Staff, faculty cuts ahead at Luther Seminary

The $4 million budget deficit that came to light last year at Luther Seminary has compelled the institution to make some difficult choices, including cuts to staff and faculty, according to its interim president.

“It wasn’t a case of not having good people,” said the Rev. Rick Foss. “Regrettably, we had too many good people.”

Foss, Luther’s former director of contextual learning, was named interim president following the resignation of Richard Bliese last December. A presidential search committee will start work late this summer and hopes to fill the job by mid-2014.

At the heart of the financial difficulties, said Foss, was over-optimism at a time when theological education was headed for a decline.

“We added staff and faculty based on growth projections that didn’t materialize and things got way out of balance,” he said.

As a result, 30 staff positions will have been eliminated by July 1 and there will be eight fewer faculty members. Five of the faculty are retiring and three are pursuing other opportunities. In addition, four faculty will retire by the end of the next fiscal year and another two to four teaching positions will be eliminated. This will bring the faculty count to about 28, which Foss said achieves the proper student-faculty ratio.

The seminary has 560 full-time-equivalent students currently and is graduating 133, about the same number as usual.

“Enrollment seems to be holding up pretty well,” Foss said. “We had expected a drop in the face of bad news, but it’s shaping up slightly better than we expected.”

Donors have stepped up to help the seminary during a difficult time and the institution is “taking a close look at all assets” to identify potential funding sources, Foss said.

“We own 18 rental properties, although we won’t sell anything we might conceivably need in the future and there won’t be any fire sales,” he said. “On the other hand, I can’t say that anything is totally off the table. But it matters a lot to us that we be perceived as a good neighbor to this community, and we’re trying as hard as we can to be one.”

He said progress has been made to put the seminary’s financial house in order, but it will take several more years to get everything back on track. Luther is the largest of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s eight seminaries.

“When our difficulties came to light, I think it sent a shock wave not only though this community but the other seminaries as well,” Foss said.

Foss served as bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the church and commented that one of the things he learned from Red River flooding disasters is that “people heal at different rates. “I think some members of our community are saying, ‘OK, that happened, let’s get on with it,’ while others say, ‘Hold on, how did we get in this mess?’

“In general, however, I think there’s slowly building excitement about where we’ll be when this is over,” Foss said. “God hasn’t gone away, the mission is still intact, the students coming out of here are incredible. Time is an ally now.”

Roger Bergerson is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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