When the newest president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School first considered accepting the top position at the seminary, she saw an institution that shares her ideals.
“One of the things that most attracted me to the institution was its commitment to peace and justice,” says Rev. Angela Sims, who was appointed to her position effective July 1, 2019.
Sims plans to guide the school as it educates its students to act upon those ideals. At the same time, she intends to help the seminary solve some of the serious problems it faces as an institution of higher learning.
Sims is first woman to head CRCDS in its history and the first president to lead the seminary at its new location. She’s also the first Black woman to take the helm of any Rochester-area college.
For more than two centuries, CRCDS has served as one of the world’s leading progressive schools of theology. The seminary offers four graduate degrees, including Master of Divinity for Theological Professions and Doctor of Ministry degrees. All the degree programs offer academically rigorous courses that seek to prepare students to serve and care for all peoples, and to act as their advocates.
“There’s this legacy of individuals across the school’s history … actually living out this notion of commitment to peace and justice,” Sims says.
Laudable though that legacy is, CRCDS has faced a number of challenges in recent years. The difficulty of maintaining the beautiful-but-aging buildings on its 24-acre campus on Rochester’s South Goodman Street forced the school to sell the property in 2016. In August 2019, it moved to much smaller premises just over two miles away, in Village Gate Square.
CRCDS also has drawn fewer and fewer new students to its programs each year. Annual enrollment has fallen precipitously since 2018, and might not improve next year. As it tries to boost enrollment, the school also has to expand and improve its remote instructional programs, along with the software and technologies that they require.
The institution does not disclose its finances, Sims says. It has 20 people on its payroll.
To those challenges, Sims brings the knowledge she’s gained in business and academic positions, her personal skills and a great deal of energy and determination. Carey Newman, a longtime friend of Sims who has published one of her books, calls her a “force of nature.”
“Both Angela and her work have such moral force,” Newman says. “She’s just one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.”
From business to theology
Sims was born in Louisiana to a Baptist family, and eventually moved with her mother to Hayward, Calif. Her late mother, grandmother and godmother were strong influences.
“I have been shaped by individuals who loved to read, who also had a really big sense of community service and commitment to the church,” Sims says.
Unfortunately, no woman, no matter how committed, could serve in their church’s highest positions.
“They could take leadership positions, but they could not be clergy,” Sims says. “That went unchallenged until I was in my late 20s.”
After graduating from high school, Sims earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and entered the corporate world. Over the next three decades, she held progressively more responsible positions in the finance departments of various businesses. She rose to become the controller of the Teaching Company in Virginia, before leaving her business career in 2003.
After exiting the world of business, Sims became an ordained minister and earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Ph.D. in Christian social ethics. As a postgraduate student, she focused on lynching and its effects upon Blacks.
“That culture of lynching was always designed to affect a predetermined outcome; really designed to control human behavior,” Sims says.
That form of control has raised its ugly head many times in the U.S. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 Blacks were lynched in the U.S., nearly 73 percent of all who were murdered in that way. As part of her research on the subject, Sims became the principal investigator for an oral history project. “Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice” took her around the country to interview people who had witnessed those crimes, or were affected by them.
“The great moral virtue of it was that she was putting into the record these stories that otherwise were going to escape memory,” Newman says. “Those who witnessed and experienced firsthand the traumas of lynching were in the process of dying off.”
Sims’s research also gave her the chance to make a new friend. AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, was a graduate student in 2007 when she encountered Sims at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics.
The two discovered they had a lot in common. Both had come to the academic world after business careers and Mingo also was gathering oral histories, though her subjects were Black church women who had been active in the civil rights movement.
“We both at times deal with heavy materials as we are going through some of the research,” Mingo says.
The seriousness of their research helped draw the two women closer. Sims became a mentor and good friend to Mingo, and the two have supported each other academically and personally down through the years.
“She considers my dog her ‘little doggie nephew,’ and checks in on him as often as she checks in on me,” Mingo says.
At the time that Sims conducted her research, Newman was the director of the Waco, Texas, publishing house Baylor University Press. With his assistance as editor and publisher, she turned her research into a book. “Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror” is an analysis of lynching and its effects upon Blacks and American culture. Those effects continue to be felt today.
“I see the architecture of lynching culture very much present today,” Sims says. “It is the pervasive presence of evil that seeks to thwart a people’s ability not to survive, but to thrive.”
A commitment to peace and justice
In 2014, Sims was appointed dean of academic programs at the Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Kansas. She advanced to the position of vice president of institutional advancement and then was hired to lead CRCDS.
The Rochester institution’s curriculum is designed to help students learn how to detect and understand the social and political ills that have long plagued this country.
“Our curriculum introduces students to the ways in which the multiple ‘isms—racism, sexism etc.—all intersect with each other,” Sims says. “One cannot understand a particular moral issue in isolation.”
Sims encourages those who have detected such problems to take action.
“A commitment to peace, service and justice requires us to actually give forth to counter evil, and to start by naming it for what it is,” she says. “If we need to name white supremacy for what white supremacy is, we need to do that.”
The death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died a week after being taken into custody by Rochester police officers, could warrant such action.
“When I think about this issue of policing in any jurisdiction, at the heart of that is who gets to decide who is treated with dignity, and who is not,” Sims says. “My hope is that Colgate students will always understand that they are called to actually align themselves on the side of those persons who are most frequently not granted full humanity status.”
While fostering such views among CRCDS students, Sims also hopes to increase her school’s emphasis on women and gender studies, and on some aspects of Black religious life and culture. As part of that effort, she wants to establish collaborative relationships with Rochester-area colleges that have women and gender studies programs.
“I would love … for their undergraduate students to actually see Colgate Rochester as a pipeline for graduate and theological studies. A pipeline that would bring them to us,” Sims says.
Meeting challenges and needs
In addition to advancing such ideas, Sims is tackling some of the more immediate problems facing CRCDS. When the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown hit New York, the seminary had to quickly shift from in-person to online instruction. That pushed faculty members to redesign courses to work online, and both academics and administrators had to begin using software that wasn’t always completely up to the task.
“We are currently doing all of our instruction using Zoom and Moodle in real time,” Sims says. “That is not long-term sustainable.” (Moodle is an online learning management program.)
In a bid to meet students’ needs in the coming years, CRCDS is reviewing its curricula and redesigning its program delivery options.
CRCDS employees and faculty also must be trained to use new software. In addition, the school’s instructors will have to learn how to more effectively design the kinds of online courses they plan to teach. Sims says the school plans to begin phasing in new software and instructional techniques in next fall.
As CRCDS makes those changes, it will also have to deal with another problem: declining enrollment. Just 62 students signed up for its programs this year, a nearly 44 percent drop from 2016. By contrast, full-time equivalent enrollment at U.S. Protestant, interdenominational and nondenominational seminaries rose by nearly 8 percent overall during that period.
Sims blamed some of the enrollment decline on the uncertainty that surrounded CRCDS’ decision to sell its South Goodman Street campus.
“It’s my understanding that there were messages within the Rochester community and beyond about whether or not the school was going to sell; whether or not the school was going to remain viable,” Sims says.
CRCDS’ focus on in-person instruction also might have contributed to the problem.
“If your courses are only offered on an on-ground basis, you have automatically restricted the potential for new students,” Sims says. “We need to be more accessible to students who don’t reside in the Rochester metropolitan area.”
CRCDS is planning to change the way it offers its programs to try to boost enrollment.
“We plan to increase access through development and implementation of multiple program modalities across all program offerings,” Sims says.
The four-year strategic plan that the CRCDS Board of Trustees approved in May laid out a number of other steps that the school can take to boost enrollment. For starters, the seminary intends to provide the kinds of professional development programs that its faculty and staff will need in the coming years. It’s also reaching out to those who might provide more support for the school.
“We are really focusing on strengthening our relationships with our alumni, friends of the school, (and) with various ecclesial (church or denominational) bodies,” Sims says.
At the same time, CRCDS is examining the possibility of offering more scholarships to students.
“One of the areas that we know we need to attend to is that of student indebtedness,” Sims says. “We only provide scholarships to maybe 2 percent of our D.Min. class, which is the largest composition of our students.”
For the 2020-21 academic year, the full tuition cost for Master of Divinity, M.A. and Doctor of Ministry students are $46,644, $28,704 and $17,940, respectively.
As she helps CRCDS address the challenges it faces, Sims is also exploring the place she now calls home.
“I love to walk,” she says. “I have not been to each of the Finger Lakes, but I’m trying to make my way to each one.”
Despite the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the married mother and grandmother also has managed to sample some of the area’s cuisines.
“Even in this moment, the fact that I’m able to do takeout is still a way to experience the culture,” Sims says.
Newman, who serves on the CRCDS board, hopes that Sims’ new home will discover the treasure it recently acquired.
“I hope that in due course, Rochester discovers the jewel they have in Angela Sims,” he says. “She makes everyone better.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.