At the heart of leadership lies the responsibility to develop one’s institution according to its deepest purpose. Yet this task can be undermined in Catholic universities when faculty and administrators attempt to remake their organizations in the image of other academic institutions. While vestiges of their original character remain, they begin to lose a distinctive Catholic vision and with that, ultimately, their true meaning, purpose and unique identity.
The recent 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” presents an opportune moment to re-examine the character and role of Catholic universities in light of their deepest purpose. One of the clear intentions of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” was to recall and emphasize the two basic pillars of Catholic universities’ mission and distinctive character: the pursuit of the unity of knowledge and the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason. These two principles guide and inform all aspects of a genuine university education, whether in the arts and humanities, the professions or the sciences.
It is also a good moment to take a fresh look at Catholic university leaders and their role in keeping their institutions aligned with their original mission. Pope Francis’ frank call to the Roman Curia to examine the ills of leadership offers a practical model of reflection for this task. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review (4/14/15), Gary Hamel adapts Francis’ concept of the “diseases” of leadership to the problems faced by business leaders. We can bring the same frame of reference to an assessment of the governance of our universities.
Whereas Francis and Hamel provide a list of multiple diseases, we want to focus on one, which we call teleopathy, combining the Greek telos (end or purpose) with pathos (disorder or sickness), described in the Encyclopedia of Business Ethics. It is an occupational hazard with a distinct, three-stage pattern. Institutional leaders 1) fixate on limited goals and make them ultimate aims, 2) rationalize these goals as the principal purpose of the institution and 3) eventually detach their institutions from their fundamental purpose and “reason for being.” To carry the metaphor further, in a diagnostic manual describing institutional pathologies, teleopathy would be as central a disorder as heart disease or cancer.
Symptoms of Teleopathy
Fixation: focusing on secondary values. The most apparent sign of mission drift in Catholic universities is the avoidance of language that connects a school’s brand of education with its foundations and religious beliefs—that is, the very thing that makes it Catholic. A vital, articulate Catholic vision of the school’s intellectual life is often missing from mission documents, convocation speeches, curriculum designs, research agendas and strategic plans. Michael J. Buckley, S.J., observed this trend over 20 years ago and summarized his observations in America (5/29/93):
The “faith that seeks understanding”—what constitutes the substance and richness of the Creed and inspired 2,000 years of Catholic reflection and life—is reduced to a morality or a general social ethic. One looks in vain for very much beyond American civil religion. The Catholic, Christian character has shaded off into a vacuity that offers neither challenge nor much direction to the education given by the institution.
While some universities have heeded Father Buckley’s warning, others have accelerated the shading off of their uniquely Catholic expression. In the last 25 years, many Catholic universities have struggled to recognize the core pillars of Catholic higher education articulated in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”—namely, that 1) all subjects should be studied with an understanding of their relationships and relevance to other disciplines, a study that clarifies both the strengths and limits of each particular field of study (unity of knowledge); and 2) there should be dialogue between faith and reason that is at the heart of authentic human development and the complex nature of truth (complementarity of faith and reason).
The language of the two pillars is often supplanted by the general categories of ethics, wellness, service and leadership expressed in phrases like “committing to social justice,” “providing radical hospitality,” “educating for civic responsibility,” “sustaining the environment” and “celebrating diversity.” While these values are laudable and important to any Catholic university, when detached from the theological and integral core of the Catholic tradition and its epistemological convictions they can become hollow.
Take for example the shrinking liberal arts core of most Catholic universities over the last 20 years. While many reasons exist for this reduction, if leaders on campus can articulate only a vague moral rationale, the core curriculum becomes generic, resulting in a distribution of requirements bereft of an underlying pursuit of the unity of knowledge or dialogue of faith and reason. And where the two pillars are expressed in Catholic universities, they tend to get left behind in professional schools. A study by Steve Porth, John McCall and Joseph DiAngelo found that most of the Catholic business schools they surveyed made references to ethics in their mission statements, but very few connected such missions and their understanding of ethics to the Catholic character of the university. Without a robust root system, ethics in business schools tends toward economic instrumentality and a utilitarian outlook.
The moral and social values of Catholic higher education should be understood as outcomes of a deeper purpose and not the source of it. To limit the mission of the university to teaching around a set of moral and social principles will eventually undermine the principles themselves. Here Vaclav Havel’s critique of international campaigns for human rights, which appeared in the magazine Sunrise (Oct./Nov. 1994), is relevant. Without a connection to a deeper existential reality, he argued, human rights are in danger of becoming mere slogans:
Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect for the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.
Havel recognized that a generic commitment to “rights” or “justice,” “diversity” or “ethics” is prone to the “cut flowers syndrome”: they may look attractive for a while, but severed from their cultural, religious and spiritual roots, they wither. Without a deeper root system, such so-called universals have “no integrating force, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding” to draw upon for sustenance.
Rationalization: seeking pluralism at the expense of Catholic identity. While few leaders in Catholic higher education would formally deny the two pillars of a Catholic university, their absence in convocation speeches, alumni magazines and strategic and curricular plans is rationalized on the basis of an increasingly pluralistic culture. As economic pressures increase, many universities, through marketers and their branding strategies, adapt their public language to be less overtly faith-based and more generic and often unintentionally utilitarian.
University leaders rationalize this surrogate language with an appeal to be more inclusive and more palatable to the increasingly religiously diverse populations served by Catholic universities. A vision informed by a distinctively Catholic articulation of the unity of knowledge and complementarity of faith and reason is seen as too religious, and thus too sectarian, for today’s university stakeholders (students, faculty, donors and accrediting agencies). Religious claims might place the university at a disadvantage in recruiting faculty and diverse student populations.
As some Catholic universities distance themselves from theological and doctrinal commitments, they begin to face a particular challenge regarding what makes them distinctive. If leaders of Catholic universities mute the fundamental convictions of their own tradition, then “diversity” and “pluralism” can become mere code words for institutional conformity. If pluralism, and in particular institutional pluralism, is to be truly valued, then Catholic universities must be encouraged to bring forth their distinctive qualities; otherwise, they lose an important source of distinctiveness and move closer to becoming a commodity in the educational marketplace.
This is not to say that Catholic universities should employ only religious categories and ignore the realities of a pluralistic society. The Catholic university does have moral and social convictions; and it must speak, as it always has, in a language that is intelligible and accessible to those who do not share those convictions. Yet faculty and administrators must not downplay the theological and ecclesial commitments that are central to being a Catholic university.
Detachment: the consequences of teleopathy. When Catholic universities describe their mission in generic social and ethical terms, they also tend to de-emphasize a distinctively Catholic criteria in hiring, curriculum, research and promotion. Hiring faculty and administrators on the basis of a generic ethic or disciplinary excellence alone inevitably brings two results. First, leaders neglect to engage faculty in meaningful conversations about how to understand and implement the two pillars articulated by “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” They focus, instead, on urgent details of day-to-day procedural management. Relationships to the Catholic intellectual tradition may be reduced to platitudes or viewed as marginal to the primary concerns of the university. Faculty members can become more loyal to their disciplines than to their university. Ultimately, the very idea of the university is reduced to that of a “holding company” for disciplinary advancement and career development. Students and faculty members are deprived of the promise and full value of a Catholic education.
Second, the university disconnects from the church. When doctrinal and faith commitments are marginalized, the presence of religious and priests, as well as committed lay Catholic faculty members, is seen to be optional. Liturgies like the traditional opening Mass of the Holy Spirit are often removed from university rituals and convocations. Theology and philosophy lose their integrative role within the larger university and become simply discrete disciplines among others. The role of the local bishop in supporting the university’s mission is weakened. Except for occasional community outreach or service learning opportunities, the church comes to have little or no relationship to the university. Of course, leaders of Catholic universities can distort their attachment to the church by stressing the requirement of obedience to ecclesial tradition in a way that precludes a genuine intellectual vitality. What substitutes for such vitality is a pervasive emphasis on Catholic piety and devotional practice. This is not the gaudium de veritate (joy in truth) that St. Augustine and St. John Paul II praised.
While each institution will have its own unique expression of the teleopathic pattern we have described, each displays a form of disengagement that goes from religious truths within a distinctive ecclesial tradition (the two pillars of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”) to a humanism with broadly acceptable behavioral norms, to the methodological preoccupations of the disciplines and sometimes to whatever pays the bills. Once a Catholic university cuts itself off from its deepest theological and ecclesial roots, it yields to the various pressures and incentives of a larger utilitarian, careerist and technological culture, and its criteria of success are increasingly guided by the accreditation standards, assessments and rankings pursued by any secular university.
Recovering From Teleopathy
There are many exceptions and variations to the pattern of teleopathic leadership we have described. But senior administrators and trustees would do well to heed Francis’ warning that each person who is not nourished with spiritual food “will become a bureaucrat (a formalist, a functionalist, an employee): a shoot that dries up and little by little dies and is thrown away.” This possibility—of becoming bureaucrats—is a danger for all leaders who lose sight of the deeper purposes of their institutions and manage them through prevalent norms and mechanical procedures.
Maintaining or restoring the two pillars of a Catholic university education requires a healthy self-examination on the part of the university stewards—that is, boards, administration and faculty. University leaders should begin conversations to determine whether there are policies or practices at their institutions that tend to erode their distinctive mission and identity and how best to reform or eliminate them.
Their questions could include the following. What are the gaps between the aspirational language in our mission statement and the “values-in-action” driven by the incentives, rewards, hiring and promotion systems of the organization? Is there a lack of connection between the institutional “talk” and “walk”? How should we understand and implement the pillars of the Catholic university? In recruitment and hiring? In the appointment of search committees? In the choice of search firms? In strategic planning, board appointments, measurement systems? In curricular design, including the central role of theology and philosophy? In faculty and leadership formation? In new governance structures and academic programs?
Reversing teleopathic leadership also requires other stakeholders, like donors and prospective college students and their families, to bring more questions to bear. Is the Catholic university in which I am interested really providing a fully integrated Catholic education? These evaluations, conducted in the context of prayer, can refocus and re-energize Catholic university leadership, faculty, students and the communities that support them. Collective efforts to understand and restore the two pillars of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” can lead Catholic campus communities to embrace confidently and celebrate the distinctive contributions of Catholic higher education.