For preachers, a textual feast inside Austin city limits
AUSTIN, Texas — Welcome to the Lone Star State capital,…
A 105-year-old institution born in the shadow of the University of Texas at Austin will end its century of theological education there in May 2023.
Rebranding efforts wrought by a merger with Lipscomb University, located in Nashville, Tenn., 850 miles northeast of the Austin Graduate School of Theology, failed. Too few students and too little money doomed the merger, according to Lipscomb.
“After a thorough evaluation of all aspects of business operations, the board voted to close the Austin Center at the conclusion of the spring 2023 semester,” the university said.
The statement attributed difficulties to “a global pandemic, a highly competitive marketplace and the general economic environment.”
The center previously was known by several names — University of Texas Bible Chair, Institute for Christian Studies, Biblical Studies Center and most recently Austin Graduate School of Theology — and offered online and in-person graduate degrees.
For most of its existence it was housed adjacent to the University Avenue Church of Christ whose elders oversaw the work. The congregation’s property is bordered on three sides by the University of Texas campus, which always complicated parking — for the congregation and the school.
In 2007, the graduate school relocated to north Austin as an independent entity. Gary Thornton, Austin attorney and longtime elder at University Avenue, said the congregation supported the move with a combined $1 million in cash and endowment funds to compensate the school for improvements it had made to the old building.
Neither the move nor the affiliation with Lipscomb attracted enough new students. Only nine people were enrolled during fall 2022. Six students in a Master of Divinity program will complete degrees in May. Three in marriage and family therapy “have been provided several pathways … to continue their studies next year,” according to the Lipscomb statement.
Jennifer Shewmaker, who joined the Lipscomb administration Sept. 6 as provost, said after initial conversations in 2019, “the agreement at that time was that a reevaluation would happen at the three-year-point, which is where we are now.”
“This fall (the Lipscomb board) asked for a thorough evaluation of business operations and how things were going,” she explained, “and, based on that, in November the board voted to close.”
The provost said the four faculty and administrators in Austin will be paid through May 2023 and be given the opportunity to apply for positions in Nashville.
Among the four is Michael Ross, president at now-defunct Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., in the two years prior to its 2021 demise.
Ross became executive director of the Austin Center in April 2022, a move Shewmaker said was designed to kickstart growth with a focus on new programs. Ross declined to comment on the closure.
Mike Blevins, an elder of the Granbury Church of Christ in Texas, was chair of the Austin Graduate School board when it approached Lipscomb about a merger.
He said the decision came at the end of a “very long road of generally declining financial performance.”
“We could see years in advance that if we continued the trend we would not be able to survive as Austin Grad,” the retired engineer and executive said. “By the time we got to the decision it was a foregone conclusion we could not do it on our own.”
Stan Reid, who retired as president of the school in August 2020 when Lipscomb took over, declined to discuss merger details. But he said he was disappointed and saddened to learn about the closure.
Reid served at the school for 17 years beginning in 2003. During his tenure, he said, the FTE, shorthand for full-time equivalent enrollment, got as high as 45, “but that was a rare occasion.”
Blevins said in business sometimes transactions described as mergers are actually acquisitions.
“In our case I wouldn’t use that word. Lipscomb treated it as a merger,” he said. However, he added that the university wound up owning virtually every asset and every debt.
Lipscomb officials did not respond to questions about the program’s endowment or finances. But the Austin Graduate School of Theology’s IRS Form 990 for 2020 indicates that all assets, totaling more than $7.1 million, were distributed to Lipscomb.
Those assets include a debt-free building of about 25,000 square feet, appraised on tax rolls at more than $2.9 million. Other assets may include an endowment, which had been listed on the 2019 IRS Form 990 at $1.3 million, the library and archives. Shewmaker said the university’s library director will go to Austin to evaluate holdings and make a plan for those materials.
Two Austin Graduate School faculty were terminated after Lipscomb took over. Several staff were dismissed after the Nov. 6, 2022, email announcement of the closure. Between 2019 and 2020, salary dollars were reduced by half as was the operating deficit, which still exceeded $95,000 for 2020.
With the closing, the century-long work of theological education in the shadow of one of the nation’s largest state universities ended. But student ministry has not.
Beginning early in the 20th century Bible Chairs were established adjacent to state universities by numerous religious groups.
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In addition to serving students and offering fellowship away from home, they typically procured arrangements to offer religion courses for university credit taught by credentialed faculty.
The first Bible Chair at UT was established by the Disciples of Christ a year before the Churches of Christ Bible Chair.
The Churches of Christ Bible Chair — known as the UT Bible Chair — was established in 1917 by G.H.P. Showalter, publisher of Firm Foundation, and Charles Roberson, who also was one of the first Bible faculty at Abilene Christian University. After a hiatus during the Depression, the Bible Chair reopened when university enrollments surged after World War II.
Among Churches of Christ, Bible Chairs peaked in the 1970s when 166 such ministries existed nationwide, according to a 1978 survey by researcher Rick Rowland.
UT students could enroll for up to 12 hours of elective credit. That era ended in 1987 when a decision by the Texas Attorney General ruled the arrangement violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars any entanglement that advances or prohibits religion.
That same year, the Institute received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as a single subject, upper division college offering an undergraduate Bible degree. Accreditation culminated a years-long effort led by James Thompson, who was president of the Institute for Christian Studies, as it was known at the time. In ensuing decades it offered online and in-person graduate degrees.
Thompson said students paid little or no tuition. An endowment established with seven-figure gifts from a handful of donors largely funded operations.
“We lost most of our students when UT cut us off,” Thompson said, but he added that the intent was always to go beyond UT. “The goal was to do both – serve UT students and be a separate college.”
Thompson left in 1993 to join the graduate faculty at ACU where he later served as associate dean of the College of Biblical Studies.
Allan McNicol served on the Austin faculty with Thompson. For 15 years he was also chair of the Bible Chairs at UT during which time groups that opposed the arrangement began efforts to secure the attorney general’s opinion that upended them.
“I think for those who had built the school and developed it — it was always the hope that we could have a working theological center here in Austin in the capital of Texas,” McNicol said.
“It goes back to Bible Chair days and the time when the Firm Foundation was really just down the road. It was very important with the work of G.H.P. Showalter, and it really was central to the brotherhood in Texas.”
McNicol, who retired 10 years ago but taught as an adjunct faculty member and kept an office, said some people “felt pretty bad about the way Lipscomb treated us.”
“I do not feel that way,” he said. “It did not send the school into its demise. What sent the school into its demise was we just didn’t have enough money to run the thing. We had a number of significant supporters that go back to Bible Chair days but those people died off.”
Ministry to University of Texas students continues through Longhorns for Christ.
The facility at University Avenue that once housed the Institute for Christian Studies became the home of the campus ministry after the graduate school moved to north Austin.
Thornton said Longhorns for Christ is still a ministry of University Avenue, but its staff is working toward becoming a 501c3 organization. Elders will serve as directors.
According to Cary McCall, campus minister, 75 UT students are active in the ministry, and early during Lipscomb’s tenure, conversations were underway about starting a university ministry training partnership. McCall said he was “sad to see that possibility vaporize.”
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