Two competing visions of Catholic higher education threaten to undermine and cause irreparable harm to the mission of Catholic universities in the US—the corporate mission most often championed by CFOs and Boards of Trustees, and the religious mission defended by faculty and (sometimes) the chief academic officer of the university. This reality recalls the judgment of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, where two women claim to be mother to the same infant and Solomon decides the only just resolution is to cut the child in half with a sword. Unlike the biblical narrative, in which the true mother lovingly surrenders her claim on the child so that the child is unharmed, faculty members have cooperated and compromised with more corporate entities to such a degree that the viability of the religious mission at Catholic universities is seriously threatened.
My engagement of Gerald J. Beyer’s Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education (Fordham University Press, 2021) focuses on the role faculty play in mission creep—to the point that in our cooperation and compromise with the forces of corporatization in Catholic higher education we have placed the Catholic mission of our institutions at risk. When I submitted my abstract and entitled it “The Judgment of Solomon” last spring, little did I know that my university would literally be cut in half. Let me explain.
Saint Louis University, founded by Jesuits in 1818 and the oldest university in the United States west of the Mississippi River, has been undergoing some major structural revisions. While everything is being done in the name of the “Jesuit Catholic mission,” ostensibly guided by Catholic Social Teaching and its commitment to fostering the common good, the end results resemble the short-sighted profit-driven decision-making of corporate America.
First, with the appointment of an interim provost, the university began what was benignly called a process of Academic Portfolio Review with two stated goals: (1) Ensure that SLU’s portfolio of academic programs is understood and managed holistically and systemically; and (2) Ensure a sustainable balance of subsidized and non-subsidized academic programs. Red flag number one. In determining how academic programs would be evaluated and decisions made as to their viability, no mention was made of the university mission statement, which states, the university is committed to “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” Instead, the interim Provost applied the following criteria: “the vitality and viability of academic programs” are “ultimately decided on metrics addressing both student demand and financial performance.”
Second, upon his arrival less than four years ago, the interim Provost oversaw the design and implementation of a new university-wide core curriculum. Like every recent move by the administration, the proposed core employed the language of the Jesuit Catholic mission of the university—terms like “cura personalis,” “dignity,” and “just society”—yet managed to strip the Theology and Philosophy core requirements from a robust 18 CR to a single 3 CR course in Theology and a single 3 CR in Philosophy. Worst, the new core curriculum eliminated the History and Foreign Language core requirements, long a hallmark of a classical Jesuit liberal arts education. When faculty opposed the elimination of the Foreign Language core requirement, the interim Provost said that each individual college within the university could set its own additional core curriculum requirements, with the understanding that the College of Arts & Sciences, where the department of Modern and Classical Languages is located, would have the opportunity to revisit the core and reinstate the language requirements if so desired. Red flag number two.
When an effort was made to introduce the matter in the CAS Faculty Council, the chair of Modern and Classical Languages—newly appointed by the provost—remained strangely silent and let the proposal to reinstate the core language requirement die. When I, as director of a graduate program requiring classical and modern languages, filed an appeal to the Faculty Council, arguing that undergraduate students without language training will lack adequate preparation for graduate studies, and that without a healthy department of Modern and Classical Languages multiple graduate programs would suffer, I received a written response from the President of the CAS Faculty Council (signed by the chairs of several Humanities departments) stating that I do not have a right to interfere in decisions made by another department, and if the chair of Modern and Classical Languages did not see a need to oppose the elimination of the Foreign Language core requirement, then other departments need to accept his judgment and cede to his expertise. Last May, the Provost announced the results of the Academic Portfolio Review process: 40 programs are to be closed, including 29 undergraduate and 11 postgraduate programs. Programs cut included Latin American Studies, Medieval Studies, Classical Humanities, Greek and Latin Language and Literature. This spring the provost announced that German, Italian, and Russian Studies have also been eliminated. In other words, the elimination of the language core requirement led directly to the elimination of multiple language programs.
Third, as the new core is being implemented and all programs are undergoing “academic review,” the College of Arts & Sciences—the largest programming unit at the university—has also been undergoing a radical restructuring also initiated by the same Provost. Where once we had a College of Arts & Sciences housing the humanities, fine and performing arts, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences, now we have two separate and distinct units: a greatly altered College of Arts & Sciences and the new School of Science and Engineering. No one knows yet how these units will be organized: how many deans and accompanying administrative support staff this restructuring will require, but what is certain is that administrative overhead and already top-heavy administrative salaries are going up even as programs and faculty are being cut.
King Solomon proposed to cut a child in half in order to settle a dispute between two women each claiming to be the child’s actual mother. In his wisdom, Solomon knew that the actual mother would never allow her child to be harmed and so awarded her custody of the child. At Saint Louis University competing units within the college are all scrambling for survival in a zero-sum game—a feeding frenzy where the administration has literally set academic units against each other in a fight to the death—so when the king, or in this case the provost, pulled out his sword to cut the College of Arts & Sciences in two, no one loved the baby enough to let it live. Let me qualify that statement. No one with actual decision-making power cared enough to stop the sword coming down so now we are looking at a humanities and social sciences heavy College of Arts & Sciences and a STEM-centered School of Science and Engineering. Red flag number three.
For years the humanities and social sciences within the College of Arts & Sciences have seen their budgets slashed, tenure lines not replaced, and research and travel budgets frozen (even eliminated during the pandemic), while STEM continues to receive a king’s ransom in resources. When asked what that would mean for the new College of Arts & Sciences under the new reorganization, the Dean responded that every unit under the old structure would retain the same budget under the new structure. When asked what guarantees were given to reassure the humanities that this reorganization will not lead to a greater channeling of resources away from humanities and social sciences into STEM the response was silence. While this three-pronged attack I just described—the Academic Portfolio Review, the evisceration of the core curriculum, and the structural reorganization of the College of Arts & Sciences—was taking place, the university broke ground and completed a new $88 million STEM building.
What I have described is the same mission creep we have seen at other, admittedly smaller, Jesuit colleges and universities like the no longer Jesuit Wheeling University and Canisisus College. Resources are syphoned away from the core liberal arts curriculum, the university concentrates its recruitment efforts on STEM students, then when enrollment numbers drop in humanities and social sciences programs these low enrollments are used as justification for eliminating said programs and cutting faculty lines. Sadly, the global pandemic has drastically accelerated the corporate takeover of Catholic universities, as evidenced by the fiscal crisis at Marquette University that led to the elimination of 225 faculty and staff positions by 2022. The horror stories threaten to overwhelm us. But what can we do? How can we employ the Catholic mission of these institutions to slow down and reverse the corporate takeover of Catholic higher education?
In the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising in 2014 following the extrajudicial killing of an African American youth by a white police officer, Saint Louis University made a very strong public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion known as the Clock Tower Accords in which we promised to better embody our Jesuit values by more directly engaging the local community (St. Louis City is 45% African American yet our student body is only 6% African American) and by “continually challenging our institution to strive for inclusive excellence.” Six years later we have seen a net loss of African American faculty at Saint Louis University and the number of African American students remains stuck at 6% of the student population.
For us to change the culture of the university so that African American students feel welcomed and nurtured, we need to change the face of the university. We need genuine representation at all levels: The Board of Trustees, the administration, the faculty, the staff, and the student body. The net loss in African American faculty comes despite concerted and concrete efforts to recruit a more diverse faculty. Why are faculty leaving? Because they feel that the university lacks the adequate structures to support ethnic minority faculty. We are not providing adequate mentoring to ensure that ethnic minority faculty thrive, advance, and are promoted. We need to make sure that minority faculty achieve tenure; we need to make sure that their scholarship is properly valued; we need to make sure that their service is adequately recognized.
I have had many disagreements over the years with the current Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; and I published a letter in the student newspaper opposing the appointment of the current Provost. Yet as a member of the President’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, I have nothing but praise for their commitment to diversifying the faculty and student body of Saint Louis University. They could do more to diversify university administration—currently there is only one ethnic minority department chair and a handful of women department chairs in CAS—and outside the Vice President of Diversity and Community Engagement position, there are no people of color with genuine decision-making and budgeting power at the university. Still, that is a battle for another day. This Dean and this Provost are committing real resources and implementing real structural change that is bringing about a much-needed cultural shift at Saint Louis University that I see as one way past the impasse between mission-driven and corporate for-profit higher education.
Many of the cold-blooded fiscal decisions Catholic universities are making have been justified by appealing to fears about the upcoming demographic drop—projected declines in the number of college-age students by 2026. According to the Pew Research Center and the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI), these demographic predictions do not account for the fact that since 2000 the fastest growing population in four-year colleges and universities are Asian American students (81% growth), followed closely by Latinx students (70%), Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (61%), then African American students (albeit a much slower rate of 20%). In that same twenty-year period, the white population in the US has remained stagnant, only growing by 1%. In other words, the so-called demographic drop facing colleges and universities is a white people problem. If these universities had started transforming their campus cultures ten years ago to become more welcoming to people of color, had directed their resources accordingly to make sure they not only attracted but also retained these diverse student populations, we would not be talking about a demographic drop.
In 2009, I was sent by the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences to represent SLU at a conference sponsored by The Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts on how to recruit and retain ethnic minority student populations. Upon my return, I submitted a report containing demographic data, detailed studies of peer and aspirational universities (like our sister Jesuit school Loyola-Marymount) that had implemented successful programs to diversify their student body and included a proposal for targeting and recruiting Latinx students. The Dean forwarded my proposal to the provost, and I never heard back. We have had a high turnover rate in that position, so I would revisit the proposal with each successive Provost. In fact, I have already informed the new Provost now that he has successfully created a stand-alone department of African American Studies that a Latinx Studies Program is next. As a Catholic university SLU only has a 5% Latinx student population even though 40% of US Catholics are Latinx. In 2019, 21.7% of U.S. undergraduate college students were Latino, the second largest ethnic group enrolled at the undergraduate level.
As the university continues to put into practice its Jesuit commitment to social justice and inclusion, Catholic Social Teaching and economic realities overlap. Admittedly, racial minority student populations might not have the same resources as the traditional pool of white college-age students, yet universities have poured vast resources into recruiting First-Gen students in their attempt to minimize the demographic drop. I just want to make sure that when we talk about First-Gen it is not coded language for white first-generation students. The nation is facing a demographic shift. According to the Brookings Institution, by 2046 the US will no longer be a “majority white” nation. By addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion now, Catholic universities not only live their social justice commitments, but they can also address the long demographic drop, which as demonstrated above, is really a white demographic drop.