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Fr. Leahy addresses Boston Chamber of Commerce

 (2-16-2000) -- The following remarks were made by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Boston Chamber of Commerce:

In inviting me to speak here today, Paul Guzzi told me that I could talk about anything that I want. Now, that could come back to haunt Paul, because I could go on about growing up on a farm in Iowa, I could speak about the driving habits of Massachusetts natives, or I could explain why I always read the sports pages first thing each morning. But I can’t believe you would have any interest in such topics.

Therefore, what I propose to do is offer some reflections about contemporary higher education and then focus on Boston College. I would like begin with some observations about the context of college and university education today, and then discuss Boston College’s mission and some key challenges BC faces.

Let me start with context. As we enter the 21st century, higher education in our country is very different from what it was a hundred years ago. At the close of the 19th century, perhaps 90% of all college students attended private colleges and universities. Today, it is the reverse--approximately 90% of students attending college are enrolled in public institutions. At the time of the Civil War, more than 80% of higher education institutions in the United States maintained strong religious orientations and definite denominational ties.

In this year 2000, we operate in an age that is much more secular; and countless institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Northwestern, Duke, have all cut their ties to their founding religious bodies.

During the last fifty years, higher education has become much more pervasive and influential in the United States. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, higher education, along with health care and technology, is a huge engine for economic growth. College students in this state pump an average of $20 billion annually into the local economy.

And, colleges and universities in Massachusetts attract more federal research dollars than in any other state. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that colleges and universities in Greater Boston, in particular, make our metropolitan area the intellectual capital of the United States.

Not surprisingly, Boston College has been affected by these changes. We are a national university today, we emphasize both teaching and research, and we have graduate and professional programs in Law, Social Work, Education, and Nursing, and they rank in the top 30 of their respective disciplines.

We also operate in the context of the Catholic Church, which has changed dramatically during the 20th century. American Catholicism today is much more self-confident, open, and engaged in contemporary society, a change from pre-World War II, when the Church in the United States could be described as custodial, that is, seeking to defend its teachings, inculcate orthodoxy, and protect its members from wider society. Catholics are mainstream in American culture today.

One interesting manifestation of that is the presence of three Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, something that would have caused great consternation in the early part of the 20th century. Like their fellow Americans, Catholic feel free to voice their opinions about a range of issues, including Church matters. Differences about ordination of women, authority, and moral teachings are commonplace in the Church today.

Boston College exists in the context of contemporary American society and Catholicism, where change and pluralism are so evident. Such a context requires that the mission of Boston College be clear to internal and external audiences. Stated most simply, Boston College seeks to be the best possible university it can be, and it also intends to be faithful to its Jesuit, Catholic heritage and traditions.

In understanding Boston College and its mission, I think three words are key: university, Catholic, and Jesuit. We are a university, not a parish, not a seminary, not a social service agency. To be true to its name, a university must recognize the value of pluralism and protect freedom of inquiry, and it should avoid indoctrination. It should be a place in which people from different backgrounds, races, religions, and viewpoints come together.

As John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great 19th century English educator, wrote, "Great minds need elbow room, and so, indeed, do lesser minds and all minds." Boston College is committed to being a community of scholars and learners and an institution where teaching, research, debate, and learning flourish in an atmosphere of caring and faith. In all that we do, we seek both to inform and to form them so as to transform, not only individual students, but through them, to transform wider society.

Being a university is simply key for us at Boston College. But we are a particular kind of university. The word, Catholic, is an essential element in Boston College’s mission and identity. As a Catholic university, I believe we are called to be a meeting place between faith and culture, especially between the Catholic Church and society. We want to help the Church to be a more effective sign of God’s presence in our world, and it is also part of our mission to foster understanding of the Church in wider society.

Consequently, we strive to integrate religious commitment and intellectual excellence, and our curriculum and institutional priorities reflect Catholic values and perspectives. We work to assist our students who are Catholics to develop mature understandings of their faith, and to live in accord with Catholic beliefs and values

Boston College is also a Jesuit institution, and that word "Jesuit" is integral to our institutional mission and character. The Jesuit order became involved in education because our founder, Saint Ignatius, concluded in the late 1540’s that operating schools and graduating students who were not only competent, but who also had a value system shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs, would be a way of influencing the social order. He wanted the graduates of Jesuit schools to be a leaven for good, and that remains our goal.

The Jesuit educational tradition emphasizes a rigorous, methodical approach to education; it places a great value on the liberal arts because they have long been recognized a way of helping minds to become more free; and it calls for a core curriculum. It stresses care for each person, acquiring competence in a particular discipline, learning how to analyze, and developing a method for learning that will last a lifetime. And it seeks to do so in an atmosphere of freedom and encouraging a personal response to God’s call.

I want Boston College to be a place where people think about their lives in terms of gift and demand. Gift, because they appreciate all they have been given, and demand, because, as it says in the Gospels, what we have received as a gift, we should give as a gift.

The mission of Boston College is to be a Jesuit, Catholic university. We are a vibrant, financially strong, national institution, blessed with a dedicated, talented faculty, bright, generous students, an attractive campus, and enthusiastic alumni, a number of whom are in this room today.

But there are challenges, just as there always have been. For example, one president wrote:

"Governing this place is bringing me a good deal of trouble and precious little so far in obvious results. The principal duties are to enroll new students, to force debtors to pay their bills, to listen to the complaints which men and women citizens of the town bring against the young men, to arrest, reprimand, and jail the students who get drunk and roam around the streets at night, and finally, to preside at official festivities and at academic functions connected with the conferral of degrees. They say--and it is true--that the lawyers run the place."

In case you are wondering: those words were written in 1550 to St. Ignatius by St. Peter Canisius, when he was head of a Jesuit school in Germany.

Boston College faces a range of challenges, but I think three are especially significant at this time. First, we need to increase our financial resources despite an endowment that has grown to just over $1 billion, which ranks number 37 among American colleges and universities, and an applicant pool of 21,000 for 2,100 places. We are also fortunate that the top twelve schools with whom we compete for students include Harvard, Duke, Cornell, Notre Dame, and Brown. But we are not as well endowed as our competitors in the top forty of national universities, and we also carry more debt.

A second challenge is to be faithful to our Jesuit, Catholic mission and character. As I noted earlier, we live in an age that is increasingly secular, and there is much greater pluralism in the Catholic community and certainly on college campuses. Finding faculty and administrators who are willing and able to contribute to our institutional mission and character is not easy.

The third challenge which I would like to spotlight today is to maintain appropriate, balanced relationships with surrounding neighborhoods, something increasingly difficult not only for BC but for other colleges and universities in Boston. We have to keep our facilities competitive, and we would like to build more housing for our students, but we essentially are a land-locked campus.

Boston College very much wants to be part of this community. As Saint Ignatius once wrote in giving advice to one of his subordinates, "Take care that you obtain . . . a site not far removed from the conversation of the city."

I have heard it said that Boston College has turned its back on the Boston area. That is simply not accurate. Our students devote hundreds of hours to volunteer activity, and we are deeply involved with schools in Boston, both public and parochial institutions. Moreover, the economic, intellectual, social, and religious contributions of Boston College to greater Boston are immense.

What is true is that Boston College has changed, like American higher education, the Catholic Church, student aspirations, and our world. We live in a much more competitive time, and there are different challenges and pressures. But what remains the same is Boston College's commitment to intellectual excellence and to its roots as a Jesuit, Catholic institution in Boston.

I thank you for this opportunity to be with you this afternoon.


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