Beginnings: The Formation and Early Years of the Graduate Theological Union

By any standard, the Graduate Theological Union is unique. Envisioned as a grand experiment of cooperation and collaboration, the consortium overcame the early struggles of pioneering new ground in graduate theological education.

Berkeley was fertile soil for the germination of such an effort. By the 1950s, six seminaries representing a variety of Protestant traditions were located in the city – Berkeley Baptist Theological Seminary (later American Baptist Seminary of the West), Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion, and Starr King School for the Ministry – many wanting to be in proximity to UC Berkeley. CDSP and PSR were already allowing their students to take courses at the other when talks of a greater ecumenical effort began.

In 1958, an ad hoc committee was formed to explore the potential for formal partnerships among the schools. Starr King was not involved in the initial stages. PSR brought San Francisco Theological Seminary into the discussion in 1959 when it proposed housing a special department for graduate studies. Many of the schools disapproved of a model where one school served as the nexus for the cooperative effort.

The interseminary committee voted in March of 1961 to form a cooperative graduate program offering a Th.D. in Church History. However, the Church History faculty wanted the support of those in Biblical Studies and Theology. Many were fearful that their effort would meet the same fate as the renowned University of Chicago’s Federated Theological Faculty which disbanded in 1960 after 20 years. To allay concerns, all the seminaries except PSR moved to establish a distinct corporation to grant this new doctoral degree. The Articles of Incorporation were signed in September of 1962.

Even though Golden Gate BTS had relocated to Mill Valley in 1959, it participated for the first couple of years. PSR joined the consortium in 1964 along with Starr King and the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology (then College of St. Albert the Great located in Oakland). Alma College in Santa Cruz would join in 1966, relocating to the city in 1969 as the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. GTU would admit its final member in 1968 when Mission Santa Barbara moved becoming the Franciscan School of Theology. The addition of not one, but three, Catholic seminaries to an otherwise Protestant endeavor was quite a feat given Vatican II’s novelty.

The schools worked to consolidate their libraries into one collection, starting with the catalogs, making it easier to locate works. The GTU also forged an agreement with UC Berkeley, allowing students to cross-register, work with faculty, and securing library privileges.

Within a few years, some problems were notably apparent. Faculty struggled between their commitment to the common GTU endeavor and their respective institutions. Additionally, some supported changes to methods of examination and the means of evaluation, advocating for alterative projects and to abandon the grade and credit system. There were philosophical disagreements over generalized and specialized proficiency in each respective area. Students felt isolated in either schools of affiliation or academic areas.

However, the benefits continued to outweigh the growing pains. The consortium created one of the largest theological libraries in the nation, quickly becoming the heartbeat of the collaborative effort. Ph.D. and M.A. degrees were added and the areas of study expanded to eight from the initial three. Faculty had colleagues in their scholarly fields outside of their schools, and nearby. Students in all degree programs could register in courses across the consortium, adding to their academic vitality. After only ten years, the GTU had formally expanded beyond the dominance of white, male Christianity by founding centers for Judaic Studies, Urban-Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and Pacific and Asian Americans.

Today, the uniqueness of that initial endeavor continues — multiple traditions coming together to accomplish something greater than the individual parts could alone.