Following eight-year legal battle, Claremont School of Theology will move to LA this summer

CST plans to relocate to Westwood this summer after residing in Claremont since 1957. (Austin Zang • The Student Life)

An end may be in sight for the nearly decade-long legal debate regarding the validity of a 1957 land agreement between the Claremont School of Theology (CST) and The Claremont Colleges Services (TCCS).

After 66 years in Claremont, CST plans to move to a new site at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles this summer, according to a March 15 press release issued by the school. CST is currently in a final review and affirmation process with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges of the Westwood location.

CST was founded in 1885 and was attached to the University of Southern California until it moved to Claremont in 1957.

“Los Angeles is really a part of the DNA of the school,” Steve Horswill-Johnston, CST’s COO, told TSL. “The school attracts a lot of people who are committed to those who are on the margins, who live in and around large cities, and do nonprofit work in and around cities like Los Angeles. So to be in Los Angeles is actually very exciting for most of them.”

Horswill-Johnston added that the school is working to identify and subsidize affordable housing options for its students currently living on campus in addition to covering all moving costs. 

When CST — which is affiliated with, but not a member of, the consortium — first purchased the land from the Claremont Colleges in 1957, the deed stipulated that if the graduate school ever decided to sell the land, TCCS would have the right of first offer either at fair market value or by using a prescribed formula.

In 2015, CST first approached the Claremont Colleges to sell 10.5 acres of its 16.4-acre property to address financial struggles as it moved towards offering more online courses. 

CST was already $40,000 in debt when it first moved to Claremont, Horswill-Johnston said. 

“The school’s always been struggling with finances and I think that’s kind of baked into the kind of mission we have. It’s not a money-making school, it’s a school that’s committed to types of ministries and leadership around the world that often doesn’t lead to financial success,” he said. “It leads to students going out, graduates going out, scholars going out, and making a difference in the world.”

CST had the land appraised for nearly $40 million in 2016, but TCCS offered $14 million for the property, which CST said was insufficient. 

Then, CST attempted to sell the ten-acre package to a commercial developer for $25 million in order to move to Salem, Oregon and partner with Willamette University

In response, the 7Cs sued CST, igniting a legal battle over the interpretation of the 1957 agreement and its formula. The case first went to trial in 2018, with CST being handed a short-lived victory that was overturned in the Appellate Court in 2019. The California Supreme Court declined to hear CST’s case. 

“Even if we didn’t have the litigation, [the Claremont property] would be a millstone around the neck of the school because you just don’t need 16.3 acres when a lot of the student body is remote and coming into Claremont, or living on our campus, but only doing in person classes on occasion,” Horswill-Johnston said. 

However, CST signed an agreement with Yalong Investment Group, giving it exclusive use of the property for $10 million. In response, TCCS filed suit in the California Court of Appeals. 

The battle in the Court of Appeals continued through 2021 until the Superior Court ruled in January 2022 that CST was prohibited from leasing, transferring or selling the property to third parties, including Yalong.

Yalong had planned to use the land to establish a bilingual Chinese-English college, according to CST. However, TCCS alleged in court documents that Yalong was not “a bona fide educational institution of collegiate grade,” so CST’s agreement with the group would also violate the property’s Educational Use Clause. 

In April 2022, TCCS said that Yalong filed a cross-complaint against CST in order to recoup the $10 million it had paid for the property prior to the ruling. The case is still ongoing according to the court docket. 

According to Horwill-Johnston, CST and Yalong continue to have a good relationship. Yalong’s complaint is in abeyance until arbitration between TCCS and CST concludes.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the legacy of the Scripps family and ensuring that the land donated to TCC and provided to CST in 1957 is used in a manner consistent with the higher education mission of The Claremont Colleges,” TCCS Director of Communications Laura Muna-Landa said in a Jan. 4, 2022 statement

Muna-Landa declined to provide an updated comment. 

After three separate cases and three appeals, CST and TCCS will announce a final sale price by the end of this calendar year. 

“We’re hopeful to at least get close to market value so we can pay off the debts we have and move to Westwood this summer,” Horswill-Johnston said. “[With] the amount of what land costs in the Claremont area and that there is no piece of land in Claremont that is available that is as large as our campus — the value is high.” 

He added that arbitration has yet to begin in earnest but that CST hopes to conclude the process by the end of summer or early fall. 

TCCS has said it plans to use the land for additional student housing, office and classroom spaces as well as new 5C initiatives and programs.

CST will host a farewell event at its Claremont campus on May 15, 2023 with alumni and faculty speakers, including Bishop Cedrick D. Bridgeforth CST ’00, the first openly gay Black man to be elected in the United Methodist Church.

“It’s really not about the move,” Horswill-Johnston said. “It’s really trying to keep up the oldest theological school in the Pacific Southwest. We’re trying to keep that mission going.”

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