Like every other sector of the economy, Catholic higher education is subject to the larger forces of finance, government regulation, and broad cultural, technological, and demographic changes. These changes cannot be ignored or mastered; at best, they can be navigated with whatever skill and vision are available. In Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, editors Bernard Prusak and Jennifer Reed-Bouley add another level of complexity to the challenges facing Catholic higher education: the clash of the common-good vision of Catholic social teaching with a regnant culture of neoliberalism, in which all aspects of higher education are viewed through the lens of market share and profit.
Such a culture works better for some than for others. It is not news that your local Catholic college with an enrollment of around 1,500 undergraduates is scrambling. But how many know that Boston College’s endowment assets reached $2.47 billion in 2019—exceeded, among Catholic schools, only by Notre Dame’s $11.32 billion. While Matt Mazewski’s contribution to this collection is careful to document the full range between these two poles, many Catholic colleges and universities (CCUs) are clustered at the low end, leaving them with few defenses in the higher-ed arms race. This impacts the delivery of the social mission of Catholic schools on many fronts: they struggle to pay their faculty and staff a reasonable wage; they struggle to offer scholarship dollars that would stave off overwhelming debt for students in need; and they are vulnerable to pressures to curtail or close humanities departments in favor of STEM and professional majors.
Catholic social thought—first officially formulated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in response to the economic conditions caused by the industrial revolution—has consistently championed unions and other labor associations as a humanizing counter to modern capitalism. Most CCUs in the United States, however, have consistently resisted unionization, arguing that unions would subject them to government oversight and thereby infringe on their religious liberty. In his essay, Joseph A. McCartin reports that Georgetown University ($1.8 billion in endowment assets in 2019) has found a way around this problem by implementing a model for “private election agreements that do not involve the government,” thus protecting the Jesuit university’s Catholic character while meeting the socially just call for a “union.” Because of its relative wealth, Georgetown is able to support the higher wages that result from unionization; unwilling or financially unable to follow suit, most other CCUs fall back on “religious liberty.” McCartin lays out other important Catholic dimensions of the labor question. Faculties are now divided into two camps: “citizens” (tenured and tenure-track faculty) and “guest workers” (adjuncts). This painful fact is familiar to faculty members themselves, whose clarion calls for social justice tend to focus on the world “beyond campus gates.”
The roots of Catholic social thought—its theological and anthropological basis—are often lost in campus discussions, which reduce it to a lightly christened version of secular social justice. Acknowledging that Catholic social thought all too often appears on the radar of Catholic higher education only as a “cudgel for faculty to wield against the administration,” the editors make their case for a much deeper appropriation of this tradition. The formation of senior administrators and boards of trustees often lacks a robust theological dimension. New presidents of Catholic colleges now commonly signal their relationship to the Catholic identity of their institution’s founding order simply by “showing the flag” as a fan of the tradition in question. This book could have done with even more strategizing about how to develop a deep leadership bench for the future—an incoming provost or president usually doesn’t have the time for this effort, given the practical demands of those roles. Administrators need guidance.
The contributors to this volume all understand that now is a critical moment for the Catholic character of these institutions, and that the failure to engage their Catholic mission is also a failure to engage some profound systemic issues for higher ed in general. Tia Noelle Pratt and Maureen O’Connell explain the racial dynamics at CCUs not merely as “a reflection of contemporary dynamics of racism in higher education,” but also as a legacy of the Church’s own participation in racism. Before dismissing this claim, predominantly white CCUs should ask themselves why it is that so many of them have gone from educating those at the margins, as they did in their early years, to a neoliberal strategy of consolidating the privilege of the already affluent. Similarly, as Michelle Gonzalez Maldonaldo notes, Latinos are significantly underrepresented in Catholic higher education, yet they are the Church’s future: 60 percent of U.S. Catholics who are eighteen or younger are Latino. These young people are setting patterns and aspirations for their adulthood right now—and Catholic higher education is rarely on their radar.
Maldonaldo argues that inclusive policies in higher education need to be intellectual as well as demographic. The writings of Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, for example, should be studied as the work of an important scholar—it is not enough to celebrate him as a martyr. Pratt and O’Connell also call for Catholic colleges and universities to recognize the lives and contributions of Black Catholics in their curricula as a complement to the work of implementing anti-racist policies. In this way, Catholic higher education would focus on the things it can impact the most: access to higher education for those disadvantaged by social forces, and scholarship that rigorously seeks to include the breadth of the human narrative.