On August 31st 2013, after only three years Dr. Ronald Peters will officially resign as the eighth president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. To many this may come as a surprise but for those well connected to the institution it only serves as another indication that the venerable theological institution of higher education, affectionately known as “ITC”, is suffering from a serious case of institutional dysfunction. I offer this assessment not as an outsider but as a proud alumnus who has served on the Board of Trustees of the ITC since 2011.
The Recent challenges of the ITC
Longtime readers of this blog will remember an August 06, 2010 post I wrote analyzing the Presidency of the ITC in light of the selection of Dr. Peters as its new leader. In that post I articulated my concern for the state of the ITC and my hope that Dr. Peters’ administration would signal a new era of institutional advance and revitalization. Now some thirty months later, given Dr. Peters’ relatively swift exist from the ITC and the current perilous state of the institution, it appears my concern was well-founded and my hope has been deferred.
In 2009, Dr. Michael Battle resigned as President of the ITC to begin his tenure as US Ambassador to the African Union. Despite several noticeable accomplishments, Battle’s exist was received with joy from some and disappointment from others (read more about the Battle administration in the aforementioned 2010 post). When Dr. Ronald Peters took over the helm of leadership in 2010, the Center was functioning but still faced many looming institutional challenges.
Specifically, the ITC’s aging facilities were in need of serious repair and overdue renovation, several faculty and staff positions needed to be filled, the work of the faculty needed to be affirmed, an abundance of funds needed to be raised, the consortium agreement with the various seminaries that make up the ITC needed to be renegotiated, the financial infrastructure needed to be reframed and the nagging increasing indebtedness of the Morehouse school of Religion needed to be addressed.
Peters’ Response to the Challenges
To his credit, though Dr. Peters was not aware of all these issues before he accepted the position, he did not wither in the face of these challenges. From the onset he fearlessly sought to address many of the issues plaguing the Center in an effort to shape the ITC into the 21st century center of theological excellence that he envisioned. Unfortunately, like many of his predecessors, Dr. Peters did not understand the extent to which his vision would be dependent upon his ability to navigate the treacherous political terrain that is the ITC structure.
Over the course of ITC’s history its structure has been simultaneously lauded and lambasted. On the one hand, the structure has been celebrated as a momentous venture in ecumenism and arguably the most creative enterprise of theological education in the 20th century. On the other hand, the structure has been consistently critiqued for having a Board of Trustees that is too large and intractably divided along partisan denominational lines. These dual realities led one former Board chair to describe the ITC as “a heaven inspired institution whose structure was created in hell.”
In response to the institutional challenge of leading ITC, Dr. Peters chose to take the proverbial bull by the horns and tussle until each institutional obstacle was overcome. This approach resulted in the existing of the chief financial officer (who had become, for better or worse, an institution during her many years of service at ITC), the firing of several other significant staff persons, the hiring of a new presidential cabinet, the restructuring of the financial infrastructure, a proposed multi-million dollar campus renovation project and the dismissal of the Morehouse School of Religion from the theological consortium.
The Context of Peters’ Exit
As one might suspect, these changes were perceived by some to be necessary for progress while others viewed them as assaults to the historic legacy of the ITC. I happen to be among those who favor the progressive viewpoint. Nevertheless, these changes along with the current accreditation warning status and disagreements with certain ITC stakeholders (not least of which the Board Chair) over the use of power and financial protocols etc., created an environment that led President Peters to conclude that his charge at ITC needs to end.
Today, the ITC faces serious financial budget deficits and the threat of losing its accreditation. It's up for debate the extent to which Dr. Peters can be blamed for these challenges and reasonable people will continue to disagree on this subject. In full disclosure, I consider Dr. Ronald Peters to be a respected scholar, senior colleague and friend; and as such I make no claims to objectivity. However, my primary concern in regards to the ITC is that it live on and shine bright to the degree that its latter days become greater than its past. In order for this to become a reality there are a multiplicity of thorny issues that the institution as a whole must address and resolve.
Where Does ITC Go From Here
Obviously, the first issue that needs to be resolved is securing the full accredited status of the institution; if this does not happen the ITC will more than likely die a slow death or become a sad institutional modicum of its former self. Currently the ITC has several capable and committed persons working hard on the Center’s accreditation situation. However, questions surround the current acting President Dr. Edward Wimberly and his ability to administratively oversee the process. Though, Dr. Wimberly
is one of the most beloved, celebrated and highly regarded faculty members in the history of the ITC, some are questioning whether he is the right person to lead the institution during this critical time given his checkered administrative track record as provost. Only time will tell if he will be able to silence his critics by rising to the occasion.
Secondly, the institution must engage in a serious period of self-reflection. This is primarily the responsibility of the Board of Trustees. As Dr. Dan Aleshire, the President of the Association of Theological Schools, asserts in his book Earthen Vessels: hopeful reflections on the work and future of theological schools, “during problematic institutional times boards must do the generative work of identifying the meaning and hopes that give rise to mission.” I offered this challenge at the last board meeting and gladly the Institutional Advancement committee accepted the challenge and is organizing an ITC Summit that will bring together stake holders from among the various institutional constituencies (trustees, faculty, alumni, staff, and students etc.) to discuss the state of ITC and its relevance to the contemporary church.
Thirdly, the ITC must select a President with the requisite knowledge, expertise, experience, vision, diplomatic skill, ecumenical appreciation, scholarly aptitude, fund raising ability and sense of call necessary to lead the ITC into a striving future. This will require that the ITC be clear about its mission and structure, lest it invite another president into a dysfunctional situation. Moreover, it will require that the Board of Trustees address the long standing elephant in the room which is revaluating the role and powers of the denominational seminary executives and their accountability, or lack thereof, to the broader ITC leadership structure.
Lastly, the ITC must develop a realistic budget and a creative fundraising plan. In recent years the Center has not had a realistic budget primarily because those of us charged with raising funds have not lived up to our responsibilities. As a result, the ITC’s most prized elements, namely its stellar faculty and promising students have paid a great price insomuch as the faculty is underpaid and overworked and the students are overtaxed and underserviced.
If the ITC successfully addresses these immediate issues I believe its future will be strong. To be sure, this will depend on those of us in the leadership of ITC embracing the vision of the institution’s second president Oswald Bronson who surmised that the significance of the ITC was seen its ability to invite diverse entities to “walk together as children of God.” Frankly, given all that’s occurred in recent history it’s not apparent whether the ITC, as presently constituted, can inspire all its parts to walk together; but what we know for sure is if we don’t find a way to walk together our beloved ITC will fall apart!
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor