A Statement on Preserving Union’s Facilities

Memories of Sakura Park Global Festival

To the Union Community,

I would like to update you about our plan to revitalize Union’s campus. I know it is of great interest to all, and I thought it would be helpful to explain the basic facts about our plan as it stands now. Many of you have already heard this information in the several community presentations for students and alums I have shared over the past several months. Most recently, this included a conversation with students and alums at the AAR Annual Meeting. Of course, I will continue to update you as we have further information.

Today’s Vibrant Union

Union now stands in a strong position, both financially and programmatically.  We are excited about our future, and for good reason.  Our enrollment remains strong, our faculty continues to be without peer, and our educational offerings are creatively expanding to meet the challenges of the day. You can feel that vitality in our halls, dorms, and classrooms, in the engaged, lively voices of our students, our Union Fellows, our excellent faculty, and the many world-renowned scholars who seek us out for theological conversation. Moreover, to support this work, we continue to be blessed with a healthy endowment and a balanced operating budget. For the past eight years, our fundraising has been robust, and we continue to make the Jackson-Mitchell Chair our top funding priority.

As responsible stewards of the Seminary, the Board of Trustees and senior managers have been exploring ways to sustain this strength and preserve Union into the next century as a vital force for doing good in Morningside Heights, Harlem, New York City, the nation and around the world. We will continue to be a cornerstone institution in our neighborhood and around the world.

The Urgency to Take Action

You might ask, “Why now?”

We are very concerned about the condition of our facilities, which are 100 years old.  The cost to renovate and maintain city regulatory compliance of our buildings, three of which are designated landmarks, is well in excess of $100 million. This expense will only grow over time as our buildings continue to age and need restoration. The scaffolding now surrounding portions of our exterior wall testifies loudly to this need.

The expense of maintaining our campus piecemeal is draining important funds that should be used to support our primary mission of education.

In addition, reaching the global community requires facilities that take full advantage of technology while providing onsite programming to attract our local community.

We realize that we are not alone. Many historic religious, academic, and charitable institutions are facing similar challenges and are searching for innovative solutions to sustain aging campuses that will reduce the operating costs, while allowing the institutions to have global and local impact.

While we are in the early stages of a campaign to raise funds for student scholarships, faculty support, innovative programming, and facilities, we have come to realize that we must use every tool at our disposal to generate the essential funds for the continued renaissance of Union.

Preserving Union for the Next 100 Years

In 2014, the Board of Trustees approved our new Jubilee Strategic Plan, which provides a framework for Union’s future growth. At the center of the plan is our commitment to providing ever-greater economic access to a Union degree and to expanding even further our social justice, inter-religious, church-engaged, and intellectually rigorous education. It also includes continuing our now four-year process of developing a comprehensive plan to address our facilities needs, our Master Plan. The process has been a collaborative one, at various stages drawing students, staff, faculty, and alumni/ae in conversations about campus needs through surveys, committee work, annual updates, and community conversations. We continue to be thankful to everyone who has participated thus far and look forward to your ongoing involvement.

We have had the active and close participation of our Board, including our many alumni/ae Trustees. As part of the Master Planning process, and in keeping with our devotion to our cherished seminary, the Board and senior managers recognize the need for the renewal of our campus. A reinvigorated campus is essential to fulfill the mission-based vision of continuing to attract the finest students and faculty for the next hundred years.

A Visionary, Yet Practical Plan 

To generate the bulk of the funds we need to preserve our campus and ensure that Union remains at the forefront of theological education, we plan to use our development rights to help us safeguard Union’s long-term future. (Under New York zoning laws, development rights are vertical zoning rights that, like land, can be monetized.)

With these development rights, we envision the creation of a beautiful, slender building that is visually in keeping with the neighborhood and that is set on the northeast end of the quad. We want our newest building to feel like it has always been part of the current campus. We chose this location after thorough analyses showed that this was the best, and only, suitable site.

We are excited about the visionary, proactive, and practical plan that we have developed because it will sensitively achieve many institutional goals that matter to all of us. The plan will:

  • Renovate the entire campus, making it accessible and green
  • Include a component that addresses affordable housing needs in our neighborhood (We are currently working out the details of this aspect of the plan and look forward to sharing them soon)
  • Modernize student dorms
  • Create new faculty housing to be located at the base of the new building
  • Create private residences on the upper floors, which will have a separate entrance and therefore allow Union to maintain the internal integrity of our courtyard-centered-campus
  • Build modern “smart” classrooms
  • Increase scholarships

In addition to sharing this information, we are scheduling a series of meetings that will begin immediately after Thanksgiving where students can meet with me and other senior staff members to discuss this process.

We continue to proceed with a deep sense of mission, faith, and sensitivity to the entire community that embodies our proud motto: Where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice.

I look forward to speaking with all of you in the coming weeks.

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones

President
Johnston Family Professor for Religion and Democracy
Union Theological Seminary