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St. Michael's Centennial Convocation

office of the chancellor

Burlington, Vermont
October 1, 2004

Fellow laborers in the vineyard: I consider it a great honor to be with you on this historic occasion and to extend not only my personal congratulations, but also the congratulations of your sister institution, Boston College, that I represent.

Though the occasion we celebrate is the cumulative result of a hundred years of scholarship of former faculty and officers who once stood in your place, this anniversary is special reason for congratulations to each of you. Anniversaries not only celebrate the past; they are confident declarations that things are going well today; that there is much to be thankful for – not only to God – but to each other for the talent and wisdom and dedication that each of you contribute toward making this a genuine collegium, a partnership of individuals, each of whose efforts complement the others.

Anniversaries have a unique power of making even the most unreflective of us, pensive. They are a time of thinking back to mountains climbed and to milestones reached, a time of measuring our current achievements against earlier hopes; a time of peering into the future to see whether experience of what has been can give any confidence as to what not yet is, but will be.

And that is why, although I am deeply honored to stand before you this afternoon, I do so with considerable apprehension. I had the good fortune of becoming a friend and colleague with your former President, Dr. Paul Reiss, as far back as his years as Academic and Executive Vice President at Fordham. That friendship endured throughout his years here at St. Michael’s. But when Dr. Mahoney thoughtfully invited me to be with you today, he suggested that I turn our eyes to the future rather than the past. Hence, my apprehension.

Clearly, that future is challenging.

Quite simply, for all those of us who believe deeply in the importance of higher education and believe in doing what we do well, the bar has never been set higher – academically, fiscally, organizationally. Not only is the bar higher. The ground has begun to shift under our feet.

Indeed, I do not believe it is too much to say that our country as a whole has ever experienced the convergence of destabilizing factors that have shaken our confidence in building forward: terrorism and the aftermath of 9/11; a frustratingly debilitating war abroad; loss of faith not only in many of our business and government leaders, but in the financial systems on which all of business operates; perhaps most disconcerting of all, widespread distrust of the Church’s response to the gravity and scale of the clergy abuse crisis.

Not that most of these directly influence the prospects for success or failure in carrying on the mission of America’s colleges and universities. But it would be foolish to pretend that so ambiguous a horizon does not color the hopes and aspirations we entertain, either as individuals or as institutions.

But let us zoom in more sharply on the prospects for Catholic higher education. By sheer dint of God’s blessing of good health, I had the privilege of teaching my first college class 55 years ago. And in the meantime, have had ample opportunity to witness up-close the challenges and struggles of individual colleges and of associations of colleges, of colleges forging a future on their own, and in partnerships, sometimes in reluctant partnerships, with Church authorities. And from the perspective of that experience, in a speech this summer to bishops and to business and Church leaders, I expressed my conviction that never in my lifetime have Catholic colleges been stronger, academically, managerially, financially and in their possession of a Catholic identity.

And yet, as I said, the bar confronting these institutions has never been set higher.

What I would like to do as succinctly as I can is to single out three standards on which the success of Catholic colleges will revolve. Those standards are: affordability; academic quality or excellence; and distinctiveness of mission. I will attempt not only to describe the decisiveness of those standards in influencing the fate of institutions, but also to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Catholic colleges in meeting them.

Let me begin with affordability first, not because this is the appropriate venue to spell out all the elements of the standard, but in order to acknowledge that even on occasions that call for lofty expressions of ideals, material resources are an urgent ingredient in giving those ideals reality. I choose affordability first, as well, to intimate that the future of our colleges, just as their past, will depend on wise governance and sound management just as it depends upon scholarly, dedicated faculty.

Clearly, affordability is a standard that applies differently to different institutions. But when the financial structure common to whole classes of Catholic institutions comes under stress, the entire class itself comes into question, even if some institutions thrive. The fact is that with relatively small endowments and expenses rising more rapidly than in almost any other sector of the economy, Catholic colleges have been unable to halt dangerously sharp raises in tuition. As time has gone on, even the size of those raises has lost its beneficial effect through the deep discounting that has taken place in recent years.

The fact that affordability is a standard of success, even of survival, for the future, is a truism. The frightening aspect of its application to private education is that I do not believe anyone really knows how to design affordability for large-scale application to private higher education. The encouraging aspect of the problem is that Catholic colleges are not alone in feeling the stress; it stretches across a broad range of private institutions.

But because it is a widespread threat that affects institutions critical to the competitiveness of American society and to millions of America’s young men and women, it will be resolved.

A tentative outline of that resolution is already taking shape, but much effort will be needed to marshal the strength to implement it. The all-too-recent, long overdue awakening to the power of endowments and the growing awareness of the importance of higher education to the nation’s public interest in the 21st century are clear examples of both public and private initiatives that have contributed to the sound financial footings of Catholic institutions in the past and could do so in more productive ways in the future.

Affordability, however, is only one standard of a successful future. And though the manner of assuring it is by no means fully clear, I believe that its accomplishment is certain provided the other two standards are met.

A quick comparison of the resumes and accomplishments of St. Michael’s faculty in this 100th year with the faculty 25 and 50 years ago yields unmistakable evidence that standards of quality have dramatically changed. Standards have not only changed, in their new forms they have become building blocks for the future of this and of all Catholic colleges and universities. Change does not automatically mean criticism of the past, nor should all colleges be rigidly the same in their professional standards of quality, of research or of publication. But inclusion of these standards and the decision to align themselves as full members in professional accrediting bodies, to frame their professional standards on the same level as their peers, to follow their processes of self- and peer evaluation, was an irreversible step in pledging that the standard of professional quality will remain a pillar in the future structure of Catholic higher education.

In his book tracing the transformation of the governance structure of Catholic colleges in the decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Paul FitzGerald referred to the process as the “Americanization” of Catholic higher education. I prefer to regard that transformation not in political or nationalist terms, but as an indispensable and irreversible step in the professionalization of these institutions. Those professional standards themselves were not formulated out of thin air or developed arbitrarily. They were responses to the demands of increasing complexity in our institutions, to the evolution of the academic disciplines through a genuine knowledge explosion, and to the increased capabilities that advances in the professional disciplines made possible. To that extent, academic freedom, peer involvement of faculty in appointments, promotion and policymaking, independence in governance from civil and ecclesiastical authorities are not American standards. For the most part they are standards of professional quality for the academy itself, everywhere, and will be the conditions of professional standing and influence into the next century.

Today’s intense competition among institutions will reinforce these efforts to improve levels of faculty excellence. Academic quality has become a permanent touchstone of relative standing and of success. But success for a Catholic college or university demands more than simply being competitive with its peers.

Perhaps even more importantly than affordability and quality, embodiment of a distinctive mission is the third standard that will both test the success of America’s Catholic colleges and universities, justify their expense and constitute their contribution to American higher education.

I must confess that I approach the topic of distinctiveness with great caution. In the preparation for the appearance of Ex corde Ecclesiae and in the years since its publication, perhaps no single topic has received closer attention or consumed the energies of more faculty and staff.

And those energies have paid visible rewards. In the past fifteen years, Catholic colleges have made immense strides in adding new vitality to formal theological and religious studies programs that assist students in grasping the meaning of their faith; in developing attractive, meaningful liturgical forms of worship; in assisting students through a complete range of student life programs to interiorize for themselves a set of values for the exercise of their mature freedom. Though one may not often encounter a Roman collar or a nun’s veil, a week or a day on almost any Catholic campus today will show it to be palpably, unmistakably distinctive.

And yet I believe that something further is possible; something further is needed. To some eyes, the emphasis on professional excellence inexorably takes place at the expense of Catholic identity. And the result is that Catholic character becomes spontaneously identified with a specific department or function or even personage in the college. What we need, therefore, is a way of thinking that will overcome the tension between the apparently secular, professionally academic identity of the university and its Catholic identity; a way of thinking that will resist compartmentalizing the Catholicity of an institution into the chaplaincy or theology department and make it applicable to the university as a whole.

The fact is that such a way of thinking exists. It has been an insight of Catholic theology from the beginning – and with the new interest in spirituality, can deepen further the distinctiveness of Catholic colleges that has already strengthened so much in recent years.

Perhaps no document of the Church spoke more thematically to the relationship of Catholic institutions, as Catholic, to the cultural pursuits of the contemporary world than did Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. Indeed, the positive, affirming tone of that document toward those pursuits provided the impetus for much of the professionalization that has taken place in our colleges and universities over the past twenty-five years.

Rather than divorce faith and one’s profession, the Council deplored as one of the most serious errors of our age the split between “professional activities…and one’s religious life.” (43) In a rich series of texts (33-45; 53-62), the Council states and restates its incarnational perspective on human accomplishment as the “unfolding of the Creator’s work” (34) contributing “to the realization in history of the divine plan” (34), on human accomplishment as an integral part of the Christian’s vocation (34), as a gift and calling of the Spirit (38, cf. 36). This massive affirmation of the religious meaning and worth of human creativity and independence and of human cultural accomplishment is founded, as one commentator asserted, “on a mighty act of faith – in the secular, human world as the area of God’s unceasing activity.” (The University in the American Experience, p. 17) This unifying view of the scientific and cultural accomplishments with the religious aspirations of men and women, the Council, of course, grounds in Christ. “The truth is,” the Council says “that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of human person take on light.” (22 cf. 45)

Our reflections have brought us, obviously, to the intersection of the secular and the sacred, of nature and grace – these conceptually different elements that fuse in the mystery of Christian life, whether that of the religious or ordained professional, the living of lay “vocation” or indeed the social or cultural contributions of institutions that are Catholic.

Though here in a college founded by the Edmundite fathers, perhaps you will excuse me of any partisanship if I invoke an element of Jesuit spirituality to reinforce the point I have just been making. Jesuit spirituality was, from the beginning, a resource to the laity as much as to religious and has become the patrimony of the entire Church. The great monastic movement was founded on the Christian realization that God is totally other than the world and to find God, one might leave home and family and earthly enterprises. Ignatian spirituality arose from the equally Christian affirmation that God entered our world and gave new nobility to those enterprises. Ignatius’ was the gift of “finding God in all things.” As one commentator remarked, “For Ignatius, grace and revelation are verified in the whole of human experience…in parliamentary procedures…in the elaborate procedures of a major surgical operation.” (T. Clarke, S.J., Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits, VII, 4, Sept. 1975, p. 114)

This unifying vision of sacred and secular is perhaps fully accessible to faith alone. Indeed, it arises from the fundamental mystery of Christianity itself: that Christ could be fully God and fully man; that service to others can be service to God Himself; that advancing the city of man can be an advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth. It was this vision that lay at the root of Catholic higher education in its beginning, and it is this vision, as permanent as Christian faith itself, that remains to assure distinctiveness to Catholic higher education.

In 1989, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Georgetown as the first Catholic university in America, Frank Rhodes, the President of Cornell University, was invited to address an assembly of faculty of Jesuit universities. President Rhodes concluded his remarks with the statement that “so long as Catholic colleges and universities exercise a genuine ministry in higher education, they will be authentically Catholic.” By “ministry” he meant an activity that, whatever it’s cultural or humanistic worth, has a religious significance as a form of service to God.

In these simple, perhaps unexpected words, Frank Rhodes expressed the same congratulatory and challenging words that I convey today.

As St. Michael’s enters on its second century of life and service to young men and women and to its community, you will surely manage well the test of affordability and continue defining anew the excellence you aspire to. And if this college’s cultural service to its community is also, through the intentionality of its members, a service to God, it will indeed be a Catholic college; its professionalism will be an authentic ministry.