When I think about the year 1983 I think of Vanessa Lynn Williams becoming the first African-American to be crowned Miss America, President Ronald Reagan signing a bill creating a federal holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Jesse Jackson announcing his candidacy for the 1984 Democratic Party presidential nomination and the late great Michael Jackson giving arguably the most memorable performance of his career during a taping of a Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special where he dazzled 46 million viewers with his legendary moon walk while performing his now classic Billie Jean.
In addition to these major cultural events, when I think of 1983 I also think of many lesser known events, such as June 1, 1983 because it was the day I was born (obviously important to me) and I think (because I'm a pround alumni) of the election of Rev. James H. Costen as the President of the Interdenominational Theological Center(also known as ITC) in Atlanta .
The Formation of ITC and the Legacy of James Costen
Possibly many readers of this article have never heard the names James Costen or ITC, especially if they have not been exposed nor have any connection to black theological education in the US for last 25 plus years. Nonetheless, both Costen and ITC are heralded as significant institutions to the recent academic development of Black religious/theological studies.
In 1958, the Interdenominational Theological Center was chartered forming one of the most momentous ventures in the history of theological education in America. In this venture the Morehouse School of Religion(Baptist), Gammon Theological Seminary(United Methodist), Turner Theological Seminary(African Methodist Episcopal), and Phillips School of Theology(Christian Methodist Episcopal) partnered their institutions together to form one graduate school theological consortium. Eventually, the Johnson C. Smith Seminary(Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) and Charles H. Mason Seminary(Church of God In Christ) would join the venture establishing ITC as one of the most diverse and ecumenical Christian theological centers in the nation.
Twenty-five years after its inception ITC’s board of trustees elected a Presbyterian minister and seminary dean to become the institution’s fifth president, that individual was the Rev. James L. Costen. Under Costen’s administration ITC bolstered its reputation and established itself as one of the world’s premiere theological institutions for black church studies and liberating spirituality. In addition, during Costen’s 14 year tenure ITC's enrollment grew from 175 students to about 400, and its annual budget shot up from about $1.7 million to almost $6 million.
Institutional Troubles and the President Battle era
Since Costen’s retirement in 1998, the school has gone through multiple leadership transitions. In 1999, the renowned social ethicist and current President of Morehouse College Robert Michael Franklin
became President of ITC and served until 2002 before leaving for Emory University. The next two years (2002-2004) will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most difficult seasons in ITC’s history as the institution found itself in danger of losing its full academic standing and validation.
When Rev. Dr. Michael Battle
arrived on ITC’s campus as the newly elected leader in August 2003, he immediately began addressing the most pressing issues facing the institution; among them the seminary’s pending probationary accreditation status with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). According to Battle, “SACS offered a year to make things right and we fulfilled the task and were reinstated within six months.”
After stirring clear of academic catastrophe, Dr. Battle focused his attention on cultivating an administrative team that was well-versed in accreditation policies and procedures. According to ITC officials the institution continues to operate with a very secure adherence to the standards of both SACS and the Association of Theological Schools in preparation for its next review as a result of Battle’s leadership.
In 2009, the nation’s first African American President Barack Obama selected Dr. Michael Battle to be the Ambassador to the African Union. After being elected and confirmed Battle announced his intention to leave ITC after having served six years as its president.
Battle’s Legacy and ITC’s Theological Integrity in Question
Battle’s resignation was received with a diversity of emotions and opinions. Some ITC board members and employees expressed ambivalent congratulations to Battle stating that he would be missed greatly. They expressed that Battle had accomplished several significant feats including leaving a "green footprint" with the school's TheoEcology program, helping to initiate Distance Learning courses and leading business and community partnerships to help make continued leadership progress at the seminary.
Battle’s critics applauded his departure, categorizing President Obama's selection as a blessing in disguise for ITC. Interestingly, one ITC faculty member (who will remain unnamed) commented that “Obama’s appointment of Battle as Ambassador to the African Union showed that Obama doesn’t give a shit about Africans.” This faculty member’s comment demonstrates the degree of dissatisfaction that certain professors and critics felt about Battle’s tenure.
Critics of Battle’s leadership suggest that though he accomplished certain administrative goals, the scholarship and academic legacy of ITC suffered under his watch. They argue that Battle’s administration was often dismissive and unsupportive of attempts (by faculty and students) to uphold a certain standard of theological integrity and history.
Evidence of this division was clearly seen in 2006 when the graduating class invited Bishop Eddie Long (Pastor, New Birth Cathedral in Lithonia, GA)
to be its commencement speaker. The news of Long’s selection as speaker prompted 33 graduating seniors to send a letter to Battle questioning Long's theological and ethical integrity and a 29-year member of ITC's board of trustees Bishop John Hurst Adamsto boycott the ceremony. It also led the legendary theologian James Hal Cone
of Union Theological Seminary in New York to refuse to attend the ceremony (where he was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate). Cone stated that he “didn’t want to receive a doctorate from a school that would have Long as its speaker because he didn’t want to appear to support or condone Long’s ministry.” In response to Cone’s decline and charges of institutional embarrassment Battle stated “Jim’s refusal to come does not detract from Bishop Long's ministry or message, and Jim's coming would not enhance his ministry or mission."
Many viewed Battle’s support of Long as further evidence of his disrespect for the tradition of liberation theology and progressive religion that characterizes much (but not all) of ITC’s institutional heritage. In fact, in a paper Battle presented titled “The Challenge of Historically Black Institutions in Light of the Task of Theological Education” he implied theological education that is only critical, intellectual, and deconstructing is antithetical to the cause of Christ. He went on to suggest that “the future of theological institutions depends on their ability to make themselves necessary to local churches by producing leaders who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” In response to Battle’s presentation certain ITC professors and students stated they saw Battle’s public comments as an affront to their work and scholarship.
The Election Dr. Ron Peters and the Challenge Ahead
This ideological war of method and mission will be the battle ground that ITC’s newly elected President Rev. Dr. Ron Peters
will enter this fall. Dr. Peters has served for nearly 20 years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in various capacities as a professor and administrator. Early predictions are that Peters will do well in his new post. Like James Costen he is a trained Presbyterian minister who understands the value of theological institutions to the practice of ministry and he brings decades of relationship building between church and academy. Also, he is a published scholar who is committed to the advancement of theological thinking and dialogue which will hopefully help renew the bond between faculty and administration. Other good signs are that Peters’ scholarly interests in ministerial leadership in urban contexts and africentric ministry practice should jive well with ITC’s curriculum and pedagogical focus. In fact, in 2005, Peters edited with Marsha Snulligan Haney (ITC Professor of Missiology), a book entitled Africentric Approaches to Christian Ministry.
To be sure, Peters’ job will not be easy. Leading any theological institution of significance in this current time is no walk in the park. In the 1980’s Professor Cornel West
categorized the crisis in theological education as a crisis of mission concerning “what it means to be a Christian minister in our time.” On a similar note Dr. Robert Franklin characterized the crisis in the African American institutional church as a “crisis of mission” in his 2007 book Crisis In The Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities. Insomuch as these scholars are correct in their assessment of contemporary theological education and ministry Dr. Peters will have his hands full leading ITC. And whether he tackles this challenge by erring on the side of administrative expediency or whether he courageously chooses to pioneer new innovative ways forward that embrace administrative excellence and exemplar progressive scholarship will largely determine his success or failure.
Whatever the outcome, I’m sure the ITC board is hoping that the election of another Presbyterian will be bring the same favor it brought in the Costen era, but only time will tell.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.