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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: Oct. 19, 2007

Catholic universities: ensuring their essential mission, identity

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

If you had attended or visited an American Catholic university in the 1950s, the administration would have been dominated by priest or nuns. If the university was sponsored, as most were and still are, by a religious congregation, members of that congregation would have clearly been in charge. They would have been present as well in large numbers on the faculty. The university’s board of directors would have been composed wholly of these same priests or nuns.

Things began to change in the 1960s. As large numbers of baby boomers entered college ranks, virtually all American universities expanded. Enrollments grew and with them faculties and the campuses themselves. With increased size came increased complexity and sophistication.

At the same time, the numbers of priest and nuns began to decline. The result was fewer priests and nuns in leadership positions at Catholic universities, fewer on their faculties. Faculties themselves began to hire on the basis of expertise in academic specialties, regardless of religion. Lay men and women were placed on university boards of directors to provide business expertise and to help with fund-raising.

Many of these changes were positive and have made American Catholic universities better institutions of higher learning. But by the 1980s, there were growing concerns that the combination of these trends might be leading to the loss of the religious identities of the institutions themselves. There was a clear model for this. Most of the leading private, American universities had begun under the auspices of a Protestant Christian church. But those links to a religious identity have all but disappeared.

These concerns led to a movement among American Catholic universities to reassert their religious identity and mission. It has taken several expressions. Campus ministry programs have been expanded to enrich the liturgical life on campuses and to offer more occasions for reflections on faith. Centers for Catholic studies have been added. Opportunities for direct service to others have increased, with many universities establishing volunteer or service centers. More religious art has been added to Catholic campuses.

Perhaps the most innovative and promising development along these lines has been the proliferation of offices for mission and identity. Often headed by a member of the sponsoring congregation, these units represent a consensus that the Catholic character of our universities can only be maintained when it is made explicit.

Many offices for mission and identity are less than a decade old, so there is quite a bit of experimentation in their roles. Most are involved in orientation of new faculty, new staff and new students. A typical program would cover the history of the university, focusing on the founders’ intent, and key statements and examples of mission over time, including contemporary expressions. This helps to show what it has meant to be Catholic at the institution and what is continues to mean. The charism of the sponsoring congregation would be reviewed similarly. Programs of this sort are often offered at educational sessions throughout the university to existing employees, usually in small groups to facilitate discussion. Similar programming is done for members of boards of directors.

Offices of mission and identity also take the lead in helping the Catholic university apply its faith commitment at critical decision points. Catholic universities generally have some form of “hiring for mission” in which potential faculty and staff are alerted to identity and mission considerations before hiring to maximize the fit between institutional values and those of the candidates. Some offices have led universities to add mission standards to annual evaluations. Others have helped to shape university policies and practices to keep them faithful to the tradition, even as they are updated for modern needs.

No one knows yet if this is the right formula to preserve and enhance the identity and mission of American Catholic universities. But it is a serious effort that has certainly heightened awareness of the issues at stake and led to a deeper commitment to the faith that founded and shaped these important academic institutions.