Trustees of Cook School for Christian Leadership have voted to sell their 16-acre campus in west Tempe and use the proceeds to create the Charles H. Cook Foundation to continue its nearly 100-year mission of training American Indians for leadership in their churches and communities.
The 41-year-old campus will close in late May, said Cook School president Larry Norris. Dwindling enrollment and sharply lower financial support led to the decision.
Campus staff has been cut to 12 after totaling nearly 30 just two years ago and could be down to four when the planned changes are made and Cook finds office space elsewhere, likely in the East Valley, Norris said. Only 6 percent of American Indians profess to being Christian, leaving too few interested in seeking an associate degree in Christian education and leadership through Cook, named for a German immigrant, Charles Cook, who first began leading classes for Pima Indians at Sacaton in 1911.
The campus at 708 S. Lindon Lane opened in 1966. Its facilities, including student housing, a conference center and other buildings, are showing signs of its age.
Members of about 100 American tribes have sent people to Cook through the years, Norris said. Cook, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), bills itself as having trained 75 percent of Christian pastors serving on American Indian reservations.
“We don’t need a 16-acre campus anymore to do what we are doing,” Norris said. “Every program we are doing now on this campus can actually be done off the campus,” he said.
Plans call for contracting with the Franciscan Renewal Center, a Roman Catholic retreat in Paradise Valley, for its winter and summer residential training programs.
Savings will also come by contracting people for program leadership, saving costs in full-time salaries and benefits, Norris said.
The president, who has been at Cook since 1984 in several roles, named these reasons for ending the school’s campus-based tradition:
• The “market for native American ministers has significantly declined.”
• Denominations and churches aren’t financially supporting the Tempe school as they had done for decades.
• Cook had shifted from being a place where American Indians had come to live for study.
Many are now opting to remain on their reservations or other places and take classes by extension or online.
In the past decade, Cook leaders had explored gaining academic accreditation, first by linking with a Baptist college in Oklahoma, but when that failed, it connected with the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa. But Indian students still didn’t show interest in enrolling.
“I can’t tell you how much money we are going to get for this campus,” Norris said Monday, but “it is worth many more millions of dollars, and we are close to nailing down a contract right now.”
A year ago, Norris told the Tribune the property was worth about $40 million.
The land is zoned residential, and the eventual buyer is eyeing turning the campus into homes.
“The money will be more than adequate to begin a foundation and to generate really enough money to probably do two or three times more programming than we are doing right now just off the interest,” he said. Aggressive fundraising will be launched to keep the foundation base growing, the president said.
The changes will bring “new life and an opportunity to become proactive in Native American ministries,” said the Rev. Martha Sadongei, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, which has long had an active ministry with Indians.
Known until recently as Cook College and Theological School, the institution has a prized American Indian library. Norris said talks have been under way to donate the collection to Arizona State University, Heard Museum in Phoenix or the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.
ASU, at this point, seems the likely recipient, Norris said, because that is “where the books will get good use.”
“What people need to keep in mind is that Cook School, for the past 100 years, has been in many different places and has assumed many different roles, but it has always been faithful to the mission and ministry of Charles Cook who wished to educate and empower and equip native people for leadership in their churches and their communities,” he said.