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BTSR considers merger with Chowan
Norman Jameson and Robert Dilday, Associated Baptist Press
March 03, 2011
4 MIN READ TIME

BTSR considers merger with Chowan

BTSR considers merger with Chowan
Norman Jameson and Robert Dilday, Associated Baptist Press
March 03, 2011

MURFREESBORO — Cash-strapped Baptist Theological Seminary at

Richmond (BTSR) is considering a merger with Chowan University, a 162-year-old

North Carolina Baptist school 99 miles south of the seminary’s Richmond, Va.,

campus, in hopes of solving lingering financial problems made worse by a bad

economy.

Chris White, president of Chowan University, said a subcommittee of Chowan’s

board of trustees is “doing due diligence” investigating the possibility of a

merger with BTSR, which he said is in “serious financial difficulty.”

BTSR’s trustees meet March 21-22, a date when White anticipates either a formal

request to or a decision from BTSR not to request merger. Chowan’s next

regularly scheduled board meeting is April 7. White said a decision can be made

that day because due diligence will be completed.

Ron Crawford, president of the Richmond seminary, didn’t confirm or deny the

report. But since last fall, he said, a trustee committee has been exploring a

variety of options to secure the school’s future.

“Last October our trustees looked hard at our business plan

in light of our future,” he said. “They asked a committee to study possibilities

and make a recommendation at the March meeting of the full board of trustees.”

Crawford said those possibilities include “partnering” with

other institutions, but added, “We’re still in the process of seeing what the

best options are. It’s a little premature to say we have focused on one option

and that’s the only one we’re looking at.”

“We have a very fine and very financially healthy

university,” said White, age 67 and president of Chowan for eight years. He

said BTSR is financially “a very sick seminary and we must make sure we don’t

hurt the mother by taking on the baby.”

White said BTSR is $7 million in debt, a figure confirmed by the seminary’s

finance office. Most of the debt was incurred in the purchase and renovation of

BTSR’s campus, which originally housed the Presbyterian School of Christian

Education, now affiliated with Union Theological Seminary.

Money, however, isn’t the only consideration in initiating

discussions, said Crawford.

“We’ve not been brought to this conversation solely by financial

considerations, though everyone knows these are hard economic times,” he said. “In

our 20th anniversary celebrations this year, our trustees looked at what it

would take to make this institution thrive for the next 20 years. That includes

the financial side, of course, but it also includes the overall approach to our

task. Many considerations are wrapped up together.”

Even though “the big elephant in the room is money,” White said, the financial

picture is just one element of difficulty in merging two schools. White

said it might be difficult to merge the two cultures of an old, rural

university and a young, metro divinity school, even though “we are of like mind

theologically.”

BTSR receives significant funding from both the Cooperative

Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. It’s not

clear how or if a merger would affect those revenue streams.

Currently, BTSR is one of only two theologically moderate seminaries not

affiliated with a university. That has not proven to be an advantage to date,

and White said it would be important for BTSR supporters “to realize this is in

BTSR’s best interest.”

White, who was president of Gardner-Webb University from

1986 to 2002, has led a turnaround at Chowan that has produced record

enrollments and income. The 1,100-student school that once was in jeopardy

itself is now in a position to consider absorbing an institution in similar

jeopardy.

He said he “used a lot of what BTSR did as a model” when he led Gardner-Webb to

form its divinity school in 1993. Gardner-Webb trustees then named the school

for him — the M. Christopher White School of Divinity.

Chowan is just 10 miles from Virginia and historically receives a large

percentage of its students from Virginia, particularly the Hampton Roads and

Richmond areas. “We would love to have a foothold” in Virginia, particularly

the metro area of Richmond, White acknowledged.

In 2008 BTSR downsized its faculty and staff by seven due to

lack of funds. Last year BTSR suspended a continuing-education program, also in

part to save money.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Jameson is reporting and coordinating

special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North

Carolina Biblical Recorder. Dilday is managing editor of the Religious Herald.)