'Union Seminary's Big Mistake'

As many in the liberal theological world have heard by now, Union Theological Seminary is currently in the final stages of a plan to ensure its future by selling off its air rights. This plan involves Union losing half of its central quad to luxury condominiums, and it signals the larger trend toward gentrification and only nominal low-income housing in New York City.

I was honored a few months ago to meet for lunch and discussion with Tom F. Driver, the Paul J. Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary. The discussion was helpful not only because Dr. Driver provides a unique historical perspective on the proposed project, but also because his ethical instincts were a reminder of what I personally hoped to find when I came to Union in the first place.

I am including an open letter written by Dr. Driver that I received yesterday. I include it, with permission, in whole, below, with no commentary except a request that readers attend to the richness of Dr. Driver's moral and theological reasoning.

What Good is Union Seminary? Who is Asking?

Last Sunday, April 17, the New York Times told how the Jesuit leaders of Georgetown University in 1838 sold 272 slaves to pay off debt and keep the university alive. The story gripped me for three reasons: 1) it is inherently interesting; 2) it happens that I know someone who is descended from several of those slaves; and 3) the story reminded me of Union Theological Seminary in 2016.

To be sure, the sale of Union Seminary's air rights is not the same as the selling of the Jesuits' slaves, but there is a common element, and it is that both are deeply unethical acts done or proposed to save an educational institution's skin. There can be little doubt that the Georgetown Jesuits of 1838 thought the ends of preserving their Christian school justified the means of owning and selling slaves, just as the Trustees and President of Union Seminary believe that the preservation of our historic institution for theological education justifies the means of catering to the building of luxury housing in New York City. After all, there is nothing illegal about it. Neither was the owing and selling of slaves in 1838.

The unethical nature of Union's proposed action was clear to me from the moment I heard about it in November of 2015. New York City is in the midst of a housing crisis. As the financial capital of the United States, New York has become one of the most extreme examples of the income inequality that has come to plague the entire country. In New York, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the middle and lower income groups are being pushed out. The building of luxury housing units forces a rise in the cost of living for everyone. Rents go up. Restaurants and other service businesses raise their prices and go upscale. The city becomes a haven and a playground for the wealthy and a treadmill for everyone else. The poor, and many of the not-yet poor, are shoved out. In this situation, the selling of Seminary assets to save its skin by aiding and abetting builders of luxury housing cannot find ethical justification. Yes, the Seminary might be able to prolong its life -- but at what cost?

There is yet another unethical dimension to the present plan. The Trustees and the President have developed and apparently adopted the plan behind closed doors. This is a style of management that is as unwise as it is unethical. At stake is the Seminary's identity, its mission in the world, and its raison d'etre. Without saying so, it is all this -- the Seminary identity -- that the Trustees and the President are proposing to sell. Upon hearing of the proposal to sell half the quadrangle to luxury housing builders I thought, and still think, it is a form of self prostitution.

Is there an alternative? Probably not without a full-scale re-envisioning of the Seminary's role and mission in the 21st century. And this is what the Seminary's leaders (rulers?) have dodged. It should have been done with the widest possible consultation with all the Seminary's constituencies -- faculty, students, alumni/ae, donors, potential donors, concerned churches -- all of these throughout the United States and abroad. Asking the hard questions.

It is possible, although it is not obvious, that Union Seminary's true vocation is to remain in its neo-Gothic buildings on Morningside Heights "for another century," as the Seminary President likes to put it. But the question has not been fully addressed. It is more likely that in order to thrive with an authentic mission a new future must be envisioned. What will be required? A different physical location? A different educational model? A different type of student? A different relation to the America's other religions? A different relation to evangelicalism? A different relation to Christian tradition? Surely a different donor base.

It is long past time for this analysis. The Seminary began to sell off its real estate around 1963, when it sold the residential building at 49 Claremont Avenue. Later it sold Reed House at the corner of 121st & Broadway, then Van Dusen Hall, then Knox Hall (long-term lease to Columbia. U.), then the Burke Library. This is half a century of throwing scraps to the wolf at the door. The wolf always comes back, hungrier than before. Something is wrong.

I was able to hold a cordial but fruitless conversation with President Jones on January 11 this year. In it I told her I thought the building proposal was unethical. She said it was either do that or close down the Seminary. I said that if that is true it would be better to close down. But I don't know that it is true.

I do believe that the most basic questions have not been adequately addressed by the Seminary's world wide constituency: What is Union Seminary good for? Who will pay for it, and why?

April 19, 2016
Tom F. Driver
The Paul Tillich Professor Emeritus of Theology and Culture,
Union Theological Seminary in New York