UPDATE: SWBTS released a report Aug. 10 showing an increase in enrollment for the 2022–2023 academic year.
Students and faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will be back in the classroom next week, but just how many students will return and to what kind of campus climate remain to be seen.
The fall semester begins Aug. 14 followed by the investiture of David Dockery as the seminary’s 10th president Aug. 22. That event, typically one of pageantry and celebration, could be overshadowed by accreditation woes due in part to excessive institutional spending over at least the past two decades, a continuing drop in enrollment and an ongoing public debate about these issues. The latest report from Southwestern came Aug. 7.
Concerns related to Southwestern have continually made news headlines since the firing of Paige Patterson as president in 2018. He had served in the role since 2003.
The institution’s board of trustees and other stakeholders looked to Adam Greenway as the new president installed in February 2019 to turn the trajectory of the declines around, but he was unsuccessful and ended up resigning in September 2022.
Deficit and debate
A June 7, 2023, report from Southwestern trustees acknowledged two decades of fiscal mismanagement, including an average operating deficit of $6.67 million per year from 2002 to 2022 — a total deficit of $140 million.
While the deficit built over time, recent expenditures highlighted included $1.5 million in renovation costs to the president’s home, $60,000 in Christmas decorations and an $11,000 espresso machine.
In acknowledging the overspending, Southwestern’s trustees announced new financial controls and oversight of the expense reports from school leaders. They also released 20 years of audited financial statements showing a long-running pattern of financial challenges, which includes a year-over-year drop in Cooperative Program funds due to decreased enrollment.
The June 7 report also states the number of full-time equivalent Southern Baptist students at the school dropped by 67% from 2002 to 2022. Tuition for SBC students is subsidized by the Cooperative Program.
Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) numbers are calculated based on full-time and part-time student enrollment. An institution’s FTE count doesn’t represent the actual number of full-time students.
Previous media reports indicate Southwestern’s enrollment surpassed 3,000 in the early 1990s but had dropped to under 2,500 in the early 2000s and then to around 1,000 by 2018.
In academic year 2019–2020, Southwestern’s Southern Baptist FTE enrollment was 1,126; in 2020–2021, 944; and in 2021–2022, 793.
It is important to note for the 2022 SBC Book of Reports that the Council of Seminary Presidents provided an accommodation for all of the seminaries to use the prior year’s FTE enrollment number in 2020–2021 to avoid a further drop in each seminary’s Cooperative Program allocation. In a footnote, SWBTS noted their actual enrollment number was 944. In the 2023–2024 CP budget, Southwestern is allocated $6.5 million.
In June, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges issued a letter notifying Southwestern Seminary officials that the school had been placed on warning due to a failure “to demonstrate compliance” with several SACSCOC standards on governance and financial responsibility.
Call for forensic audit
And last week, a former Southwestern trustee, Aaron Sligar, who quit the board in June, told Religion News Service that as part of a task force to investigate the institution’s finances, he was refused access to records of Southwestern leaders other than Greenway. Sligar said his call for a forensic audit, a financial investigation that determines whether fraud has been committed, was denied.
Sligar’s assertions and Southwestern’s response to those assertions have played out in the media over the past few days. Southwestern board chair Jonathan Richard responded to the RNS article with a statement refuting and offering clarification to Sligar’s claims on the seminary’s website Aug. 7. To read it, click here.
Meanwhile, the SACSCOC board of trustees is monitoring Southwestern and will announce its next steps in June 2024. The options at that time range from removing the warning without an additional report to granting a second year of monitoring to removing Southwestern from SACSCOC membership altogether.
Contacted Aug. 8, a spokesperson for Southwestern noted that preliminary enrollment numbers for the fall academic semester were not available.
Despite what many feel is a cloud hanging over the seminary, administrators say they are excited to welcome students back to campus.
The fall schedule of chapel speakers was released Aug. 1 and includes a number of Southwestern faculty members, along with Bart Barber, SBC president; Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas; Jerry Rankin, president emeritus of the International Mission Board; and Robert Sloan, president of Houston Christian University.
And Chandler Snyder, interim vice president of enrollment and student services, said in a video posted to Twitter that the seminary is “excited to have [students] back on and around campus and in classes online” and eager to share “what the Lord has done through His faithfulness over the summer months.”
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