Erskine trustees heard an optimistic report of progress on the two-year financial stability plan from President Paul Kooistra when they convened last week for their first meeting of 2015. A record pace in Erskine Annual Fund giving and success in reclassifying permanently restricted net assets to unrestricted net assets within the endowment lead the list of encouraging signs, according to Kooistra.
Kooistra announced a series of significant financial measures last fall just after being named president by the board in August. When trustees met with the institution’s independent auditors a year ago, several key financial concerns were noted. Among the most immediate were the rate of draw on Erskine’s $42 million endowment, the levels of unrestricted annual giving, and insufficient unrestricted assets held by the institution. According to Kooistra, many of his first-year goals have been achieved and others are on track.
“We reached the $1 million mark in giving to the annual fund before the end of the calendar year for the first time anyone can remember,” Kooistra said. Taking into account gifts received and pledges, there is still a little over $300,000 needed to meet the $1.6 million goal for 2014-15. “There is a lot of hard work left to do, so we aren’t easing up. But this is encouraging,” he said.
Regarding the endowment, Kooistra said that staff and trustees have reviewed every fund agreement over the past several months and have identified nearly $9 million (contributed value) that can be reclassified from permanently restricted net assets to unrestricted net assets on Erskine’s Statement of Financial Position. The board took actions that allow the administration to pursue the necessary reclassifications. The net result is a positive impact on financial ratios that both the federal government and accreditors look at closely.
According to Greg Haselden, senior vice president for finance and operations, “a better ratio of unrestricted net assets definitely helps our audit, which in turn, helps our position with accreditors.”
The president pointed to several other encouraging items related to the financial plan:
- Draws on the endowment have been reduced already to 7% this year and will be at 5% in 2015-16.
- Enrollment is holding steady. Mid-year withdrawals were lower than anticipated, and numbers for the incoming class of 2015 are currently on pace with the two previous near-record years.
- Net tuition revenue is also anticipated to improve.
Kooistra also reported on a recent administrative change that will place Bible and Religion courses in the college under the oversight of the seminary beginning next academic year. The move, Kooistra explained, allocates institutional resources and staff more efficiently and will offer more choices to college students in the required core Bible content, while also opening up more cross-instructional options between the college and seminary, such as B.A.-M.A. and B.A-M.Div. programs.
The Seminary Committee of the board addressed an ongoing discussion regarding Erskine’s contract with the U.S. Army Medical Command (MEDCOM), which provides advanced ministry education and training to military chaplains. The program is a subset of the seminary’s Doctor of Ministry degree and has been a significant part of the seminary’s ministry for the past decade according to Dr. R.J. Gore, himself a retired chaplain and the seminary’s academic dean.
The issue at hand, according to Dr. Chris Wisdom, vice president of the seminary, who is also a retired Army chaplain, is one of mission alignment. “Some trustees expressed concern that the stipulations of the contract were potentially in conflict with the mission of the seminary.” The stated mission of the seminary is to educate persons for service in the Christian church.
While all but a handful of the Army’s more than 1,600 active duty chaplains are professing Christians, the stipulations of the contract with MEDCOM allow admission of any chaplain who is approved by the army and qualifies academically. Even though Erskine’s program is distinctly Christian in focus and not required by the Army, in rare instances chaplains from other religions choose to attend the program.
Wisdom noted that in those unusual circumstances, Erskine imposes additional prerequisite requirements — a passing grade in two Bible survey courses (O.T. and N.T.) and a course in Christian theology. Gore also made it clear to trustees that nothing in the contract requires Erskine to alter its course content or requirements. “If anything, the presence of someone I know isn’t a professing Christian has made me more aware, more explicit, and more precisely gospel oriented in my teaching,” he said.
Both Gore and Wisdom see the MEDCOM program as an extension of the seminary’s mission within the larger institutional context rather than at odds with it. “This program provides a truly unique opportunity for Erskine to extend the work of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church into the world far beyond the boundaries of its congregations,” says Wisdom.
To date, approximately 10 percent of the active duty chaplains in the army have been a part of the program through Erskine. “That’s literally thousands of military personnel that have benefited both directly and indirectly from the work of the ARP and Erskine in theological education,” says Wisdom.
With unanimous recommendation from the Seminary Committee, the trustees approved a measure to affirm the MEDCOM program and instruct the administration to begin moving the program under the auspices of the college, where the broader stated mission does not create the same potential mission conflict.
According to Wisdom, “This move fits very well with Erskine’s broader institutional mission statements, with SACS’s accreditation of the institution as a whole, and with the president’s long-term vision.”
The Student Services and Athletic Committee submitted and the full board approved a Statement on Human Sexuality. The administration will add the statement to its official manuals and determine how it will be integrated into campus culture and procedures.
The trustees voted to grant degrees in May to graduates approved by the faculty and also named officers for next year. The 2015-16 officers will be Ron Vigus, Thompson Station, Tenn., chairman; Bobby McDonald, Simpsonville, S.C., vice chairman; and the Rev. Andrew Savill, Moncton, N.B, Canada, secretary.