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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Land O' Lakes at 50: The Future of Catholic higher Education


On October 11, the Boisi Center hosted “Land O’ Lakes at 50: The State of Higher Education.” This conference, co-sponsored with The Institute for the Liberal Arts, Office of the Dean of Morrissey College of the Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculties, marked the 50th anniversary of the seminal document, signed in 1967 by a group of Catholic educators and religious leaders, that outlined a new understanding of relations between Catholic universities and the Church hierarchy in areas including governance, academic freedom, and academic theology. A dozen distinguished panelists—including seven sitting presidents of Catholic universities—gathered to discuss this influential and controversial document. Keynote addresses were given by University of Notre Dame historian John T. McGreevy and Boston College president William P. Leahy, S.J. 

The morning’s keynote address was given by John T. McGreevy, I. A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. McGreevy noted three concurrent shifts within Catholic higher education that contextualize the Land O’ Lakes statement. First, the influence of Vatican II and the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes cannot be understated. Just as Pope Paul VI called for the Catholic Church to engage the modern world, the Land O’ Lakes statement called for Catholic universities to modernize. The alternative to modernization, the argument went, was mediocrity.

Second, Catholic universities were increasingly turning to lay governance and faculty consultation regarding curriculum. While seeking to preserve their distinctive charisms, the attendees recognized that college faculty, many of whom had neither attended a Catholic university nor worked at one previously, held greater allegiance to their academic disciplines than to the Church.

Third, the Land O’ Lakes meeting was but one of many such gatherings convened around the world. Similar meetings in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, and France resulted in similar documents that would establish the vitality of Catholic education, especially in what was then called the “Third World,” now the “Global South.”

During a question and answer session, audience members raised issues of the document’s reach and the make-up of the Land O’ Lakes meeting’s attendees. McGreevy suggested that the document itself was of modest significance because it was vague, but its drafting began a wider movement to strengthen the vision of American Catholic higher education.

The first panel, moderated by James O’Toole, the Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College, reflected the changing demographics of Catholic university leadership. The panel’s discussion focused on some of the institutional changes facing the administrations of Catholic colleges and universities. John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, started by describing the complexity of running a modern institution of higher learning and the necessity of lay leadership. Le Moyne College president Linda LeMura noted that Le Moyne faces competition from new tuition-free state schools in New York. She warned her peers that free education will come sooner or later to the whole nation, and Catholic institutions must demonstrate what they add that public Ivies do not. Sean Sheridan, T.O.R., president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, noted a revitalization of Franciscan University’s heritage in recent years, which helped define what it means to be both Catholic and Franciscan. Michael Hemesath, president of St. John’s University in Minnesota noted that the school stresses its Benedictine roots despite an increasingly lay faculty. To this end, all of the panelists spoke to the distinctive curricula of Catholic education and Catholic social teachings, the formations of students, and mission-oriented hiring. Journalist and author Peter Steinfels noted the exchange of quantity for quality of theological education.

The second panel was moderated by Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center, and associate professor of the practice of theology. This panel addressed the role of the university as “critical reflective intelligence” and the Catholic intellectual tradition. Boston College’s Gregory Kalscheur, S.J., Dean of the Boston College Morrissey College of the Arts and Sciences stressed the Catholic focus on the education of the whole person and respecting the human dignity of students. Brian Linnane, S.J., president of Loyola University Maryland, praised the university as a place which can examine and regenerate the Church in response to its public failings. The panelists also expressed some anxiety regarding the state of Catholic intellectuals. Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, brought a European perspective, noting that Europe is grappling with a Catholic intellectualism dangerously influenced by a far right political vision. Margaret O’Brien Steinfels commented that university autonomy has distanced the bishops from the intellectual centers of Catholicism; few bishops have experience with the academic freedom or rigorous theological inquiry that characterize higher education. To this point, St. Anselm College president Steven DiSalvo stressed the importance of regular communication between colleges and the local bishops.

William P. Leahy, S.J., president of Boston College, gave a concluding keynote address, which examined the legacy of the Land O’ Lakes statement, most readily visible in its use in later documents, notably Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Following Father Leahy’s keynote, the sitting presidents returned for an extended question and answer session. Audience members raised issues of the cost of Catholic education. One attendee, whose four children all attended Catholic colleges, expressed appreciation for the commitment to academic excellence and Catholic values.