(Incidentally, allow me to note the following: 1) if I can’t figure out what side of your “innovative” curriculum is up, I would suggest that perhaps there is a problem with it. I’m talking to you, Northeastern Seminary. 2) If there’s a howler in your catalog, I will find it and archive it—no matter how many times you include a photoshopped version of it in later catalogs. I’m talking to you, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.)
Now, my inquiry has certainly not been restricted to ATS-accredited institutions because, on the one hand, a great many respectable university graduate programs in religious studies are not ATS accredited; and on the other, several church-related, unaccredited seminaries do offer, in fact, a theological education of excellence. (I’m thinking of such fine institutions as the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI and the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, SC.) Of course, when one opens the door to unaccredited institutions, one will inevitably chance upon many of the degree mills and other institutions of specious academic solvency operating out there. One of my all-time favorites in this latter category is the (in)famous Trinity College and Theological Seminary of Newburgh, IN.
Trinity, once a bona fide degree mill which for that very reason was chased out of the State of Ohio, settled in its corner of Southern Indiana in 1978. Since then, through front-cover ads on Christianity Today (which, I understand, have been discontinued) and other means of advertisement, the school developed a large constituency of non-residential students who were able to earn a variety of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees through correspondence coursework. Unfortunately, the quality of such work was weak at best. Trinity’s big moneymaker was always their ThD (later PhD) program, which required a fraction of the effort demanded by established, residential, and accredited doctoral programs, and minimal tuition by comparison.
Over the past several years, however, things seemed to be changing at Trinity. Firstly, they increasingly started to involve faculty from accredited seminaries, as well as other established scholars with impeccable credentials, in supervising and grading the work of their distance learners; people with real academic positions and earned research doctorates from such regionally and professionally accredited institutions as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dallas Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, The University of Pittsburgh, Purdue University, Michigan State University, The University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and others. This necessarily raised the level of instruction at the school, a change almost immediately reflected in the literature required for academic coursework, which now resembles in many ways what is read in many Evangelical seminaries across North America. (For details, check out Trinity’s virtual bookstore.) These positive changes had a purpose, of course: Trinity applied for regional accreditation, and was granted candidacy status by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 2004. However, Trinity resigned from their candidacy status in October 2006, and this after having conducted a self-study and hosting a (reportedly positive) accreditation team visit. It is rumored that allegations of financial impropriety and the establishment of a “satellite” PhD program to compensate for the loss of their own profitable PhD, which would have been sacrificed in the process, brought Trinity’s promising bid for regional accreditation to an abrupt end. Still, the many positive changes recently instituted seem to be permanently in place.
In light of all of the foregoing, it has always been a source of great wonderment to me that Trinity has managed to establish a legitimate relationship of one kind or another with a number of British universities. In 1996, the University of Liverpool granted accreditation to Trinity’s programs “as of an appropriate level and quality.” After 2002, British accreditation (later only endorsement) was extended by Canterbury Christ Church University instead. And now, as of 14 September 2007, Trinity appears to have been validated by none other than the University of Wales! This allows Trinity to offer a number of University of Wales bachelor’s and master’s programs, through coursework done entirely through Trinity. The degree is granted solely by the University of Wales, however, which is also the guardian of the transcripts after the students complete their program. The UW coursework is separate from Trinity’s regular courses, but it is supervised and graded by Trinity faculty (the quality of which, again, has improved drastically over the past several years).
What Trinity stands to gain by such arrangements is immediately evident, but I wonder, what do British universities (and UW, in particular) gain from this? It is certainly not money, because Trinity isn’t charging any more for the University of Wales degrees than they’ve been charging for their own. Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: at least for the time being, a small, unaccredited, and even infamous school has somehow managed to turn their corner of Southern Indiana into the Welsh countryside, and a tiny little town just east of Evansville into a campus of the Prifysgol Cymru. As they say, one can’t make this stuff up! I find it all quite fascinating, and of course, I intend to keep watching.
[UPDATE: The University of Wales finally cut its ties with Trinity as of November 2008. See the BBC news report here.]