BY HOLLY MCCRAY
Saint Paul School of Theology must address issues that caused the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) to change the United Methodist seminary’s status to "Accredited – on Probation."
The sanction took effect Feb. 23, and probation will not extend beyond two years, according to the HLC Public Disclosure report. The seminary remains accredited while on probation.
During that time, the school can seek to remedy the issues in four areas cited by the HLC: resources, governance and administrative structure, strategic planning, and systematic improvement.
"Saint Paul intends to re-establish full accreditation," President Neil Blair told United Methodist News Service (UMNS).
During that process, he said, "academic programs will function seamlessly. On a day-to-day basis, students will see no change in campus life because the accreditation issues are not primarily about student learning and programs."
One of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the nation, Saint Paul operates on two campuses, at Oklahoma City University and at UM Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, Kansas.
Among 30 students expected to receive degrees this spring are 13 in Oklahoma — the largest graduating class for Saint Paul at OCU since it was established in 2008.
The seminary is in good standing with a second accreditation agency, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), and is approved by the University Senate of The United Methodist Church.
In a March letter, President Blair expressed disappointment with the sanction but also noted that Saint Paul "is embracing this opportunity to better realize our mission and emerge a stronger seminary."
He said, "We invite you to be present with us in this process. You can support the seminary by recommending prospective students, donating financial gifts, and through prayer."
Blair is the seminary’s fourth president since 2013; he was named to the post last year. A high rate of staff turnover was among concerns identified by the HLC board. Blair noted illness forced several presidents into early retirement.
Another concern is declining enrollment.
In 2013, Saint Paul’s brick-and-mortar campus in Kansas City, Mo., was closed and the school relocated to Church of the Resurrection for financial reasons. Enrollment was 169 at that time, according to UMNS.
Students totaled 154 during the 2015-16 academic year. Total enrollment is 140 this year.
A concern for declining enrollment is also faced by other seminaries, Blair told UMNS.
Saint Paul’s response to that challenge already includes:
• a new doctoral program in partnership with the Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation;
• "3+3" programs (accelerated degree programs) with OCU and with Kansas Wesleyan University; and
• training for deaconess and home missioner candidates in partnership with United Methodist Women.
Twenty students participated in the deaconess/home missioner training last summer, and 20 are expected in the three courses set for Summer 2017, seminary officials said.
Concern for financial stability also was highlighted by the accrediting agency.
Saint Paul’s endowment is about $30 million, according to Barney Barry, chief financial officer. He also said the usage costs are below-market for space at both OCU and Church of the Resurrection.
The seminary leadership team plans to provide regular updates on steps toward restoring full accreditation. You can access the document "Saint Paul Accreditation and Future-Building" at www.spst.edu/accreditation