The Future of Tenure at EDS: A Conversation with The Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale and The Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski

On April 8, 2014, the Episcopal Divinity School Board of Trustees and President and Dean The Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale announced a temporary hold on all tenure-track faculty appointments at EDS in order to undertake a review of tenure practices at the school. Since the announcement, members of the EDS community have written with questions about the Board’s decision and the future of tenure at EDS. In the interview below, EDS Board of Trustees Chair The Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski and President Ragsdale answer some frequently asked questions and talk more about how EDS will consider the future of tenure in the coming months. 

Why pause all new tenure-track faculty hires now?
 
The Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski: The Board’s decision to pause tenure-track hiring was made in the context of its responsibility to continue reimagining the 21-century seminary. Over the next 3-5 years, several current EDS faculty members will retire, which creates a unique opportunity for EDS to examine the changing landscape of theological education as we plan for the next 20-30 years. Not to examine tenure among the various other issues we will discuss as a community would be irresponsible—for as important as it has been to the life of EDS, it is also a major budgetary factor.
 
The Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale: Thanks to careful planning, EDS is on strong fiscal and programmatic footing. We should not take that strength for granted. The last decade has been one of tremendous change for seminaries and theological graduate schools across the country. Some institutions have closed, others have drastically cut faculty and staff, still others have merged or been absorbed by large universities. 
 
Thanks to our partnership with Lesley University and the success of our low-residency Distributive Learning option, EDS continues to be a vital and healthy independent seminary. 
 
By taking this pause now, by engaging in a discernment process regarding tenure, we can effectively and definitively plan for the future while honoring our past—specifically, EDS’s historical commitment to academic freedom, core faculty appointments that continue the length of the member’s career, and faculty stewardship of the curriculum and academic programs. 
 
Has EDS ended the practice of tenure for faculty members?
 
KHR: EDS has not ended the practice of granting or recognizing tenure for members of the faculty. In fact, we’ve recently granted tenure to one of the brightest stars in theological scholarship, The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng. All current EDS faculty members who enjoy tenure will continue to do so. Anything less would be unfair and a violation of EDS’s commitment to its current faculty.
 
What we have done essentially is pressed the pause button on hiring new tenure-track faculty until we, the faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the wider EDS community, can examine the long-term strategic implications of tenure at Episcopal Divinity School. 
 
JK: In the months ahead the board, the administration, and the faculty and students and alumni/ae will have opportunities to engage in a robust discussion of the issue. We will have an open and frank exchange of ideas.  We will also put before us the objective facts and figures related to the various possible decisions to be made. We may decide that continuing to offer tenure is the best course of action. We may determine that hiring full time faculty on long-term contracts, or some combination of both, serves our mission better and is more sustainable and adaptive. No decision has been made so no outcome is preordained. The good news is that this pause creates a space for us to enter into a deliberative and strategic process.
 
Didn’t the trustees previously authorize a tenure-track hire in Church History, only to change their decision later?
 
JK: Yes, in May of 2013, the Board of Trustees authorized a tenure-track hire in Church History. In February of 2014, we amended that decision and authorized a contract-hire. No offer had been made and we wanted to be transparent about pending deliberations before making one. As President Ragsdale indicated in her letter of April 8, 2014, the leading candidate for the position was informed of the board’s decision. It is never easy to change course so close to the end of a faculty search, but the board’s decision to change the authorization was thoughtful and was made with the long-term interests of EDS foremost in mind.
 
Does the fact that EDS has paused tenure-track hires mean that the school will only hire adjunct or part-time faculty members in the future?
 
KHR: Many who have even a passing familiarity with the state of higher education today know very well the difficulties facing adjunct and part-time faculty, particularly at large universities: low pay, high teaching loads, and no job security. Those issues are all too pervasive in higher education. I’m committed to making sure that EDS pays all of its employees, faculty or staff, fairly and competitively. In our recent offer of a contract appointment, we offered a contract length and benefits that were the same as a tenure track appointment, and at the same salary. I’m also committed to ensuring that EDS always has a core of faculty members who are committed to the stewardship of the school’s academic programs for the whole of their professional careers. 
 
I don’t expect EDS to rely more heavily on adjuncts than we already do. Certainly adjuncts have their place: bringing life in the field into the classroom, covering for regular faculty on sabbatical, adding interesting breadth and depth to some areas (like, for example, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist brothers teaching about prayer or hearing Confession). We may use either a Visiting Professor or adjuncts to cover some classes until we reach a decision regarding tenure and reopen the search for a permanent professor but this is not a long-term solution.
 
Isn’t the institution of tenure essential to recruiting and retaining top-level talent?
 
JK: Many universities, seminaries, colleges, and professional schools have ended the practice of tenure in the last decade. Lesley University, with whom EDS has a close partnership, does not offer faculty tenure, nor does Hartford Seminary, Also the Adler School, along with many, many others. Clearly a reconsideration of the practice is already underway both in higher education in general and within theological education as well.
 
How will decisions about the future of tenure at EDS be made? What is the time frame?
 
JK: All constituencies would love to resolve the questions about tenure quickly, I am, however, confident that it is more important that we give those questions due consideration after careful research followed by thorough deliberation than to set or keep to a particular time-line. That said, we expect this research and deliberation process—primarily among the trustees and the faculty, but also including members of the wider EDS community such as alumni/ae and Episcopal Church leaders—to extend over the next eight to 12 months.
 
KHR: Part of the preparatory research process is looking at best practices from other institutions. I’m very excited to announce that we have engaged consultants affiliated with EDS’s accrediting agency, the Association of Theological Schools, to research trends in enrollment, structure, and financial models at EDS and across all Episcopal seminaries, theological schools, and in higher education at large. Once we have that important data, we’ll arrange facilitated conversations, primarily among faculty and trustees, but also including representatives from the wider community, to look into various aspects of the issue such as academic freedom for faculty, recruitment, and the structure of the academic program. 
 
We want to proceed with this discernment process as openly and transparently as possible. However, we also must recognize that the question of tenure is one best addressed through the shared governance of the faculty and trustees. Their deliberations will ultimately inform the final decision, which will be made by the trustees.
 
Is it a question of tenure or no tenure? What are the options being considered?
 
KHR: It seems to me that there are three possible outcomes to our deliberations on the topic of tenure: EDS could be to continue our tenure practices as we have, we could discontinue tenure for all new hires, or move to some mixture of tenured and contract faculty. No matter which way the board decides to go my expectation is that we will be hiring faculty with the expectation that they will spend the whole of their careers at EDS. I expect that we will continue to pay them competitively, and, like other schools that do not offer tenure, I would expect that they would enjoy protections that guard academic freedom and ensure job security—in essence, a foundation for a lifetime vocation at EDS.
 
Change is destabilizing; uncertainty about the nature of the change, even more so. Yet we have the opportunity to think faithfully about the future of EDS and to help pioneer sustainable theological education throughout this country. I might wish for smoother seas and a more visible shoreline but I’m also excited about what we may discover together and proud of EDS for daring to be in the forefront once again.