Citing an estimated $850,000 shortfall in fiscal year 2012, the board reduced travel expenses, laid off personnel and closed the 21-year-old southern program, which represented about $450,000 of the seminary’s total budget.
“We thought we had already accomplished the major budget adjustments,” said the seminary’s interim president, the Rev. Laird J. Stuart, referring to $1.5 million in cuts made in May 2009. “But as we adjusted the financial model to reflect the realities of enrollment and financial markets, we realized we were still off.”
Plans are being developed to enable the 40 currently enrolled students to complete their education. The seminary equips students for leadership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other Protestant denominations.
“We need to talk to each student to find a solution that will work for them,” Stuart said. “It could mean that they may transfer to another local seminary, or they may come to the north campus. If there is a cost difference, we are required to cover it.”
The San Francisco Seminary intends to pursue online and long-distance learning for theological students.
“As one trustee phrased it, we have no intention of ‘holing up” in San Anselmo,” the site of the seminary’s main campus, Stuart said. “Southern California is such an obvious place for us to be, but so might be Seattle or Reno or Phoenix. This is not an effort to pretend we can be a residential campus in San Anselmo for the foreseeable future.”
Initial reactions ranged from shock to anger. The news came via email to students just minutes before Tuesday night classes at the non-traditional campus in Pasadena.
“I walked into the classroom, and they all knew,” said the Rev. Jack Rogers, one of the founders of the southern campus program and moderator of the 213th PC(USA) General Assembly. “They use their computers, and then all of a sudden they got an e-mail just minutes before the class started. That’s just a very crude way to learn this.”
The Southern California campus reached out to non-traditional seminary students by offering evening and weekend classes which allowed students to stay in place with families and jobs.
Sean Chow, associate pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and a 2009 graduate of the SFTS southern campus program, expressed his appreciation for its diversity.
“We weren’t all progressive or all conservatives. We could argue our theology among ourselves and it helped me to figure out who I am,” he said.
Chow said many alumni are sending each other messages via Facebook trying to verify what had happened and if there was an opportunity to appeal the decision.
“We feel blindsided,” he said.