Mission, Missteps & Renewal

Saving the Catholic University of America
The campus of The Catholic University of America is seen from the bell tower of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Few people would consider Caldwell Hall, the formidable Romanesque home of Catholic University’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, a playground. Yet for me and my four younger siblings it was.

Our mother, Robin Darling Young, a professor of theology, brought us there on days when we didn’t have school and she couldn’t find a sitter. We loved every minute of it. We made the place our own, tiptoeing into the building’s serene chapel, chatting with the school’s friendly secretary, running up the beautiful curved wooden staircase, and sending scraps of paper fluttering down to the basement. We visited with her colleagues and graduate students. We even (once or twice) sat (mostly) quietly in the back of our mother’s classrooms.

Little did I know then that, thirty years later, I would be giving lectures at the front of those same classrooms.

I am delighted to be an associate professor of History at The Catholic University of America, where I teach graduate and undergraduate classes about Latin America, migration, and Latino Catholicism, and where I write books and articles about Mexican migration to the United States. These days, I occasionally bring my own three children to campus when they don’t have school and I can’t find a sitter. They tiptoe around the corridors of O’Boyle Hall, binge-watch YouTube cartoons in my office (if only YouTube had existed in 1988…), and receive benevolent greetings from my kind colleagues and students.

So, my earliest connections with The Catholic University of America have brought me full circle: the campus where I played as a child is now a place that my own children love to play. Even better, my mother—after a decade teaching at another institution—has returned to teach here, which means that my children get to visit their grandmother on campus as well.

But this is also a bittersweet story. For years now, enrollment has been hit-or-miss, a fact that wreaks havoc on the finances of tuition-dependent institutions such as ours. Accordingly, research and departmental budgets have dwindled dramatically, particularly in the Arts and Humanities. And as any visitor can see, our campus has fallen on hard times: the classrooms are outdated, and students complain about the age of their dorms and the quality of the dining hall food. One building, the venerable Marist Hall (built in 1899), has been condemned, and now sits closed and dark on the northern end of campus. There are simply no funds to repair it.

Even more heartbreaking is the turmoil that the budget crisis has created. As the public has recently learned, the community at The Catholic University of America is currently confronting the administration’s “Proposal for Academic Renewal,” a plan that aims to address the budgetary gaps by laying off full-time faculty (including some who are tenured), by reorganizing academic units into new schools and programs without sufficient consultation with the heads of those units, and by redistributing teaching loads across the university in a way that divides departments into “winners” and “losers,” without regard to research productivity or student demand for classes.

That Catholic University is in need of renewal is in no doubt whatsoever

That Catholic University is in need of renewal is in no doubt whatsoever. But from my perspective, the current proposal is a grave misstep. I object in particular to the plan to lay off full-time and tenured faculty without cause or due process, which threatens the very academic freedom that tenure protects, and also risks exposing the university to costly lawsuits. This part of the plan has generated fear and divisiveness across campus. Furthermore, it will result in an erosion of Catholic University’s national standing as a research institution, and undermine its mission of “excellence in teaching and research.”

My reaction might seem self-serving, since I am a member of that faculty. Yet my sorrow comes not from my own fears of losing my job, but from my pride in the quality of the university’s academic reputation, and my sense of solidarity with my colleagues (tenured, tenure-track, and contract). Furthermore, I believe that alternative solutions are possible. I think I know what it will take to make The Catholic University of America a more attractive place for undergraduates, because I once was one: I graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and Art in 2001.

As the eldest of five college-bound children, I was thrilled when I was accepted as an Honors student to Catholic University, which generously gives the children of faculty free tuition. In August 1997, I drove myself across town to CUA’s orientation. I don’t really remember the trust-building exercises and rallies (although I know there was a game involving M&Ms), but I vividly recall the Honors orientation, where I sat with ten other students on a couch in the commuter lounge discussing The Sorrows of Young Werther with the formidable Ingrid Merkel, a renowned scholar of German and the founder and director of the University’s superb Honors program.

Within weeks, I was reading Eusebius and Justin Martyr with Fr. David Johnson, SJ; writing about Plato and Aristotle for Fr. Kurt Pritzl, OP (may their memories be eternal); analyzing Bernini and the Pietà with Nora  Heimann; contemplating Jacques Derrida in English 101; and becoming acquainted with the work of Edward Said in my Sociology class. It was utterly fascinating, and it never stopped. Semester after semester, I grappled with the classics and dove into cutting-edge research. I gladly took my four required Theology courses and my four required Philosophy courses, becoming very well acquainted with the Catechism, Biblical exegesis, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, philosophical principles of logic, and the deep Catholic intellectual traditions that undergird the church, and indeed, Western thought.

Meanwhile, my professors pointed me towards professional opportunities, kindly and patiently engaged with me during office hours, and encouraged my growing interest in the rest of the world. They helped me to get course credit when I participated in study abroad programs in Mexico, Cuba, and Poland. They never failed to make time for me in office hours or on campus. They worked with me to craft research projects that incorporated my growing interest in Mexico and Latin America.

When my younger sister joined me on campus, we took classes together, often breaking for lunch with our professors (and sometimes, our proud mother) in the now-repurposed Caldwell Cafeteria. The two of us started an art club that met in the first floor of Salve Regina, mingled with brooding architecture students as they burned the midnight oil in their studios, and ventured out constantly to museums and libraries across D.C. to complete assignments for our classes. We had a marvelous time—and we got a world-class Catholic education.

Indeed, the caliber of the education I received at Catholic well prepared me to enter elite graduate schools. At both NYU and Chicago, most of my friends had earned their BAs from Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, and other much more renowned places: never once did I feel under-prepared in comparison.

I had long been interested in migration from Mexico, but my Catholic University education made me aware of Mexican migrants’ Catholic heritage and traditions, and their relationship to the church.

Furthermore, the professors I encountered at Catholic—and the curriculum I followed, which remains largely the same—helped to kindle the questions that would drive my graduate research. I had long been interested in migration from Mexico, but my Catholic University education made me aware of Mexican migrants’ Catholic heritage and traditions, and their relationship to the church.

Ultimately, I wrote my dissertation—which would become my book—on Mexican emigration during the Cristero War, a violent conflict between church and state in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. While conducting research, I returned to Catholic University to consult its extensive archives, where I dug through files of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the predecessor organization to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letters and documents I found there were invaluable in unlocking a historical narrative about the deep and enduring Catholic faith of Mexico’s emigrants, exiles, and refugees.

For all these reasons, I jumped at the chance to apply for a job in the History Department at Catholic University. When they hired me in 2011, I couldn’t believe my luck. Seven years later, I am still happy to teach at The Catholic University of America. My department and colleagues across the university—including the provost and president—have been supportive of me and my research on many occasions.

Yet, at the same time, I am saddened to find that the university today is no longer the place it was when I was there. Faculty and staff morale is very low, and there is a new culture of fear, divisiveness, and mistrust between departments, administrators, and staff. No one—not even senior tenured faculty—wants to speak out, for they risk being fired and being accused of insufficient support for the university’s mission. At times it seems that the administration’s interpretation of Catholicism—and of who belongs in the Catholic Church—has narrowed considerably since I was an undergraduate. If the Proposal for Academic Renewal is implemented as currently designed, this dispiriting scenario will only grow worse.

But I still have hope. Catholic University’s core—its brilliant faculty, its sweet and inquisitive students, its spirit of inquiry, and the community’s pride in its Mission—is still present, and still salvageable.

Recently, Catholic University has received advice from a variety of consulting groups. One of them has urged Catholic’s marketing department to pitch the university to students as a global, Catholic, research institution. I can say proudly that that is exactly the education that I received as an undergraduate at Catholic.

If we survive our current troubles, I hope that we will undertake a campaign to advertise the distinctive quality of Catholic education. I hope that we expand the University Honors Program, which continues to be an absolute gem. I hope that we proudly trumpet the university’s mission, without excluding those who are not Catholic, and without accusing those who criticize the university and its current administration of failing to support it. I hope that we collaborate according to the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Finally, I hope that we make shared sacrifices as we work together to find solutions to our financial challenges. If we take these steps, I believe that we can save the university that I have loved for almost my entire life—not only for me, but also for my children and future generations.

Julia G. Young is associate professor of History and director of Undergraduate Studies at The Catholic University of America.

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