A Circle without a Center

The crisis in Catholic higher education
Students on the campus of Villanova University, March 11, 2021 (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

The typical experience of publishing a book is that you work for years on the manuscript, celebrate when you submit it to the publisher, and then…you wait, often for more than a year, until the book finally appears. If your book’s subject is time-sensitive, you also pray, during that year or so of waiting, that what you’ve written won’t prove out of date by the time it reaches readers.

That has not been the fate of James L. Heft’s The Future of Catholic Higher Education. On the contrary, the “future” of Catholic higher education that Heft concerns himself with might have arrived more quickly because of the pandemic: problems that were expected to show up in five years—e.g., a significant decline in enrollments—are instead happening right now. The upshot is that Heft’s book may be even more timely than he had hoped.

One of the virtues of The Future of Catholic Higher Education is that Heft is well aware of the many differences among Catholic colleges and universities, so he’s careful not to overgeneralize even when seeking to identify common challenges. After all, the present moment might be a golden age for Notre Dame or Georgetown or Boston College, while the great number of much smaller, tuition-dependent institutions struggle mightily with the rising costs of higher education, the decline in the population of traditional college-age students, and what Holy Cross’s new president, Vince Rougeau, recently called “the pressure to produce ‘job-ready’ graduates.” (So much for the liberal arts! It’s a pre-professional world now.) In his review of Heft’s book for Commonweal, Dennis O’Brien likened it to Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. I will follow that hint by formulating my own response to Heft as three scholastic-style questions that readers associated with Catholic colleges and universities can consider for themselves.

As O’Brien notes, the heart of Heft’s book is his model for Catholic higher education—“the open circle” of the book’s subtitle. According to Heft, “A Catholic university should be an ‘open circle’”: the center of that circle should be Catholic intellectual life, but the university also should be open to engaging “other traditions” and “a wide variety of ideas.” In other words, it should be both distinctively Catholic in its intellectual milieu and broadly catholic, or universal, in its interests and ambition.

This is an attractive model, but Heft, to his credit, doesn’t confuse it with reality. The attentive reader will find a number of caveats throughout the book. For example: “We have few Catholic intellectuals to engage in that conversation.” “Catholic intellectuals…are, unfortunately, fewer in number than Catholics with doctorates.” Yet, without Catholic intellectuals, “it is impossible to have a Catholic university.” To the point, “will the major Catholic colleges and universities remain Catholic? I answer yes, but very much on the condition that faculty develop vibrant forms of Catholic intellectual life.” Finally, “unless a core of the faculty at a Catholic university remains committed to the educational relevance of Jesus Christ and the Catholic intellectual tradition, the Catholic university’s distinctive intellectual and existential dimensions will weaken and eventually disappear.”

Another virtue of Heft’s book is that he doesn’t rest content with invocations of the abstraction known as the Catholic intellectual tradition. Yes, that phrase appears in the last sentence I quoted, but together with “the educational relevance of Jesus Christ,” a much less common formulation. What’s more, Heft actually considers the question, “How do Catholic intellectuals think?”—and his answer isn’t that they are always contemplating ideas in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition firmament. Instead, he suggests that Catholic intellectuals are grounded, in subtle but decisive ways, in the doctrines of creation and the incarnation. This grounding explains two distinctive patterns of Catholic intellectual life: “the more deeply [Catholic intellectuals] explore what it means to be human, the more inescapable [for them] are religious questions, and…the more deeply they plunge into any area of scholarship, the more likely they will find it necessary to make connections with other areas of knowledge.” That may seem a little schematic, but it does seem clear that there is a lot to learn by thinking further along these lines.

 

Tenure and promotion decisions generally don’t take into account mission fit, but only teaching, scholarship, and service.

The first of my scholastic-style questions is: Whether it is in fact a priority for Catholic colleges and universities in the United States today to hire Catholic intellectuals? Again, there are many differences among the several hundred Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. And no doubt for some of these institutions hiring “Catholic intellectuals” is a priority, especially for theology positions and occasionally for philosophy. Nonetheless, in a chapter on Catholic-studies programs, Heft speaks generally of “years of inattentiveness on the part of…leadership and faculty” to the need to hire and form Catholic intellectuals. That seems accurate for the most part. Otherwise, why would Catholic-studies programs even be needed? When faculty control hiring, as they usually do, a candidate’s being a Catholic intellectual (or a Christian intellectual, or simply a religious intellectual) may often be more of a liability than an asset. Faculty tend to replicate themselves. The upshot is that a single decade of indifference or even hostility to hiring Catholic intellectuals can easily lead to several decades of indifference or hostility.

A further complication is that faculty searches are normally for new PhDs to serve as assistant professors. Let’s assume that a search committee is interested in hiring a Catholic intellectual. How can it tell, when there is often very little to judge by in a new PhD’s résumé? The fact that search committees are hardly ever looking for mid-career academics with a record of scholarship and public engagement suggests that institutions value saving money more than hiring Catholic intellectuals. Much more money goes to business professors who have often never even heard of Catholic social thought. It’s also telling that tenure and promotion decisions generally don’t take into account mission fit, but only teaching, scholarship, and service. So long as faculty members publish and teach adequately—and serve on committees now and then—they can be as un-Catholic or even anti-Catholic as they like.

The Future of Catholic Higher Education discusses only in passing a dominant preoccupation at many Catholic colleges and universities today: hiring for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Without question, the historical exclusion and marginalization of Black and Latino/Latina people from Catholic higher education are wrongs that should be righted. What’s more, the anti-Black racism of U.S. Catholicism is woven deeply into our institutions in ways that we’re just beginning to appreciate. (See Emma McDonald’s review of Maureen O’Connell’s Undoing the Knots.) But that leads to my second question: Whether Catholic colleges and universities in the United States today have integrated hiring for DEI into an encompassing program of hiring for mission? Heft remarks that “if the faculty at a Catholic college gives priority only to hiring a diverse faculty, then they will have diversity within their faculty but eliminate diversity among universities.” It would be instructive to see data in this regard. For example, how many Catholic colleges and universities train search committees about hiring for diversity, and how many also train committees about hiring for mission? Further, how many hold workshops for current faculty and staff about DEI issues, and how many also hold workshops about Catholic intellectual life?

My third and final question is this: Whether Catholic colleges and universities in the United States today have the leadership they need? Heft includes among the major challenges to Catholic higher education “lay leaders who are not very knowledgeable about the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Having spoken recently at a presidents’ retreat of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, I’m inclined to be more optimistic. (Remarkably, in the 2022-2023 academic year, only five of twenty-seven Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States will have a Jesuit president—and one of them is interim.) What’s more, religious leaders sometimes bring with them an unhealthy culture of deference and deep-seated clerical habits of secrecy and domination. Heft speaks, however, from wider experience than mine, and there is certainly a trend among academic administrators to serve at an institution for four or five years and then seek to become a higher-level administrator elsewhere. Giving the faculty what they want is a way to be liked and to build a favorable reputation, but it’s not always a good way to build up a Catholic college or university as Catholic. To that end, Catholic colleges and universities need to hire, value, and retain people who do Catholic work. They also need to get a clearer idea about what exactly that work is, even as some of them struggle to keep the lights on.

Bernard G. Prusak is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, will be published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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