CST relocation to Oregon continues to move forward

As Claremont School of Theology (CST) and Willamette University explore a possible merger, both sides are praising the other as a potential good fit.

CST announced the decision to look into the possibility of merging with the Salem, Oregon university with Methodist roots. A months-long process is needed to make sure both sides see a good fit for the future.

“We want to make sure our academic programs will be in sync with what the university is looking for,” said Rev. Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, current President of the Claremont School of Theology, said in a phone interview.

Willamette’s board of trustees voted to explore a possible partnership on June 22, with CST’s board recommending the same thing a day later. If the partnership moves forward, CST would move to the Oregon campus.

In a release sent on July 6, Rev. Kuan wrote the partnership was being explored due to CST, “facing serious financial challenges due, in large part, to the maintenance costs associated with our aging campus and the rising cost of higher education.”

CST’s decision comes months after a lawsuit filed last year against the Claremont University Consortium.

The suit, filed on August 31, 2016, centers on a deed drafted in 1957, which allows the CUC, then known as Claremont Graduate University, the first right of refusal on a potential sale.

Additionally, the deed stipulates that if the land were to be sold, the Consortium would pay the valuation of the land or the original cost of the land plus any additional assets or facilities added over the years, minus depreciation, according to a previous article in the COURIER.

CST initially sought $25 million for the property, but the CUC determined the value at $4 million based on a the formula outlined in the 1957 agreement. When CUC offered to buy the land for $14 million, CST refused and filed the suit, claiming the agreement expired in 1987 and was therefore invalid.

According to CST’s legal counsel Charles Clark of Jackson Tidus, the suit is still in its discovery phase, and the language in the initial complaint has not changed. The next discovery hearing is set for July 27 at Pomona Superior Court, with a trial date set for March 6, 2018.

Rev. Kuan said he was first to reach out to Willamette in regards to a possible merger back in December 2016. It took an additional six months of back-and-forth before going public with the due diligence process.

“We want to be sure this is a partnership that is mutually beneficial,” he said. “And so this is not just about economics, this is just about the two institutions in alignment with one another in terms of values, academic mission and so on and so forth.”

This was a sentiment shared by Willamette University spokesperson Adam Torgerson. He noted the two schools have a lot in common in terms of mission, historical roots and Willamette’s standing as a “nonsectarian school with strong Methodist roots.”

“It just seems like a great partnership between schools with similar dedication,” he said.

Rev. Kuan noted the possible merger with Willamette would also place the fledgling school in  better financial standing. Facilities and financial arrangements will be discussed during the due diligence process, he said.

“The reason behind Claremont School of Theology doing this, is it will allow us to be in a better financial position,” he explained. “And Willamette will also want to see that the School of Theology does not become a burden for the university. But it can be a win-win situation for both.”

The advantages of CST merging with Willamette are manifold, Rev. Kuan said. Willamette currently does not have a PhD program, and bringing in CST’s graduate-level courses will be a boon to the university, he noted.

Willamette is also interested in CST’s expansive library—“One of the best theological libraries in the country,” according to Rev. Kuan.

“These are things that Willamette is very interested in, the kind of progressive theological education that the entire Pacific Northwest does not currently have,” Dr. Kuan said.

In fact, Rev. Kuan noted, Willamette used to have a theological school of its own in the early half of the 20th Century, known as the Kimball School of Theology. But it was closed in 1930 during the Great Depression.

Mr. Torgerson said that while the process is still in its early stages, the schools are excited to work together.

“Everyone’s excited. If the diligence process turns out that it’s a great fit, I think everyone is very excited about it,” Mr. Torgerson said.

Current students at CST need not worry about packing their bags to move to Oregon anytime soon, Rev. Kuan said.

“Students who start this fall who are full time can expect to finish the program here,” he emphasized.

He added that the entire process to move could take two or three years, “because we still have students who cannot relocate, and we have a responsibility to our students.”

When asked about the current lawsuit against the CUC, Rev. Kuan did not offer any comment. But he did note that CST has tried their best to be “a good citizen” in the community.

But ultimately, after around 60 years in Claremont, it may be time to move on.

“We have to find a way to try again,” he said. “And we have decided that partnering and embedding with Willamette will allow us to have a secure future for a long time.”

—Matthew Bramlett



[A previous version of this article noted the CUC determined the price of the CST property at $4 million. The article was updated to clarify it was based on the language in the 1957 agreement. Additionally, the article has been updated to refier to Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan as Rev. Kuan.]


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