Panel Discusses the Future of Catholic Higher Education

Catholic higher education has a profound role to play in today’s society, but there will be distinct challenges ahead. That seemed to be the conclusion of five distinguished Catholic educators who gathered at Saint Mary’s on October 24 to discuss the topic.

Among the panelists for the event — one of “The Year of the Great(est) Conversation(s)” series  — were four presidents of area Catholic colleges and universities: Father Stephen A. Privett, S.J., president of the University of San Francisco; William J. Hynes, president of Holy Names University; James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union and Judith Maxwell Greig, president of the University of Notre Dame, Belmont. Also on the panel were this year’s Montini Fellow, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is the chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academies of the Sciences and the Social Sciences, and Sister Mary Peter Traviss, O.P., a former Montini Fellow. Brother President Ronald Gallagher introduced the panel, and Brother Charles Hilken moderated a question and answer session after the panel discussion.

Bishop Sanchez Sorondo accepting the Montini Fellow declarationPanelists were asked to speak briefly about the one thing that was topmost in their minds regarding Catholic higher education. The discussion ranged from the importance and relevance of the Catholic intellectual tradition today to the role of Catholic colleges and universities must play in a remarkably changing world.

Key themes included financial sustainability during challenging economic times and a changing demographic from traditional students to those whose families can’t afford private college tuition. “We have to figure out how to offer quality education at a lower cost. If we don’t, we won’t be here,” said Father Privett.

Panelists seemed to agree that Catholic higher education needed to clearly articulate its values and uniqueness. Greig challenged Catholic institutions to better connect students to the resources, history, spiritual disciplines and people of Church.

Hynes stressed that the body of knowledge embraced by the Catholic intellectual tradition serves as a counterbalance to other authorities within the Church. “It is a tradition that is deep and wide and provides a powerful resource … a pathway for souls and minds that are searching,” he said. Catholic colleges and universities will need to nurture and treasure that tradition or it will fade, said Hynes, who served as SMC’s academic vice president from 1990 to 2000. “In other words, use it or lose it.”

Donahue declared that Catholic higher education must, at its core, be a spiritual practice. When we talk about Catholic higher education, he noted, we are too generic. “To talk about educating the whole person and Catholic values doesn’t tell me too much,” he said. “How will Catholic higher education really make a difference?”

Provost Beth Dobkin asked panelists a question.Sister Mary Peter Traviss harkened back to the 1960s and 70s in Catholic higher education and the profound changes initiated by thinkers and leaders of the time and asked, “How will we build on that and continue that legacy? Where are the conferences? Where is the collaboration?”

In various ways, the panelists spoke to the need for clear, vivid messaging about the uniqueness and relevance of Catholic higher education’s mission, the utility of maintaining the dynamic tension among the sources of authority in the Catholic tradition and the necessity for the unification of reason with faith.

For his part, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo focused particularly on the latter, noting the purpose of the first Catholic universities — to see Christ as the teacher, to provide a Catholic vision of the world and to respond to new reasoning arising in society. “We need to go back to that great vision,” he said. “To combine faith and reason.”

The panel discussion was co-sponsored by Saint Mary’s Office of the President and the Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action. The discussion coincided with the Cummins Institute’s 2012 Montini Fellow Lecture by Bishop Sánchez later that evening:  Education as the Art of Becoming Oneself in a Globalized World:  An Educational Emergency.”

By Jo Shroyer
Office of College Communications

Photos by Andrew Nguyen '15

Read the Montini Fellow lecture by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo: