troubles me that no additional partners seem to be emerging, and wouldn’t they perhaps want the Hebrew College building?

  4. (1) Selling old buildings with deferred maintenance (I’d bet there is plenty of deferred maintenance in the UUA’s building) in order to move to a relatively new building could be a financially savvy move. Depending on how you do your accounting, the financial advantages might not be immediately obvious.

    (2) Selling old buildings, which many people have lots of memories of, could prove a psychologically stupid move, with the potential for reducing giving from big donors if things weren’t handled just right. On the other hand, if the UUA headquarters weren’t right next to the Massachusetts state house, maybe we’d see a little less Boston-centric attitude.

    (3) Having spent a lot of time on the ANTS campus (lived there two years, have attended lots of events there), it is fairly easy to get to from major highways, and there’s an MBTA station a ten minute walk away. It would be much easier to get to than downtown Boston, with much easier parking.

    (4) Often when a corporation moves its headquarters, the new headquarters winds up being a ten minute drive from the home of the CEO, or from the home of other powerful figures. It would be an interesting exercise to ask which powerful UUs live in Newton Centre, and whether they’re influencing the decision.

  5. Dan, one advantage of downtown Boston, however, is that 25 Beacon is at the center of the public transportation system—and lots of us employees commute to work on all four subway lines and the commuter rail networks that all come downtown. Only one trolley line goes out to Newton Centre, and many of us would still need to commute into the center of Boston in order to get on that trolley.

    A different population of employees—car commuters—would find Newton Centre more convenient, but I wouldn’t.

  6. @ Bill – The word from Meadville Lombard is: “The Transition Team has established a process to address any accreditation matters through the Association of Theological Schools. The discussion with ATS about how to maintain accreditation through the implementation of the new university is deepening, bringing more clarity and detailed planning.”

    Approximate translation into English: “We’re taking care of it.”

  7. @Bill – “(2) Selling old buildings, which many people have lots of memories of, could prove a psychologically stupid move.” The history of the UUA is not one of sentimentality. As soon as a building or property isn’t producing, it goes for sale. Or if we lose interest (see Clara Barton, etc). Someone once said that the reason UUs don’t have many historic markers is because we’ve sold most of the historic buildings.

  8. I would not be very concerned about the issue of accreditation for M/L. Often accreditation issues involve meeting faculty standards, library access, curriculum standards for degrees offered. It appears to me that M/L has usually been pro-active about maintaining those standards, and they appear to be well resources to maintain those standards. I tend to be more worried about accreditation for Starr King because of that institution’s history of being un-accredited (they didn’t get ATS accreditation until the mid-1970’s), and the continued erosion of the number of SKSM faculty. I think they only have 3 non-adjunct faculty members left at this point (following the resignation of their homiletics prof. and the death of another faculty member).

  9. I’m not so optimistic about MLs ability to take care of things Paul. A denomination with a reputation for scholarship without accreditated seminaries. An apparantly cash strapped UUA dissolving districts for their cash flow, and now selling off admittedly white elephant property with the intent to move to ANTS in a move that doesn’t seem well thought out… All sorts of red flags waving for me.

  10. Scott, I invite you and your readers to pay attention to a blog and a newsletter we have been publishing with respect to the prospective new theological university.

    The blog is a project led by the Meadville Lombard Office of Development and Alumni/ae Affairs with close cooperation of the Office of the President. It is found at http://www.mlflash.org. The newsletters are archived on the blog and can be accessed from the top navigation bar or at this direct link: http://www.mlflash.org/new-u-checklist.html. The archives include a topic-by-topic guide with links to the latest news in the archive.

    Issues #1-#4 appear in the archive. Issue #5 is in the works as I write.

    Anyone who would like to be on the list for this newsletter can email me at dtdavidoff@meadville.edu.

    — Doug Davidoff
    Consultant for External Communications

  11. The following is a text of an E-mail I sent to the editor of UU World about the building-sale article and a second article about changes to the board compostion included in the update. I tried to post this to the uu-updates listserv, but it was suggested that sending to the UUWorld editor, or checking for a more-appropriate listserv was a better course of action (the moderator was quite helpful; no hard feelings AT ALL). I am glad to have found this discussion, and offer my thoughts:
    Hi, all!
    I read and was upset by both of these articles; I sent an E-mail message to the Editor about the potential move. Is this the same UUA that is cutting everywhere because of lack of money? Is anyone else worried about the disconnect between the two positions? Selling assets is trouble in the long term, as one has not made forward motion in one’s mission, but spent time on largely irrelevant matters. If we were truly interested in downsizing Boston, why not move the headquarters to Detroit, which is really struggling with a bad economy after the auto-industry debacles of the past few decades, and is more centrally located? Or post-Katrina New Orleans? At least these possibilities would have the advantage of an economic-justice motivation. The advantages of all being in the suburbs of Boston, even near the developing theological school, in one building that would need to be renovated to be useful seem hard to see, at least from my perspective, and especially given the ease of technological communication/document sharing.
    I am REALLY worried about lack of representation with trustees not being accountable to districts; if it is SO important to reduce the number of trustees (I have yet to be convinced), why not cut out at-large delegates? I keep hearing about how GA is so nonrepresentational (I am not convinced of that, either), so why allow GA to elect more than 1 trustee, if any?
    Your friendly UU curmudgeon,
    Sally Jane Gellert
    Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey
    as always, writing for myself alone

  12. The Meadville situation has me fairly depressed. They are downsizing faculty, something that’s not been really highlighted in the newsletters, and relying increasingly on adjuncts to do the teaching. Now, some of the adjuncts are pretty great folks, Bill Schulz and Mark Morrison-Reed, but don’t see them as a replacement for full time faculty. Because of the way we’re treating our seminaries, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Unitarian Universalism essentially dead within two generations. With only a handful of scholars with institutional backing to maintain our tradition and many of our clergy not being taught by people who value it I don’t see how it will be otherwise.

  13. Some more thoughts on this thread.

    1. I am thankful for Paul Oakley, who is an MLTS seminarian, posting word about the latest issue of “New U Checklist,” the e-newsletter from ML about the work toward the new theological university. He got to it before I did. The best link for this new issue, published Dec. 20, 2010, is:

    The archive of all issues, with a topical index, is:

    2. I certainly cannot give Rev. Collin Bossen, MLTS MDiv ’06, the information or assurance he seems to want. Nonetheless, the issue of faculty size and needs for Meadville Lombard within the scope of the prospective new theological university has quite certainly been discussed in the newsletter. How to see it? Go to the archive page I listed above and look in the topical index table for the row labeled “Faculty & Staff.” Granted, the very latest news is not on Rev. Bossen’s point, but on the very same row concerning “Faculty & Staff,” if you click the links for Issue #3 and Issue #2, you’ll see that the matter with which Rev. Bossen is concerned addressed. Those links will take you directly to the places where it was last “really highlighted.” The latest of these says that matters could stretch to the end of December, a point in time we have not yet reached. And if you read in the most recent issue that all sorts of matters in the new university are taking a bit longer than anticipated, you could be led to the conclusion that expecting something at the end of December simply to meet an arbitrary date is not wholly reasonable. But it is reasonable to expect that when a conclusion is reached, it will be addressed publicly. (I write with absolutely and positively no actual knowledge whatsoever concerning what is happening on these matters now because those matters are being handled in private, as is entirely appropriate. But the fact that the matters are in flux is *not* at all private or unspoken — it’s been publicly acknowledged by the leadership of the institution.) I counsel patience …

    3. On the matter of Meadville Lombard’s faculty in general, I’m pretty sure the following claims can be made: Meadville Lombard has the largest permanent faculty of any UU seminary and the largest number of UUs on permanent faculty teaching in any seminary forming significant numbers of UU ministers. Viewed over the last couple of years, there has not been either a great growth in the number of affiliated faculty, nor a great decline in the number of permanent faculty. Perhaps the most notable changes recently have been the retirement of Rev. David Bumbaugh, BD ’64, (resulting in a loss to the permanent faculty) and the addition of Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, MDiv ’04, (resulting in a gain to the affiliated faculty). Members of Meadville Lombard’s affiliated faculty are well-known and senior UU leaders whose qualifications to teach in seminary are rather unimpeachable. Moreover, I’d contend that affiliated faculty enjoy “institutional backing,” a benefit whose enjoyment is not limited to permanent faculty.

    4. Rev. Bossen’s concern for the future vibrancy and vitality of Unitarian Universalism is certainly expressive of a fear and a concern we all hear from people throughout our faith community, a relatively small community that has been plagued with fears of inconsequence and stagnation throughout the nearly 50 years since merger and even before. But if looking at numbers is one way to judge things (the hard-nosed “let’s see where the needle is pointing” approach), then an important needle at Meadville Lombard is pointing upward. ML has had two record-sized entering classes, and they are filled with exciting, vital aspiring ministers. The new curriculum is taking approaches filled with innovative change to produce UU professional religious leaders skilled at navigating the complex world of the America we expect at mid-century. Good stuff, but admittedly just one needle among many needles pointing in many directions; the enrollment needle is not in and of itself a panacea for problems that nag at ail us all who love Unitarian Universalism. It’s just a bold step in what we (and growing numbers of others) think is one right direction.

    — Douglass T. Davidoff, dtdavidoff@meadville.edu
    Consultant for External Communications, Meadville Lombard Theological School
    Development blog: mlflash.org / Development Twitter feed: @MLtheo
    Website: http://www.meadville.edu

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