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Prestige and Identity

a history of the founding of boston college law school


On January 26, 1929 the President of Boston College, Father Dolan, received a memo from Jesuit members of his faculty outlining the mission of the Boston College Law School, set to open that fall. The primary purpose of creating a law school, the memo asserted, was, to “provide a remedy against the subversive influences prevailing in law schools associated with secular institutions in Boston and throughout New England...” This statement reflected a larger tension that Boston College faced as a Catholic university trying to establish its prominence while preserving its religious identity in a modernist age. Located at the center of elite secular education, just a few miles from Harvard University, Boston College historically had provided a stepping stone for the growing Irish catholic immigrant population to enter the middle class. Indeed, through higher education the Jesuits created a symbiotic relationship where they were able to strengthen the influence of the church while advancing the economic and social interests of the Irish catholic population they served.

At the beginning of the 20th century Boston College’s position in the larger academic community and within catholic society was directly challenged by Harvard University’s decision to remove Boston College from the list of schools considered academically acceptable to automatically admit to Harvard Law School. Harvard’s decision sparked a national controversy which publicly highlighted the deficiencies of a Jesuit education in light of the educational reforms occurring in Protestant and secular universities across the country. While the former president of Boston College gave an admirable defense of Jesuit education which was widely praised in catholic and protestant circles, the controversy ultimately took a toll on the reputation of Boston College. Nor could Harvard’s decision be completely written off as simply discrimination or bigotry against Catholics, for Catholics were attending Harvard College in record numbers. Thus, Boston College began the 20th century under siege; forced to defend the merits of a catholic education in the outside academic world and its role as a social stepping stone to its own catholic community.

The founding of Boston College Law School in 1929 must be viewed in this context. As Boston Catholics began to break through the Protestant strongholds in Boston’s elite political and economic markets in the early 20th century, they demanded an education that provided them with greater access to the “upper class”. Increasingly, Harvard University and other non-Catholic schools were attracting Catholic students because they provided an avenue to interact and connect with other elites in New England. In fact, by 1928 Harvard Law School was accepting as many as 20% of Boston College Students. The Jesuits at Boston College soon realized that in order for them to retain their religious influence they needed to re-establish their relevance as an institution which promoted not just excellence in education, but also upward social mobility to a catholic population that had risen in numbers and power.

Boston College Law School was founded as part of a response to this exodus of catholic students from Jesuit education. The Jesuits had a long tradition of promoting their faith by offering excellent education programs to diverse segments of the population. The Jesuits believed that providing a top notch education that included humanist philosophy would inspire students to follow God, rather then trying to impose doctrinal religious beliefs on possible converts. As such, Boston College sought to follow the age old Jesuit model by establishing a prominent law school that provided a spiritual and religious direction for its graduates that was not present at other secular institutions. However, while the stated reason for the founding of Boston College Law School discussed at the time was to “remedy the subversive influences of secular schools in Boston,” this mission was at odds with Boston College’s larger goal of building a prestigious university capable of attracting top Catholic students. Moreover, the Jesuits realized that Boston College law school needed to do more than simply promote excellence in education- it needed to be a platform for students to advance their economic and social interests. Thus, in order to attract this talent of their catholic base, Boston College was forced to imitate the educational models of secular schools like Harvard Law School rather then remedy their “subversive” influences. As a result, Boston College’s efforts to establish prestigious law programs capable of launching Catholics into the elite came at the expense of Boston College Law School’s religious identity.

Next: Jesuit Education under Siege: The Harvard Law School Controversy