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Mary Ann WalshOctober 21, 2014
Patricia McGuire

This is part one of a three-part series on Catholic colleges and universities led today by lay leaders after a history of priests or women religious at their helms.

Catholic colleges and universities enroll an estimated 810,000 students, according to the Official Catholic Directory. For decades, and for some institutions for over a century, heads of these organizations have been members of religious orders that founded them. Others have been led by clergy.

In Washington, lay persons now lead Trinity Washington University, The Catholic University of America (CUA), and Georgetown University. America interviewed their three presidents, attorney Patricia McGuire of Trinity, attorney John Garvey of CUA and John DiGioia, Ph.D., of Georgetown via e-mail.

Questions focused on the challenges lay leaders face related to Catholic mission and identity. Presidents McGuire and Garvey answered questions individually.  President DiGioia provided a statement he made in 2012, “Reflections on Our Way of Being an American Catholic and Jesuit University,” at a Joint Board Leadership Meeting, Washington.

Patricia McGuire, Trinity Washington University, founded by The Sisters of Notre Dame

1.  As a layperson, did you meet any particular challenges in being accepted as president of your university? By religious communities? By local bishop? By local community? By alumni? By faculty? By student body? By other college presidents, both Catholic and non-denominational ones? How did you deal with them?

When I became president of Trinity College (now known as Trinity Washington University) in 1989, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the founding congregation, welcomed me and provided remarkable support. The late Sister Regina Finnegan, then the board chair and president of the Academy of Notre Dame in Villanova, Pennsylvania, was my guide and pillar of wisdom as I navigated all kinds of issues including how to relate to the order, the local bishop and the many constituencies of Trinity. Trinity was in perilous condition at that time, one of the few remaining Catholic women’s colleges in America; enrollment had declined steeply over the prior decade, deficits were mounting and few people thought that the college could survive. “Fix it, or close it,” was Sister Regina’s parting message to me the day the board appointed me to the job. I was 36, a Trinity alumna, lawyer and administrator at Georgetown Law Center. I had never had a job in senior academic administration, and while my appointment was a great risk for our board, in a certain way they knew that the brashness of someone with no experience was their last gambit to get Trinity back on track. 

What I did not know when I started—and the board did not really understand this, nor the faculty nor alumnae—was that the Sisters of Notre Dame were undergoing their own transformative years as some of the sisters moved out of the Trinity convent and formed new communities with different perspectives on religious life. The old Maryland Province of the Sisters of Notre Dame had morphed into three—the original province with some of the sisters’ still living at Trinity, the Base Communities and the Chesapeake community. While the sisters kept telling me that their internal challenges were not Trinity’s business, in fact, the various disputes among the sisters had affected Trinity’s ability to move forward with its own renaissance agenda in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

Disputes among the SNDs had affected the choice of Trinity presidents in the 1970s and 1980s, created a sense of alienation for sister presidents who were not part of the three local communities, confused the alumnae and misled naive board members who did not know why the sisters at board meetings were disagreeing with each other so much. As for the college’s woes, “the sisters will handle it” was a comment I heard from more than one of the men (the lay members were mostly husbands of alumnae) who apparently did not know anything about the politics of the province. 

As I learned more about these issues in the early 1990s, it became clear to me that Trinity had to operate as a “tub on its own bottom” and not appear in any way dependent on the religious congregation to bail out the college. While not wanting to alienate any of the sisters from any of the communities in dispute, I also had to be firm that Trinity was not going to take sides, and I could not allow the college’s assets to be a pawn in the internal challenges of the SNDs. 

In fact, Trinity’s Founders in 1897 gave the Trinity of the 1990’s a great gift: from the start, the Trinity corporation was independent of the SNDs, a fact that few sisters or board members really understood but that became crucial in the years of fiscal struggle for both entities. Some of the sisters, including some who were on the board, believed that Trinity should close and the proceeds from the sale of the property could fund the other “more worthy” SND ministries, as well as retirement needs. Those with this point of view were not enthusiastic about any heroic actions to put Trinity back on track.  Others—mostly from the original Maryland Province including those who lived at Trinity and our board chair Sister Regina—felt strongly that the best thing the SNDs could do for Trinity was to allow the mission to thrive in new ways. They counseled me to stay out of the internal SND dispute and move ahead with restructuring Trinity. They also were staunch advocates for the plain legal fact that Trinity was not the property of the SNDs and should not be seen as a potential asset for sale.

One of the early actions I took to establish clarity about ownership and assets was to end the practice of contributed services. In 1990, when we were counting pennies every day, that seemed counter-intuitive, but by recognizing the fact that the SNDs who worked at Trinity were entitled to their own salaries equal to laypeople and that Trinity could not continue to exist in a state of dependency on the free labor of women, I was able to establish the principle that Trinity had to make it on its own, and that our relationship with the SNDs was in equal partnership, not subordinate and not “sponsorship” in the sense of any legal or financial stake. Difficult as that principle was to operationalize, a loss of several hundred thousand dollars in the annual budget, it turned out to be a great benefit as Trinity’s relationship with the SNDs evolved through the subsequent 20 years.

Today, Trinity and the SNDs enjoy a vibrant and fruitful relationship as partners, with an SND board chair and more SNDs on the faculty than in the past. The old issues about ownership and sponsorship have faded as we focus on how we collaborate on mission.

Working through these issues with the SNDs, I also faced considerable challenges from more traditional Trinity alumnae who were unhappy about many changes that occurred at Trinity and wanted a restoration of the “golden era” of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Among many complaints, the fact that I was not a religious and not “Catholic” enough for some was a source of bitter conflict. Even worse, in the eyes of some, was the fact that more and more students of many different faith backgrounds were coming to Trinity, and many of these students were black and Hispanic women. Catholicism became a scrim covering deeper attitudes: “We don’t mind diversity,” said one alumna, “But are they Catholic?”

I had to learn how to teach our alumnae about the real meaning of Catholic mission as giving witness to the world, living the Gospel teachings on social justice in service to others regardless of their religious affiliation.  In this effort, I had strong support from the Sisters of Notre Dame, whose own charism is action for social justice, the education of women and the poor.  It was a Sister of Notre Dame who asked the galvanizing question in a board meeting on strategic planning in the early 1990’s:  “Why are we trying so hard to reclaim traditional markets when we have literally tens of thousands of women at our doorstep who need this mission so much?” The SNDs were staunch supporters of Trinity’s “paradigm shift” from a college serving mostly elite white Catholic women from suburban enclaves in the Northeast and Midwest to a small university serving remarkably low income women of color (and some men in some programs) from our local neighborhoods in DC and nearby Maryland counties.

The Bishop

Perhaps surprisingly, I also found a great deal of support among the local bishops.  In fact, one of the kindest and most supportive people I met in the early days was Cardinal James Hickey of Washington—well known for his conservative views but supportive of our work at Trinity as we refocused on the educational needs of marginalized women in Washington. I recall a conversation in which he revealed that he had heard complaints about me and Trinity’s changing population, and he then hastened to assure me that, “You are doing the work of the church” and we should persist in reaching out to the women of Washington. Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl, his successors, have extended similar support for Trinity’s mission.

Trinity’s place in the archdiocese is interesting. We are one of three Catholic universities, but remarkably different from both Georgetown and Catholic University.  Trinity today is 95 percent Black and Hispanic, serving very low income women—our median family income is just $25,000, and 80 percent of our students are on Pell Grants. We focus on mission and ministry to our city.

Of course, there have been moments where we’ve had some “rub” with Catholic concerns, notably around Trinity’s relationship with some of our very prominent alumnae who are notable —some would say notorious—Democratic politicians, Nancy Pelosi ’62, and Kathleen Sebelius ’70, both of whom are good friends as well as prominent alumnae.  But what’s been helpful and impressive about our successive local bishops is that even as some very ugly, outside voices demanded condemnation and public excoriation of these women, the bishops did not lean on me or Trinity in any way—and I make a point of always letting the bishop know if something might happen at Trinity with these or other lightening-rod figures that could cause some discomfort for him. We’ve always had open communication and good understanding of what we’re trying to do here at Trinity.

I have taken a similar position internally with the campus community about not surprising me or the bishop with activities that might be offensive to our Catholic mission.  I don’t ban speech or condemn expression, but I do ask faculty and students to conduct their business with a disposition of respect for the church. So far, going on 26 years, it seems to work well.

2. Have you taken any particular steps to emphasize the Catholicity of your educational institution? Did you need to do anything to make up for not wearing a Roman collar or symbol of a religious order?

Because the demographics of both our student body and faculty/staff have evolved toward greater diversity not only by race and ethnicity but also by religion, I have consciously sought ways to teach about mission and how we live by and understand our Catholic faith. Trinity today is a living symbol of the Gospel, and we feel we live our Catholicism every single day amid our great diversity.  

One of the issues that concerned me over the years was how to transmit the mission and charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame to future generations at Trinity as the population of SNDs diminished. About five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to recruit three dynamic SNDs to come to Trinity—from Merrimac College, Sister Mary Ellen Dow, as Campus Minister; from Emmanuel College, Sister Mary Johnson, as Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies; and from Liverpool Hope University, Sister Camilla Burns as Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies.  Sister Camilla, a Trinity alumna, had been the general moderator of the worldwide SND congregation for six years.

These three great SNDs have revitalized the SND presence at Trinity and have made it their constant mission to teach our community about the real meaning of our faith. Among many other things, they created the Billiart Center for Social Justice named in honor of St. Julie Billiart, founder of the congregation of the SNDs. Through the Billiart Center, they conduct frequent campus-wide programs to educate students, faculty and staff about dimensions of our faith and the SND commitment to action for social justice.

One of the most popular activities of the Billiart Center is “Soup with the Sisters,” an occasion when the SNDs who live at Trinity welcome the community to the convent refectory for lunch and discussion of such topics as faith, religious life and action for justice. The event is so popular that waiting lists to attend the meal grows weeks in advance.

3. Can you give any examples of times when being a Catholic institution has stood out for you, i.e. made a difference in the educational community?

Trinity’s radical choice to embrace the educational needs of the most marginalized people in our city makes this institution’s idea of being Catholic  distinctively different from many other colleges and universities today. Because of this radical commitment to educate low income students, we have made other choices that are significant – we don’t participate in “beauty contest” rankings like U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” surveys, for example, because rankings exemplify wealth and elitism, not service. Disdaining rankings and not engaging in the preening competitiveness that warps the images of so many colleges today is a deliberate choice because we believe that investment should all be focused on our students, not public images.

We are a voice in every higher education forum for the need to open doors wider for the poor and marginalized students. This is not always well-received. In meetings of women’s colleges, for example, where struggles continue about the future viability of the sector, Trinity’s remarkable growth—from 400 students to more than 1,000 in our women’s college in ten years—is also viewed with some wariness since that growth has come from low income women of color who are under-prepared for college and who need a great deal of academic and social support to be successful. Colleges who care about rankings and prestige do not want to risk the lower retention and completion rates, lower net tuition revenues and larger service demands that come from serving low income students.

Welcoming a large majority of low income students is also very expensive—Trinity is not wealthy. Our endowment is just about $14 million. This year we have awarded nearly $10 million in Trinity grants, which is all unfunded discount on our tuition price. That’s $10 million in lost revenues, money that might have otherwise been devoted to salaries or amenities for executives, faculty and staff.  Everyone who works at Trinity, from the president onward, makes considerably less money than staff at comparable institutions. We can’t do “contributed services” in total, but we do our fair share.

Trinity has recently become the first private institution participating in a major national scholarship program for Dreamers (TheDream.US) and we now have more than 20 Dreamers, immigrants, enrolled with the support of this program matched with Trinity’s own grants.   

4. What percentage of your student body is Catholic? What percentage of your faculty is Catholic?

We do not collect these statistics. From the Cooperate Institutional Research program (CIRP) of the Higher Education Research Institute survey administered to freshmen, we estimate that each entering full-time class is about 15 percent Catholic.

5. Are you personally involved in the pastoral/spiritual dimensions of your university?

Yes.  It’s my job to make sure that Campus Ministry, the Billiart Center and all related programs are funded and functioning well.

6. How do you represent (defend) specifically Catholic points of view to students and faculty who do not share those points of view? Do you find you are expected to be more “flexible” than clerics or members of religious communities?

Maybe it’s Trinity’s unique circumstances, but I’ve not had an instance of needing to “defend” critics of Catholicism on campus. Sometimes there are questions and sometimes we discuss the best way to handle something like a potentially controversial speaker. We dialogue and come to agreements about how to proceed. Our campus community is deeply respectful of our mission.

7. Do you foresee your college continuing with a lay president in the future?


8. Has your experience led you to any conclusions about the advantages/disadvantages of clerical vs. lay leadership?

Being a president is so complicated and exhausting most days that the issue is not clerical versus lay, but stamina and the ability to address a full agenda. These are not jobs for the fainthearted or gentle Shakespearean scholars wanting to appear in robes on ceremonial occasions. The biggest question is not religious or lay, but where is any leadership going to come from in the future who can really step up to the numerous challenges.

Catholic colleges and universities quite uniformly—the University of Notre Dame may be an exception, but even so—are grossly under-funded and under-capitalized. We don’t talk much about this at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU)—and we should—but this sector is very fragile financially. We are private institutions, which is an increasingly small slice of the higher education universe. We all have remarkably small endowments compared to other private schools. We have aging behemoth buildings from the turn of the century—19th to 20th. We serve a world in which too many “Catholic” parents want something narrow and limiting if they want their children to go to Catholic colleges, and not finding that narrow orthodoxy, they prefer public schools.

We’ve spent entirely too much time in Catholic higher education worrying about defending against interfering bishops when the real threat is the very foundation of the institution financially and in terms of the enrollment markets.

9. How has application of norms based on "Ex corde ecclesiae," the Vatican document on maintaining Catholic identity, gone for you?

Just fine. See comments above on the bishops. Cardinal Wuerl and I met for the 10-year review (not the only time we’ve met, but we had a meeting specifically for that), reviewed the questions together and were satisfied that we’re heading in the right direction.

10. Are there other points to be mentioned to explain the role of a lay president of a Catholic institution traditionally headed by a priest, brother or sister?

Understandable as it is that religious congregations worry about their declining numbers and loss of status in institutions, it’s very important for congregations to step back from hand-wringing about lay leadership and, instead, take the lead in promoting the best kinds of transitions to lay leaders. Too often at ACCU and other meetings I’ve attended, the discussion felt insulting to me as a layperson, the insinuation that I’ll never be quite “as good as” a religious. I never have gotten that from the SNDs, but I have felt that in the more general discussions as I’ve listened to the baleful statements of loss and regret. I always want to stand up and shout, “Stop that!  Have more faith in the students you’ve taught!”

On the other hand, I’m also very worried that the generation of lay Catholic leaders educated in the glory of the post-Vatican II years, years of so much countercultural thinking, is giving way to the more technocratic and orthodox subsequent generations of lay leadership who try to be “holier than the pope” when it comes to leading a Catholic college. This also affects some religious, of course, but I’ve watched some lay leaders who seem mostly intent on proving their Catholic creds rather than leading with a disposition for social justice and service to the community.

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John Fitzgerald
8 years 11 months ago
Very interesting.

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