The Idea of a University, Revisited

Liverpool Hope University, UK

September 16-18, 2010
Internal Aspects of the University — Perspectives from Different Cultures
President Andrea J. Lee, IHM

My purpose today is to share some themes and patterns I've observed in many Catholic colleges and universities in the United States; to illustrate how some of these themes play out at St. Catherine University; and, finally, to make a brief comment about how they reinforce and are illumined by Cardinal Newman"s ideas.

Student demand for professional preparation along with stringent requirements of accrediting bodies and government regulators, exacerbate the longstanding tension between the liberal arts and professional education.

First, let me say a few words about Catholic higher education in the United States. We have approximately 244 Catholic institutions. Of these, about 220 offer baccalaureate and/or graduate degrees to lay students, although a few also have a seminary attached. In 2007, nearly one million students attended these institutions and that number has almost doubled since 2000. These institutions range from large, complex universities in major metropolitan areas to small, rural liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1000 students. About 25 are all-female institutions, including my own; and among the more prominent U.S. Catholic universities, 28 are Jesuit. The majority of students (62%) are female; and, on average, about 60 percent of incoming students identify themselves as Catholic. Nearly every university enrolls students from a diverse array of religious backgrounds.

Presidents of U.S. Catholic universities might tell you that they don't need to "revisit" Newman's The Idea of a University because they've never stopped "visiting" the grand idea of what it means to be a university, particularly since the 1990 publishing of John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Since then, Catholic higher education institutions in the United States have focused intense energy and extensive time on their identity, purpose and place within both the global Church and the broader academic community.

Two additional phenomena evident in, but not exclusive to, Catholic universities claim a parallel degree of attention among university administrators, trustees and faculty:

  • First, as greater diversity in age, race, ethnic background, religion and socio- economic level characterizes the students in many institutions, internal efforts to meet a staggering array of student needs intensifies.
  • Second, student demand for professional preparation as teachers, business leaders, social workers and healthcare professionals, along with stringent requirements of accrediting bodies and government regulators, exacerbate the longstanding tension between the liberal arts and professional education: What is the perceived value of both? Why and how best do we integrate study in the liberal arts with professional preparation?

Finally, the global context within which we operate has altered dramatically from anything we have known. The dominant factor impacting the future of all universities is high-velocity change — technical, economic, demographic, social, ecological and moral forces that reshape, at a dizzying pace, the contexts in which we live and work. No doubt our external context is dramatically different from the context within which Newman wrote his great treatise, although one could argue that pervasive conflict, whether political, social or religious, was and is a common theme.

The dominant factor impacting the future of all universities is high-velocity change — technical, economic, demographic, social, ecological and moral forces that reshape, at a dizzying pace, the contexts in which we live and work.

Our students live in a world of diverse cultures and points of view. They have instant access to the Internet, with all that implies. Social media influence and sometimes shape the modes and quality of their communication. The global economy is volatile and unpredictable. Students live and raise their families in a complex, confusing and, often, confounding world.

We expect students to leave indisputable marks of their Catholic higher education — competence, compassion and integrity — on corporations, schools, healthcare and human service organizations; on government and social institutions and on the Church as well. Education's central task, therefore, must be to enable students to see with new eyes, and to solve complex problems by employing fresh perspectives in a collaborative effort to move toward a new and better world.

So what themes and patterns are evident in U.S. universities as they educate students for life in a pluralistic society, one defined by vast and rapid change? How do we prepare students to be competent professionals and engaged citizens; to adapt to rapid change; and to parent children whose futures will be even more unpredictable than our own?

Here are some themes we must keep in mind. In many U.S. Catholic institutions, and in other U.S. colleges and universities as well, they are both evident and the focus of keen and sustained attention.

First theme: Mission Matters

The difference between institutions succeeding or failing may pivot somewhat on resources. In institutions like ours, however, all the resources in the world will not make up for a scrambled, anemic or cloudy mission. The real "make a difference factor" is not money; it is mission. It is not financial wealth or privilege; it is passion.

Many institutions, my own included, openly discuss commitment to mission and identity with new employees, and especially with candidates for tenure. Those unwilling to examine their own attitudes and practices in light of St. Catherine's mission learn quickly that commitment to mission is not negotiable. An institution riveted on a deeply held mission neither apologizes nor waivers. Blurring identity courts disaster. St. Catherine University holds, at its heart, a progressive Catholic college for women. That is who we are and who we always have been. Intense eye on mission is entirely about focus and distinguishing spirit; it is about the passion that imagined and built the institution. In the end, universities that are clear about their missions are the ones that grow and thrive.

Second theme: The Liberal Arts Matter

The liberal arts are the University's response to anyone who worries that we will face a future lacking competent, adaptive and principled citizens. Classes in history, theology and philosophy, language, literature and the sciences are not just about what students may complain is the "who cares about this stuff anyway?" content. Students can, indeed, read the Wikipedia entry for Kant; they can see the movie rather than read the book, use the Google translator and so on. No, a focus on the liberal arts and their centrality to the undergraduate educational experience is about the impact of the whole. The meteoric explosion of knowledge erases any misguided hope of ever knowing "all that is important to know." Instead, institutions that hold the liberal arts at the center of the undergraduate educational experience help students to develop the attitudes and skills required of capable and engaged lifelong learners.

The real "make a difference factor" is not money; it is mission.

In that way, students become free, integrated, flexible, whole, adaptive, caring human persons who both live in, and contribute to, an amazingly diverse world. Understood in much the same way as Newman described it, liberal learning is about becoming a more whole human being. Of greater significance, liberal learning prepares students to move beyond themselves and to be more fully "for others."

When liberal learning grounds the curriculum, it is unmistakable, at once intricate and simple; of essence. When liberal education achieves its ends, students learn to assess, apply, integrate, and make wise and useful connections and decisions. To illustrate, let me quote from the correspondence of a 1995 St. Catherine graduate, a woman who now holds a doctorate in chemical physics:

"My experiences outside St. Catherine have demonstrated the critical need for ethical decision-making in science and technology, and the noticeable lack of women in leadership positions. The constant evolution of technology brings fundamental questions to the forefront from topics such as gene-splicing to laser-guided missiles. All come down to the same questions I recall from my honors program class 'Philosophy in the Novel' taught by philosophy and English professors, in which we read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: 'If we can do it, should we?' and 'If we do, what is our responsibility afterwards?' My liberal arts education prepared me to at least ask the hard questions and try to come up with ethical solutions."

(Minda Suchan '95, private e-mail to Sister Andrea)

This young woman speaks about how study in English, history and philosophy influenced her decision about whether to accept a position as an engineer in a corporation known for aggressive defense industry work. That she raised questions is remarkable enough for a woman in her early 20s. That she did so in such a thoughtful way pays tribute to her and to professors who helped her develop such finely integrated skills and values. That she entered what might be labeled "hostile territory" with the confidence that comes from integrated intelligence, competence, and values, marks her as a woman who will lead and influence, a liberally educated woman.

Liberal education establishes a context within which students can deepen their moral imagination and sophistication in order to infuse moral reasoning capacity into a fractured world, one heaving and yielding to complex pressures.

The interplay of advancing technology and globalization is shrinking the world. It is rendering us more mindful of diversity, of our planet's limitations, and of our fundamental interdependence. In response, liberally educated students create and value common spaces to engage in conversation and study, especially about deep value conflicts, and to examine critically then celebrate new glimpses of truth as they emerge.

Such common space, in Newman's sense, is not devoid of our bedrock values, but instead, is a place where those values may be enriched and deepened.

Third theme: Women Matter

To intentionally link its mission to educate women to lead and influence with the pressing needs of the world, St. Catherine University reaffirmed its commitment to single-gender education for a single reason: The work that the founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet began in 1905 is not finished.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof's poignant remarks in The New York Times (August 26, 2002) and repeated in a slightly different form in the book he co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn (Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009):

The central moral struggle of the 19th century concerned slavery and the 20th century pitted democracy against Nazism, communism and other despotic isms. Our own preeminent moral challenge will be to ease the brutality that kills and maims girls and women across much of Asia and Africa.

The central issue, Kristof says,

... is 500,000 women who die each year in pregnancy or childbirth; 100 million girls or women worldwide denied adequate food or medical care; aborted or killed at birth because they are female. Most children kept out of school are girls; indeed 2/3 of the 800 million illiterate people in the world are women. 130 million girls have undergone genital mutilation; nearly two million are trafficked into prostitution annually.

Perhaps it is naïve or grandiose to think that graduates of a Catholic university for women on a Midwestern prairie in North America can, in any way, affect the escalation of these horrifying statistics, but we do focus on it intently. We consider this work a primary and essential commitment, fully consistent with our mission and the conviction that competent, caring, committed women must seek the same for people the world over. Competent, caring, and committed, that is, liberally educated women make themselves heard and trust they can make a difference.

Theme Four: The Catholic Tradition Has Much To Offer The World

As Catholic universities, we uphold our identity rigorously, while intentionally embracing the diverse array of students' religious and cultural traditions. No question — being a Catholic university is controversial and complex, even a century after George Bernard Shaw's famous observation.

Conversations about what it means to be a Catholic university are often anecdotal or dismissive rather than thoughtfully posed; nostalgic or emotional rather than reasoned; or reactive to strident voices clustered at either end of a difficult spectrum, those for whom we will never be Catholic enough and those for whom devotion to religious neutrality is a religion in itself, and sometimes not an exceedingly tolerant one. Sprinkled along the spectrum are the frequently silent or indifferent academic majority. In such an atmosphere, polarized conversations take up time and energy, often with no productive outcome.

Some wish that Catholic institutions would bifurcate the University's life of faith from its academic life.

Catholic sacramental life certainly does not embrace the entirety of what it means to be a Catholic university, but it is more than essential. Major liturgies mark important academic events, and our intent at St. Catherine is to reflect our heritage and help students experience the University as vibrant and welcoming. However, major campus events do include Catholic liturgy. That is not negotiable. It is part of our core identity. Required attendance — as is the case at many Church-based colleges — is neither appropriate nor productive, but we encourage attendance, if only as part of a student's cultural learning.

Some wish that Catholic institutions would bifurcate the University's life of faith from its academic life. But every Catholic college president I know refuses to yield to assertions that the institution's religious identity is somehow distinct from its academic life, working instead to transcend rather than fortify barriers between faith and reason. Our institutions are not in the business of proselytizing or conversion. Rather, we seek to integrate the best of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching across the curriculum and co-curriculum, and to explore what that means — and does not mean — especially as it relates to academic freedom.

The Church's position on some issues makes it a challenge to work toward greater inclusivity. For those of us at women's colleges, this is often painfully true. This challenge often has sharp edges and takes us down rocky paths, to unfriendly places. Such challenges, however, do not lead us to put aside our tradition or somehow view it as tangential to the real life of the University. Engaging in this work requires space and time for respectful, sustained conversations. This work includes important reading, analysis and discussion that extend beyond the anecdotal sharing of experience. These are different conversations than would have taken place during Cardinal Newman's time, but they are no less important.

Theme Five: It's All About The Students

The most successful institutions I've observed intentionally place priority first and always on students. Such focus inspires pedagogical philosophy, admissions policy and practice, as well as the array of programs and services the institution offers.

At the baccalaureate level in my institution, for example, that includes a full range of majors in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional programs in healthcare, business, education and social work. Co-curricular programs range from 12 varsity sports for women athletes to supportive services for single mothers. After admission, close faculty-student engagement, a curriculum deliberately inclusive of diverse academic and cultural contributions, a welcoming and robust campus life, and a network of tailored support services all focus on student success.

Although Catholic institutions in the United States vary greatly in the array of programs and services offered, seven "best practices or emphases" consistent with a "Students First" philosophy are evident in the most thoughtful and outwardly focused universities.

1. Enlightened Catholic institutions help students understand that diversity reflects the creativity and active imagination of God.

A student comes to chapel, for example, where Mass might include Swahili and Shona songs or Hawaiian dance. Diverse artists perform in our theaters; the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery exhibits art of Indian, Irish and Islamic women, as examples.

The University also offers personal counselors with deep knowledge and respect for the cultural norms of St. Kate's various ethnic groups; holds regular meetings of SWAP (Students Who Are Parents); provides thoughtfully designed mother/child study and play spaces, lactation rooms and other services for single mothers; as well as highly visible spaces for multicultural and international students.

It would not be unusual to find our trustee Archbishop intervening on behalf of a student locked in serious battle with U.S. Immigration, or alumnae facilitating or funding the enrollment of women from a local women's shelter. Being "all about students" means we offer on-campus housing options for women with children and Muslim prayer rooms on both campuses, among other examples.

Our universities teach students that participating on the team is a necessary skill for personal and professional effectiveness.

At St. Kate's, a student might be an 18-year-old hockey player or a young Somali mother, working to become a nurse. She might be the daughter of dairy farmers, university professors or laid-off airline mechanics. She might be a Hmong social work student who will one day be a candidate for the state legislature; perhaps a young mother whose husband is "missing in action," and I don't mean in Iraq or Afghanistan, although we have those as well. She might be a first-generation student whose counselor helped to extricate her from a forced marriage at age 14 — who then goes on to graduate as valedictorian with a Fulbright for advanced study in Thailand.

She might be a shy young woman from a remote Chinese province, off to Stanford to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature, or an older working woman — a secretary or nurse's assistant — who put her family first for many years. She might be the mom of a graduate or the daughter or granddaughter of one. She might be Catholic, or Muslim, or Lutheran or no religion at all. She comes to St. Catherine University to pursue personal goals. And, when we do our job well, she comes to understand her education as a rare privilege, one which calls her to engage in principled action to seek the same for people the world over.

2. Enlightened Catholic institutions help students understand that individual competence is good, but the ability to collaborate is almost always better.

In its annual 100 Best Idea edition, The New York Times Magazine ran a small article about a mathematician who put a complex, unsolved math problem on the Internet and then invited the world to collaborate in solving it. The world did — faster and better than even the greatest mind on the planet could do alone.

Some years ago, another University of California researcher examined academic performance in a calculus class of Asian, African American and Caucasian students, wondering why Asian students almost always outperformed the other two groups, even though they entered Berkeley with similar test scores and high school records.

The differentiating variable? Asian students almost always studied in groups and that created a measurable difference. Our universities teach students that participating on the team is a necessary skill for personal and professional effectiveness.

3. Enlightened Catholic institutions help students learn to communicate well, often and personally.

Tweet and text all you want, we tell students; it will never replace a long talk with a good friend. Nor will zipping off e-mails or memos by the gigabyte ever replace a thoughtfully constructed letter. So, "Yes" to e-mail, texting, Facebook and Twitter, but nothing trumps a package from home, dinner together, a personal letter or a late-night phone call when trouble hits.

Talking through lawyers, mediators, intermediaries, third parties or cyberspace works, but it's never as effective as face-to-face conversation, problem-solving around a table or engaging in difficult dialogue while looking someone straight in the eye. These are critical skills for life and success, skills that students come to understand through experience.

4. Enlightened Catholic institutions students understand that, "What you think you'll be doing is probably not what you'll end up doing."

The estimate is 10 to 14 jobs before current students are 40 years of age, and many in careers that don't even exist yet. That's why liberal education is so important, our students learn. Graduates of our universities will be ready for whatever comes because they've learned to adapt, adjust and reinvent themselves.

5. Enlightened Catholic institutions help students embrace Occam's razor: "the simplest solution is usually best."

Late last year, the Wall Street Journal carried a story about Iraqi militants using software widely available for $26 to intercept data from U.S. drones, thus posing a potentially major threat to military operations. If people intent on doing harm can find simple, effective and inexpensive means to do so, our students reason, why can't folks intending good find simple, effective and affordable solutions to the world's pervasive social problems — healthcare, housing and poverty?

6. Enlightened Catholic institutions help students to connect ideas ... nations ... races ... religions ... people.

Connect because, in doing so, intractable problems are solved; things "get right"; conflict deflates; options and possibilities emerge; and life is better, happier and decidedly more interesting.

When students can stand strong and concede weakness, they are free to offer the world their intellects, talents and energy. Janie Victoria Ward describes such people as "emotionally strong, socially smart and spiritually connected." They are our students.

When students can stand strong and concede weakness, they are free to offer the world their intellects, talents and energy.

7. Finally, enlightened Catholic institutions help students understand that education in a Catholic institution is always "for others — for the world."

Catholic universities prepare students for a future of accomplishment and engagement and help them develop values that are shared by intelligent, compassionate people the world over.

Students come to understand that, always and everywhere, the inherent dignity of a human person trumps everything, and they come to believe there is Loving, Creative Power beyond what they can see, understand or reason their way through.

Students in our institutions think, write, speak, integrate, and appreciate art and culture. They learn, and they learn to learn. Their major field of study is important, but not nearly as important as acting upon the values that guide their lives. Career and professional success matter, but the choicest fruits of education — wisdom, and moral and ethical strength — will always carry the day.

When we do our job well, a student becomes a courageous architect of good, a lifter of spirits, a community builder; a creator and wise leader, one whose presence sweetens the world and anoints it with imagination that things can be other than they are. We tell students to "Go and bother the world," as Bernice Johnson Regan says. Repair what's broken; create what's needed. Be what the ancient mystics called "redeeming sparks."

In 1923, our catalog, like those at many Catholic institutions, reflected St. Catherine's purpose as "producing women whose qualities of mind and heart will enable them to do their share of the world's work ... in a gracious, generous, beneficent spirit." Since then, everything and nothing has changed. We are, no doubt, in a different time and place, but I believe Cardinal Newman would be more than pleased.