Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University

Education, Theology & Religion

Union Must Build Up

25 Jan , 2016  

The campus of Union Theological Seminary has been abuzz recently with the prospect of a high rise construction project on the 108 year old campus. The administration and board at Union, the affiliate divinity school of Columbia University, have proposed selling approximately 300,000 square feet of development right (air-rights) to finance a $125 million renovation of the campus.

Unfortunately this project quickly got caught up in the protest culture of Union and Columbia University. Without a full understanding of the facts, many students organized several protests with the goal of shutting down the project. The student group has valid concerns: Will there be affordable housing? Will construction labor be paid fairly? How do you reconcile Christ with the prospect of luxury housing? However, vehement protesting without an equally vehement cause may prove to diminish their efforts.

At the end of the day it would be wonderful if Union could afford to renovate their campus without selling their development rights. Union is the beneficiary of the Rockefeller and Brown families’ (among others) 108 year old investment in facilities. Unfortunately, major donors today are uninterested in capital projects at liberal theological schools. Previous Union administrations further exacerbated this problem by not making maintenance investments year over year–generally selling off the legacy of the school in the process.

Even without an air-rights project, the capital plan was never going to have the full support of the community. At its heart the plan attempts to fund a basic campus infrastructure restoration while keeping the tuition flat for the foreseeable future. A tuition that is the lowest of Columbia University’s graduate and affiliate schools, and the second lowest tuition in the Ivy League. (Princeton Theological’s $13k tuition takes the top spot) Any project at Union is full of complexity, and this one is no different.

A few thoughts on the proposal:

  • No Alternative for Capital Funds: Simply put Union does not have access to the capital funds necessary for the basic renovation of its half-million square foot gothic stone castle in Manhattan. The exterior work alone (stonework, windows, copper and slate roofs) will require $40-50 million in repairs. To put this in perspective, a $50M mortgage would require the school to raise tuition $10,118/year. The full $125M renovation is simply unattainable to Union via traditional lending channels.
  • Largest Capital Project: This project may be the single largest capital project in recent history at any mainline protestant seminary. Union has the second largest campus of Ivy League divinity schools behind Princeton, and its real estate value is likely one of the highest in the nation. Union has the most square footage per capita, and largest pool of guaranteed student housing of all Columbia University’s graduate schools. Yale’s $49M renovation of Sterling Quad and Duke’s $22M expansion of the Divinity School pale in comparison to the size of this project. It should be noted that in both those cases the university paid over half of the construction costs with the school’s fundraising to complete the rest.
  • Columbia has done its part: On this issue I significantly depart from the administration’s characterization of Columbia in this process. The administration basically suggests that Columbia is waiting in the shadows for a fire sale of the campus if this proposal fails. A more honest assessment lends me to suggest that Columbia has done its part–renovating Knox and Dickens Hall (80 Claremont). Yes, the only reason Columbia renovated was because they took exclusive use of the space through a 50 year lease agreement–the university utilizes or manages over 50% of the square footage at UTS. However, given that Union continues retain its independence, along with Barnard and Teachers College, the university has no obligation to fund any portion of this project. Without Columbia’s existing investments this project would easily exceed $250M.
  • Moving will cost more and cause a brain drain: Simply put, building or leasing space for classrooms and housing of 300 students and 100 faculty and staff will cost more than this project. A 15 year lease on 200k sq ft of space in the outer boroughs would cost at least $85M before operating expenses and space build out. In addition, the school would lose its library and most of its faculty in the process. Union’s social justice legacy is inextricably linked to its physical and intellectual situation with Columbia. Prior to moving to Morningside Heights, Union was at best a run of the mill presbyterian seminary. Apart from it, it will be a closed seminary.
  • Staying put leverages economies of scale: Staying put actually better leverages economies of scale. The above number associated with moving assumes the same size (300 students) or smaller student body. While Union can no longer accommodate the 850 students it had at its peak, it can easily grow to 400-500 students with no significant impact on the operating budget of the school. Union’s operating costs are approximately $93k/year/student. While this is lower than Princeton and Harvard ($122k and $101k respectively) it is significantly higher than Yale’s $65k and Duke’s $27k operating costs. While Union has significant room for improvement in its administrative model, the school could grow the student headcount by 100, retain near zero growth in administrators, and hire 10 faculty and keep the annual budget under $25M. ($4M increase)

What about the ethical consequences of building luxury condos in the midst of a seminary that sells itself on its social justice heritage? This analysis does not attempt to resolve that tension. Just like I rarely try to resolve tensions of scripture, we as students must live in the tension of attempting to be ethical actors in an unethical system. We do this every time we get our billing statement from the school–our institutional aid packages are built partially on the sins of the financial industry. To my knowledge, no Union student has shunned their aid package on this fact; we accept the tension in exchange for a prestigious degree, and the possibility to have a greater impact on the world.

Additionally, this is not a not a sign of misguided priorities on the part of Rev. Dr. Serene Jones. If we reflect on Matthew 6’s question of where we are storing our treasures, you have to conclude that Union and Serene Jones are not storing Union’s treasures in real estate and money. Union’s endowment is the smallest in the Ivy League, and smaller than even some tiny PCUSA seminaries. Union’s treasure has never been in the growth of its portfolio, its been in its impact on the justice in the world. Yes, this project will visibly remind the Union community of the tension between the life of faith and wealth. Though, if Union’s treasure really is stored in justice, then the condo tower will remind us that that we are called to minister to a world that has no choice but to live in the tension between these ideas, and not simply exist as an Ivy League Ivory Tower with great ideas, but no grounding in the realities of the world.


Coming Soon: Where Union has drastic room to improve on finances and fundraising.

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