In a move spurred by an ongoing land dispute with the Claremont University Consortium, the Claremont School of Theology announced in July that it is considering a merge with Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
CST President Jeffrey Kuan and Willamette President Steve Thorsett disclosed on July 3 that the two schools had initialized the process of merging CST with Williamette.
“I believe CST’s world-class faculty and our approach to theological education – with people of many faiths learning and living side-by-side – is an excellent addition to Willamette’s own dynamic community,” Kuan told the Claremont Courier.
CST, one of 13 theological schools of the United Methodist Church, has been in Claremont since 1957. The move signifies changes for the city.
CST shares faculty members, research projects, major events, and libraries with Claremont Graduate University, and many of the theological classes at CGU use the extensive library at CST. CGU students will continue to be able to use CST’s resources as long as CST is in Claremont, and CGU students can enroll in online courses if CST moves, the CST website said.
CST also maintains a relationship with local churches, such as the Claremont United Church of Christ.
“The transfer of Claremont School of Theology to Oregon will be a loss to the Claremont community, as their presence has historically contributed to our community's rich environment of learning, diversity, and civic engagement,” Claremont United Church of Christ's pastors Jacob Buchholz and Jen Strickland wrote in an email to TSL. “We send CST off with blessings for a strong and fruitful future. We cherish the history we share and the lasting imprint they have left on our community.”
The potential merging of CST and Willamette occurs after a period of financial struggle for CST. According to the Claremont Courier, CST was placed under review in 2015 for accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which certifies institutional eligibility for federal funding. Because of CST’s financial situation, WASC recommended that the graduate school sell excess lands that were underutilized.
Last fall, CST made a move to sell 10.5 acres of the 16.4-acre campus for $25 million, keeping only the classrooms and administrative and faculty offices.
Because of language in a 1957 agreement, in which CUC sold the land to CST, CUC had the right of first refusal – a contractual right that allowed CUC to enter a business transaction with CST before a third party could be involved. CUC deemed the land worth $4 million, a number from the original sale agreement.
The clause in question said that CUC could use a specific formula to calculate the amount that the land was worth. The formula adds the initial cost of the land – $110,000 – to the amount of added assets or facilities, minus depreciation. The final offer that CUC made to CST ended up being $14 million.
“We offered CST significantly more than the amount stipulated by the grant deed,” CUC spokeswoman Kim Lane wrote in an email to TSL. “The figure was based on a current market value provided by an externally hired contractor. We also offered to renovate and bring up to code some existing student housing units on the property and provide CST with the option of continuing to house students there.”
However, CST and CUC could not come to an agreement on the value of the land.
CST filed a complaint in August 2016 in the Los Angeles Superior Court against CUC in an effort to resolve the conflict, stating that CUC was offering far below market value for the land. The trial date is set for March 2018.
“Our first preference is to sell to the consortium, but we believe that CUC’s offer did not constitute a fair price,” an FAQ document on the CST website said. “After negotiations broke down, CUC notified us that it will take action to assert its claim to the property at the formula price in the 1957 deed. We disagree with CUC’s contention that the 1957 deed clause, which contained a formula for calculating the price of the property, controls the sale process. We believe that clause, under California law, expired in 1987, and cannot be renewed.”
Kuan and CST spokesman Kim Edwards declined to comment.
With payment for the land on hold, CST is pursuing the merge with Willamette for financial and ideological reasons.
“Willamette is one of few United Methodist universities in the western United States, which makes it possible for CST to retain both its affiliation as a United Methodist seminary and its reputation as an excellent academic program with a renowned Ph.D. program and library,” the CST website said.
The merge between CST and Willamette is currently in the process of due diligence, defined by the Willamette website as “an important process to evaluate whether embedding would be mutually beneficial and successful – strategically, financially, and legally. In addition, CST and Willamette hope to provide opportunities for students, faculty and staff members from both institutions to connect with one another.”