A special National Commission on United Methodist High Education announced this week that it would present to the denominational staff a list of 22 of the church's 107 colleges and universities that will have to close, merge or find new sources of major financial support to remain open.
"This is not a death list nor a decision to withdraw church support, but a 'most endangerd' list," said T. Michael Elliott, the commission's executive director, at a press conference here.
Elliott and two other officials indicated, however, that closure is considered likely in most of these schools.
They refused to name the institutions, which will be informed of the decision within a few weeks. Nor would they respond to questions about whether the church's seven major universities are on the list. These are American, Boston, Duke, Emory, Southern Methodist and Syracuse universities and the University of Denver. As a group, these schools receive the smallest proportion of direct church support.
The denomination invests $20 million annually, plus additional funds for capital improvement, in its educational institutions. It supports more colleges and universities than any other Protestant body and is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in the independent college sector.
Elliott conceded that the commission expects to receive "rather great opposition" from supporters of these schools. "They can deny the data," he added, "but only for awhile."
The only characteristic of the "endangered" category the officials would specify is that they "all are in financial difficulty," according to Dr. Paul Hardin, president of Drew University.
Although the national commission does not make church policy, the scope and depth of its 2 1/2 year study are expected to be persuasive.
The commission also is presenting to the church's division of higher education the names of seven other institutions "that we do not consider to be imminently endangered, but which we think could use some consultation, on special problems." Another 10 institutions will require "further investigation" because of a variety of questions raised by the study.
Methodist-related schools receive varying degrees of direct support from the church, from national to local levels. Although some of them receive less than 5 per cent of their annual income from the denomination, they still see the church connection as critical in generating further individual and corporate contributions and in shaping the atmosphere of the institutions.
In the past two centuries, the church has supported more than 800 educational institutions. Now the figure has dropped to 120 colleges, universities, junior colleges, secondary schools, seminaries and special schools.
Dr. F. Thomas Trotter, general secretary of the higher education board in Nashville, said the Methodist-related schools "suffer the same environmental distress as all other higher education," that is, enormously rising costs.
The church's black colleges receive 86 per cent of their operating income from the church, Trotter said. To withdraw support from them protection doest not constitute immunity, he acknowledged.
Church-related schools are limited in their eligibility for public funds. Recently Western Maryland College dropped its Methodist ties rather than risk losing public aid.
Despite the present difficulties, the denomination has adopted higher education as a top priority for 1980-84.
"We're not trying to shut down the system but reconceptualize it and at the same time reaffirm the importance of learning," Trotter said.
"We're also saying that it is time for the church to answer the question, does it want to be related to colleges, and for the colleges to determine whether they want to be related to the church."