Union Theological Seminary's Controversial Plan to Survive | Sojourners

Union Theological Seminary's Controversial Plan to Survive

The school wants to build luxury condos to pay the bills. Students say this plan contradicts their values.
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All calls for justice are alike, but every justice-minded institution struggles to balance mission with survival in its own way.

At Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the current struggle is over money — specifically, where to get as much as $150 million the school says is needed to thoroughly renovate the campus, something Union president Serene Jones says is a matter of the seminary’s survival, and dissenters like divinity student Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons say is a surprising betrayal of Union’s public social justice advocacy.

The nearly 200-year-old seminary is known for its unique blend of advocacy and academics. In 2014 it made waves for pledging to divest fossil fuels from its entire endowment, and later that year was active in protests over the death of Eric Garner. It’s perhaps equally known for the famous voices of dissent that have flocked to faculty positions at the seminary, including James Cone, Cornel West, and Chung Hyun Kyung.

When the school announced in October 2015 that it was in talks with a developer to build condominiums on campus, the move was met with outcry from some students, alumni, and faculty. But President Jones said this move is nothing new for the school — only now, perhaps, it’s more public.

“For years, Union has supported itself financially by selling off pieces of its real estate. We've sold off buildings for over 50 years. The one last thing Union hasn't ever sold off is its air rights,” she told Sojourners.

In New York, a city of limited real estate, air rights serve as vertical land — empty space above existing buildings that can be bought, sold, and traded by the business, or institution, that owns the ground rights. Union’s main seminary building is currently seven stories. The new tower could potentially reach to 35 or 40.

For Jones, who in 2008 became Union’s first female president, the calculation was simple. “We didn't want to move, because the surrounding institutions and communities are our home. Those ties are deep and sustaining to us,” she said. “So we had to come up with the question of how we were going to raise money. What does one do in the face of an over one hundred million dollar bill?”

Developing real estate is not new to justice-minded groups — religious organizations from New York City to East Africa are weighing the symbolic meaning invested in their land against practical survival plans for the mission. What makes Union’s plans particularly upsetting to campus protesters is its location.

“It’s not hard to understand why our administrators want to build luxury condos. But in my estimation, neither the morality nor the math adds up,” Graves-Fitzsimmons, a Master of Divinity student in Christian social ethics at Union, wrote to Sojourners. “While my fellow seminarians and myself want Union to survive, we don’t want our administrators to perpetuate this institution at any cost.”

Union’s campus sits on the edge of Harlem, a neighborhood reeling from gentrification. For students like Graves-Fitzsimmons, and the more than 200 others who in December signed a letter calling for a “complete and immediate halt” to the development plans, it is both symbolically and practically unconscionable for Union to seriously consider building luxury condominiums if it purports to care for its neighbors. Taking up the slogan “Whose Union?,” some students, alumni, and faculty are challenging what they see as a gap in priorities between the school’s desire to survive and its mission of justice to the community.

“We had a dozen folks come from a housing complex just north of campus who don’t want the tower,” Graves-Fitzsimmons told Sojourners. “Harlem has gone through this huge gentrification in the last few decades, and this would be the biggest tower yet. We’re only here for 2-3 years as students. These are the people who are going to live here for a long time.”

Jones agrees that affordable housing is a top justice issue for the neighborhood and the school.

“What they’re expressing concerns about are really big concerns that are alive in our world today. The issue of housing is a huge one, and New York is in crisis about it,” she said.

Jones continued, “When we talked to developers, we said, ‘We're committed to affordable housing,’ and they all said, ‘Given the policies that are in place, yes, that would be part of the project.’ Last summer the policies supporting affordable housing in the city ran out, they disappeared.

“If we could have an affordable component in this building, I think that that would go a long way. [We want to] have a multimillion-dollar fund to contribute to the support of affordable housing, and hopefully low-income housing, and maybe some transitional emergency housing. That part we still haven't figured out.”

Despite Jones’ hopes, she says that no final decisions about the project have been made. Prolonged uncertainty around the project, and students’ reported perceptions of the administration’s opaqueness around the process, is providing protesters with fodder for sit-ins and snowballing protests.

Graves-Fitzsimmons helped organize one such student sit-in in late March. The rally drew more than 100 people, including members of the community and a local labor union, and culminated with a 24-hour sit-in in the hallway outside the offices of the president and vice president. Chung Hyun Kyun spoke at the rally. She, along with James Cone and Cornel West, has publicly opposed the plan.

“If you lose yourself while gaining the whole world, then what do you gain? You can take a lot of money from real estate developers, but at what cost?” she said in December.

“Our demand is that they halt the project, and release all the documents that would substantiate the claims that they’re making,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “We’re a small school, but the stakes here are so large. We’ve begun building a stronger coalition with community members, making sure we’re not just students yelling, that we’re part of a broader movement.”

Perhaps most disappointing to students expressing concern over the project is what they see as a lack of theological or justice-minded explanation for building a condominium. It’s not enough to say it’s the least-bad choice, they say — it should be a good choice on its own merits.

“There’s been no willingness to talk about the theological justifications of this project,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said.

“President Jones is an ordained minister and a systematic theologian, who specializes in economics and theology. If anyone were capable of giving a theological rationale for this, it would be her.”

Graves-Fitzsimmons says he met Jones, current president of the American Academy of Religion and previously a professor of theology at Yale, at the Sojourners’ Summit in 2014, introduced by a colleague because of their mutual passion for justice. He says meeting her encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary.

“Jones has made critiquing capitalism central to her public witness as a theologian. I took a course with her called ‘Economics and Theology,’ week after week of how capitalism robs us of our values, of how institutions and money rule our lives instead of the gospel,” he said.

Of the current plans to build condominiums, “That’s the type of prosperity gospel tied to capitalism that President Jones derides in pulpits and op-ed pages across the country,” he wrote.

In our conversation, Jones said she sees this process as theological for the whole campus — for relying on parables to guide financial stewardship, and as good training for the challenging work of social justice.

“We talk a lot about different ways of imagining this in a theological frame. One simple one is to think about the responsible steward. I often think of my leadership here as one in which I have for this moment in time been given the gift of assuring that this precious institution continues. For me, to not be working with the board and the community to find a solution would be the equivalent of burying the treasure. And we can’t afford to do that — we can’t afford to bury our treasure,” she said.

Jones expressed admiration and respect for the challenging conversations happening across campus.

“There would be something un-Union-like about students not asking hard questions and not expressing their views,” she said.

Yet unlike campuses, which often have some degree of room to shape a space for ideals and passion to help form habit, daily life requires working with systems and resources as they are, even while pushing for change — something Jones emphasizes many times in our conversation.

“We are wrestling with things that nobody who walks out of this institution and becomes a leader in the world today is going to be able to avoid wrestling with. It’s a deeply theological process and a deeply theological issue — these are the questions of our day. What has become very clear to us as we’ve talked about our predicament is that we’re not alone. Many churches are having to make similar sorts of decisions in terms of their own survival. We’re dealing with them as they unfold inside our campus, and they are unfolding everywhere outside our campus. So I view all of this as really a constitutive part of theological education.”

To Jones, Union’s survival is not only her responsibility — it is the necessary foundation for the seminary’s justice work to continue.

“If you look at the long arc of social justice that needs to be done in our world — [we want to] ensure that there is a place where 50 years from now in New York City… serious theological education is happening, and at the heart of the education is a commitment to social justice and raising leaders who can address questions of affordable housing, of labor and income inequality,” she said.

“It’s a great responsibility and I take it very seriously,” Jones added. “Nothing short of the future of the school is at stake.”