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Michael J. GaranziniJanuary 19, 2022
Photo from iStock.

This article is a response to “Will Catholic universities survive the upheaval in higher education? The next 10 years will tell,” a feature by Charles C. Camosy. Read more views on this issue linked at the bottom of this article.

I recently spent a day moderating a panel of seniors at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J., who discussed the major concerns of their generation. The students had roots in Belgium and Morocco, the Philippines and Palestine. Their fields of study included math, education and international relations. We took up such topics as climate change, race relations, the plight of migrants, social and economic inequality in the United States and abroad and the future of work and job security. They were passionate about the need for major changes, disturbed by the level of poverty in their own city and the world, and eager to, as one student claimed, to “dream big because the problems need big solutions.” It was a soul-lifting experience in a diverse Catholic university that encourages critical thinking to help students fulfill those dreams.

They were passionate about the need for major changes, disturbed by the level of poverty in their own city and the world, and eager to, as one student claimed, to “dream big because the problems need big solutions.”

Students like these represent the bright future of Catholic higher education, but we in university administration must be sure our institutions adapt to help them thrive. Catholic universities may have an advantage if they do this quickly. Charles Camosy’s article suggests a competitive advantage in the Christian and Catholic roots of these institutions. As president of Loyola University Chicago for 14 years, I saw firsthand the importance of an education based on a Christian anthropology that stresses the sacredness of each human being and the essential equality of all. I believe that an education that is grounded in Catholic social teaching and delivered in a community that offers the opportunity for the serious examination of diverse points of view and a chance for real community is precisely what will make a Catholic education distinctive and appreciated.

There is a great deal of wisdom in Dr. Camosy’s arguments. For a decade now, many have predicted the closure or merging of smaller institutions, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. It is happening. Indeed, bigger has its advantages. Economies of scale will require that an institution be well-endowed financially or have sufficient importance to a community to drive it to find both the funding model it needs and the political support it requires to survive.

I saw firsthand the importance of an education based on a Christian anthropology that stresses the sacredness of each human being and the essential equality of all.

Many of us believe that the challenge facing Catholic higher education today comes down to mission integration and preservation. We see a rapid turnover in seasoned and dedicated leadership. In some leadership positions (which includes presidents, provosts and deans), we are experiencing a 40 percent turnover since the pandemic began. Many of these seasoned leaders had anticipated retiring or returning to the faculty; some are retiring men and women religious. The pandemic has taken a toll on their energy and made the job more taxing and less rewarding. Whatever the cause, institutional wisdom and a deeply felt commitment to the mission of liberal and faith-based education could be lost if these men and women are not replaced by people with the knowledge and experience of formation within the Catholic intellectual tradition.

The ideological battles that we see today, especially among students, should not be a cause for alarm in themselves. Just a decade ago, older generations complained about the seeming lack of passion for causes of social justice among students in the millennial generation. The present intense battles over ideas could be healthy and necessary correction to a more complacent age that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ideological battles that we see today, especially among students, should not be a cause for alarm in themselves.

A Catholic university like St. Peter’s, and so many others, has within its storehouse an antidote to this age’s flirtation with nihilism. The students at St. Peter’s were fortunate enough to be spared an overdose of this pessimism. There is the Gospel message of hope and renewal that, while not always made as explicit as it ought to be, seemed nevertheless to permeate their time at the university. These students were well aware of Pope Francis’ call to defend the health of our planet and fight for those at the margins seeking their just share of the goods of our economy. These challenges have brought faith-based leaders and our universities to a re-examination of how they might collaborate. All of this is a solid basis for the hope that Catholic higher education can survive to offer society a crucial resource: young people willing to apply what they have learned to solve the problems of our world.

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