Christian college with United Methodist Church ties to close after 168 years

The campus of Birmingham-Southern College, a United Methodist Church-affiliated liberal arts school located in Birmingham, Alabama.
The campus of Birmingham-Southern College, a United Methodist Church-affiliated liberal arts school located in Birmingham, Alabama. | Screengrab: YouTube/BirminghamSouthern

A liberal arts college in Alabama with ties to The United Methodist Church will close in May after the current academic year ends amid financial struggles. 

The Birmingham-Southern College Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Wednesday to close the school on May 31, following the failure of state legislation that would have secured access to a loan program.

BSC Board of Trustees Chair Rev. Keith Thompson said in a statement after the vote that it was "a tragic day for the College, our students, our employees, and our alumni, and an outcome so many have worked tirelessly to prevent."

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"We understand the devastating impact this has on each of you, and we will now direct our efforts toward ensuring the smoothest possible transition for everyone involved," said Thompson.

"BSC leadership has already begun detailed planning for students who will be forced to transfer to other institutions as well as those who had planned to complete degree requirements this summer. Individual meetings will be scheduled when students return from spring break."

Thompson said, "BSC will continue normal operations, including classes, athletics, and extra-curricular activities" until the end of the semester.

"As Chair of the Board, as a proud alumnus, as the parent of three sons who attended BSC, and as a former member of the BSC staff, I want you to know that I share your heartbreak, anger, and frustration over the devastating loss of this 168-year-old treasure," he continued.

On a frequently-asked-questions page, the college said that for the past 20-some years, "BSC struggled to stabilize its finances through a series of leadership changes and challenges within and beyond its control."

"The College focused on raising unrestricted operating funds and drew too heavily on its shrinking endowment without making meaningful progress in increasing that endowment," added the FAQ page.

The college also cited significant financial setbacks, such as "several ambitious capital projects in the mid-2000s" that incurred "large debt to fund them" and a loss of about $25 million to its endowment when the financial markets crashed in 2009. In 2010, the college discovered "a material error in the budgeting of federal student financial aid, which came to about $5 million per year against a budget of $49 million."

"BSC will offer as much help as possible for its nearly 250 employees, almost all of whom will be displaced by May 31, with the rest to follow over the summer," continued BSC.

"Information has been distributed to them and meetings will be scheduled in the coming days to provide individualized consultation."

Founded as a private liberal arts college in 1856 and affiliated with the UMC, BSC boasted a student body of more than 1,200 students hailing from 34 states and nine countries.

UMC North Alabama Conference Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett issued a statement Thursday saying that she was "grieved at the closure of this exceptional College," which "leaves a great legacy."

"It has made countless contributions over the last 168 years. The College has shaped the lives of generations of leaders who have gone on to make meaningful impacts in their communities and beyond," Wallace-Padgett wrote.

"Our United Methodist Church has particularly benefited from the many talented individuals educated at Birmingham-Southern College who have served as ministers, educators and church and community leaders. The College's influence has been felt far and wide."

Across the country, other small private Christian colleges have been forced to close or move exclusively online as they have faced financial difficulties. 

In February, Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, announced it would close after more than 100 years in operation after efforts to keep the college open failed to "close the financial gap in time to satisfy debt obligations and allow the school to continue to operate independently." 

Earlier this month, Saint Augustine's University, a historically African American university in North Carolina affiliated with The Episcopal Church, announced it will be moving classes online due to financial and accreditation issues.

Last summer, Alliance University in New York, formerly known as Nyack College, an institution affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance founded in 1882, was forced to close its doors after losing accreditation amid financial difficulties.  

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