HAMILTON — Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s accreditation may be in jeopardy “if current conditions continue or worsen,” according to the agency that evaluates hundreds of New England colleges.

The New England Commission of Higher Education voted in September to issue a “notation” regarding Gordon-Conwell, an evangelical Protestant graduate school in Hamilton. In a statement, the commission said the decision was made in respect to its standards on “Institutional Resources.”

Barbara Brittingham, the commission’s president, said in an interview that those standards generally have to do with money. Gordon-Conwell’s expenses exceeded revenues by $2.1 million in 2017, according to the latest available financial records.

Brittingham said issuing a notation “is the commission’s way of letting the public know when there are issues of a certain magnitude, but short of probation or withdrawal of accreditation.”

Gordon-Conwell will be “closely monitored” by the commission and will be the subject of a “focused evaluation” within two years to assess whether it has successfully addressed the concerns, the agency said in the joint statement with the school. If Gordon-Conwell is not meeting standards, the commission will ask the school to “show cause” why it should not be on probation or why its accreditation should not be withdrawn.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary was founded in 1969 by a group that included famed evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham. Its main campus and headquarters are located on 118 acres off Essex Street in South Hamilton, with 467 students and tuition of $21,300. It also has campuses in Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida, with about 1,313 masters-level students enrolled in all campuses, according to the school. 

Seminary responds

In a statement issued jointly with the commission, Gordon-Conwell chairman Bishop Claude Alexander said the seminary is taking steps under its new leadership to address what he called the commission’s “abrupt recommendations.” Scott Sunquist took over as Gordon-Conwell’s new president in July and was inaugurated in October.

Alexander said Gordon-Conwell has implemented plans to grow enrollment, increase fundraising, improve revenue streams, focus degree programs, and “simplify structural overlaps.”

“Our vision will continue: To develop a thoughtful, loving, and Christ-centered community of global discipleship,” Alexander said.

Gordon-Conwell’s expenses exceeded revenues by a combined $3.7 million in 2016 and 2017, according to financial records. But James Critchlow, an assistant professor of biblical languages who is the seminary’s accreditation liaison officer, said the school is not in financial trouble.

Critchlow said Sunquist had only been in office for three months when the accrediting agency made its announcement. Sunquist and the board of trustees have made “very aggressive changes” since then, Critchlow said.

Critchlow said seminaries across the United States and Canada are competing for fewer students as education is shifting online. He said Gordon-Conwell is one of the largest institutions overseen by the Association of Theological Schools, which is based in Pittsburgh. The New England Commission of Higher Education is one of five regional bodies that watches over Gordon-Conwell, he said.

Mount Ida effect

Critchlow also said the commission changed its accreditation standards after the controversial closure of Mount Ida College in 2018. The last-minute closing has put pressure on colleges, accrediting agencies and government officials to more closely monitor the finances of private colleges to prevent students from being hurt by sudden shutdowns.

Brittingham said the ‘notation’ is a new action developed by the commission last year as a way of keeping the public informed.

“When prospective students visit the campus they can find someone and ask them what this means and how is it going,” she said.

Brittingham said there is no formula to determine when an institution receives a notation, calling it a “judgment call.”

The New England Commission of Higher Education is one of seven regional higher education accrediting bodies in the United States. Its role is to provide “public assurance” about the educational quality of degree-granting institutions, according to its website. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.