As part of a new "bold vision," Northern Seminary is exploring the sale of some or all of its suburban Chicago campus. The Baptist school owns 28 acres of valuable, commercial-area real estate, located between three major Chicago-area highways.
Mirroring a nationwide trend in seminary education, the school also announced in July that it plans to launch satellite and online courses, beginning this fall.
Founded in 1913 as an evangelical alternative to liberal-leaning seminaries in the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches USA), Northern claims a number of notable alumni: Youth for Christ founder Torrey Johnson, Tyndale House Publishers founder Kenneth Taylor, and several early editors of Christianity Today, including Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer.
But the school's enrollment has been flat for a decade, according to interim president John Kirn.
"This is what's driving us to do what I think we should have done years ago: We've got an aging campus, a campus that could house 500 students," Kirn said. "We have just over 200, depending on how you count it, and we are moving from a resident student population to a much more commuter student population, which mirrors what's happening all over the country with seminaries."
Kirn envisions a "hub-and-spokes model" for Northern, with a much smaller central campus and a host of satellite and online classes. The strategy should cut down on overhead and maintenance costs while also reaching more students, he said.
Many successful seminaries have expanded beyond their home sites. Fuller Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary all offer extensive satellite and distance education programs. Yet some schools have resisted the trend, believing students are better served within the strong community of a central campus.
"Our philosophy is that studying for the ministry is best taught and is best done in a setting where people know one another and interact with one another, can rub souls with one another," said Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School. "Now, I would also say, we've had the luxury of being able to do this because we've been blessed with a good endowment from the beginning, and we're not tuition-driven."
Still, many seminaries, small and large, see decentralized education as a way to better fulfill their missions and hit their bottom lines.
"The outcomes are comparable across the board," said Leland Eliason, provost of Bethel Seminary, "and the student testimonials are consistently strong."
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