This past weekend I was at the conference “The Idea of a Catholic College: Charism, Curricula, and Community” at King’s College.  It brought together college presidents, including John Jenkins, C.S.C. of Notre Dame, several mission officers and chief academic officers, professors from numerous disciplines, and even the Assistant Director for Higher Education for the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Education.  It was a two-day series of papers and discussions about the current state and future of Catholic institutions of higher education.  As I sat through the conference, five themes emerged that seemed to be affecting Catholic higher education.

1.  Catholic Higher Education is pulled in opposite directions.  Emerging in several papers were the seeming contradictory demands placed upon Catholic higher education.  As institutions of higher education, these schools are to:

  • overcome the silos of academy disciplines while also focusing more intentionally on STEM
  • foster creative thinking while also doing job preparation
  • provide a top notch education, residence life experience, and athletics, while also making the overall cost cheaper.

As Catholic, these colleges and universities are to:

  • focus on metrics and outcome but also provide meaning and direction to people’s lives
  • promote their distinctive educational experience while also being willing to accept credits from almost any institution and in almost any format
  • form the whole person but are measured by how much money their graduates make
  • admit students to sustain the institution but are measured by denying students access (see Acceptance Rates for US News and World Report)
  • hire candidates faithful to the Catholic mission but must choose from a pool of candidates not trained in nor encouraged to think about religious issues in relationship to their work.

2.  Catholic identity is a unity in diversity.  Given the diversity of people there, it was clear that there were different ways to think about and embody Catholic identity.  Professional schools sought to guide their education by an ethics rooted in a Catholic worldview.  Some worked to address Catholic identity through hiring for mission while others understood Catholic identity through the ways in which they served at risk populations.  The most obvious diversity was through the particular religious orders.  Benedictines had differences in their approach than the Jesuits who differed from the Congregation of the Holy Cross who differed from the Franciscans.  It was clear that there was not a boilerplate Catholic identity for use by everyone everywhere.

Still, these institutional representatives all saw their work as distinctively Catholic.  The differences were not about who is “in or out” but different ways to negotiate the breadth and riches of Catholicism.  There is no way to embody all aspects of the Catholic intellectual tradition in one college or university, so these places sought ways into the tradition, ways that they could successfully promote and pass on to their students.  It was a realization that there is a Catholic difference but also a multiplicity of ways to embody this difference.

3.  Catholic education fosters a broad and deep intellectual life. So many people noted that the culture we inhabit tends to foster truncated thinking.  We read only portions of articles, and our attention is constantly disrupted as we are irresistibly drawn to our phones’ whistles and bells. Catholic higher education has the potential to work against this superficial approach to life and learning.  It allows faculty and students to ask questions beyond the confines of their discipline and also situates all professional and discipline specific work in the context of a Catholic liberal arts tradition.  It fosters thinking in ways that are often marginalized in our culture.

4.  Faculty are key to Catholic identity.  Whether it is explaining the Catholic intellectual tradition, or teaching it, or relating it to a field of study, or fostering a desire for it in students, faculty are the ones primarily doing it. They are ones that have the knowledge or the ability to acquire the knowledge about Catholicism and have the context for engaging students.  Faculty, everyone seemed to acknowledge, are key.

Yet, most faculty are not trained by Catholic institutions nor trained (or even encouraged) to think about anything beyond the confines of their discipline.  Moreover, at most Catholic college and universities, Catholic identity is a question raised only during the interview.  It is a gateway question and even, at times, a litmus test.  Yet, the Catholic tradition is something learnt over time.  Faculty may be interested and committed to it, but, fresh off from the narrow research of a dissertation, they may not be able to articulate this well.  Moreover, institutions rarely provide opportunities for faculty to learn the tradition or reflect on how their discipline fits within it.  There is rarely any reward for doing research for the broader public or teaching across disciplines or team teaching, and so the chance that faculty can grow and learn the tradition is limited.  In short, faculty are key but rarely supported to better learn and teach the Catholic intellectual tradition.

5.  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a task force on higher education.  Barbara McCrabb, the Assistant Direct of Higher Education for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education, announced that this secretariat had formed a task force on Higher Education to address issues emerging from the ten year review of Ex corde ecclesia.  McCrabb said the committee was made up of six bishops and presidents from six Catholic institutions—Emmanuel College (MA), Catholic University of America, Thomas Aquinas College (NY), University of Saint Thomas (FL), Loyola University Chicago, and Benedictine College (KS). (I reconstructed this list from memory with the help of others.  If you see a mistake, please let me know.)

This announcement raised two immediate questions.  First, how representative is this group of presidents for Catholic colleges?  Several larger institutions (e.g., Notre Dame, DePaul, St. Johns University (NY)) seemed missing, and a disproportionate number are on the Cardinal Newman Society’s list of recommended colleges (2 out 6, 30%, when this list represents less than 5% of all Catholic colleges and universities). Second, stemming from the first, how was this particular set of presidents chosen?  What factors were considered to arrive at this group as representative of Catholic higher education?

On first impression, the lack of theological diversity, an official press release, and clear selection criteria makes it seem like the task force is a nascent investigation of Catholic institutions and their commitment to higher education. If this is the case (and I hope I am mistaken), it is a bit disheartening as so much has been done in the almost 25 years since On Catholic Universities (Ex corde ecclesia) (a reality even the USCCB acknowledges).  One would hope more for a spirit of solidarity, as so many people are working so hard to embody Catholic identity and hand it on to the diversity of students that attend their particular institutions.  This conference revealed this commitment and seemed to elicit some of the serious struggles facing Catholic identity.  Let’s hope the discussion and progress continues.

[Please note: I updated the list of schools for the USCCB’s task force on 10/9/14 based on feedback.  This update moved the number of schools on the Cardinal Newman Society list down to 2 out 6.  I made these changes based on information from others at the conference.  Thanks for the help.]