Some Hopeful News From Our Little Corner of Higher Ed

2015-04-27_Updated_Classroom_Photography_COMM_248_03The past few weeks have not been American higher education’s proudest. Student protests at Yale,  Missouri, Ithaca College, Amherst, the University of Michigan, and Princeton, among others, have been viewed critically by many outside observers (see The Daily Beast and CNN) as well as those within higher education (see The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Ed).

At Yale, some students were upset by an email encouraging them to lighten up in their response to politically insensitive Halloween costumes. No offending costumes had been worn by students, but the outrage flowed from an email prior to Halloween itself.  At Missouri, the situation is a bit more complicated but the original protests that brought down the president and chancellor focused on the perceived inadequate response of the administration to several racial incidents on campus, even as the details around those alleged incidents remain unclear. Protests of other students in Higher education have either been in solidarity with their peers at Yale or Missouri or due to local concerns about racism and inclusivity.

The criticisms focused largely on the issue of free speech.  The students in most of these cases appeared to be uninterested in the intellectual give and take that is at the heart of the academic enterprise.  Grappling with and engaging dissenting views is how one moves toward greater understanding of others and the world.  This process is challenging, hard work, often uncomfortable and even painful.  But the image presented of American universities in recent weeks is one of students (and even faculty and staff) deeply uninterested in uncomfortable learning and willing to use threats and intimidation to prevent the airing of alternative views that might be challenging.

Jencey Paz, a Yale student, succinctly captured this view when she wrote in an op-ed for the Yale Herald, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

Given the importance of the First Amendment in American life and history it is not surprising that criticism of this ethos came from both sides of the political aisle.  President Obama defended free speech, saying:

I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal toward women.  I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that, either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view….. You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas.  Just out-argue them. Beat them. Make the case as to why they’re wrong.

Obama said he was “worried” that young people were becoming “trained” to think that if they disagree with someone, that if their feelings get hurt, their “only recourse is to shut them up.”

George Will, coming from a different political perspective, wrote:

If you believe, as progressives do, that human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights. And if you believe, as progressives do, that human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people receive their rights from the shaping government. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people are the sum of the social promptings they experience. Then it will seem sensible for government, including a university’s administration, to guarantee not freedom of speech but freedom from speech. From, that is, speech that might prompt its hearers to develop ideas inimical to progress, and might violate the universal entitlement to perpetual serenity.

While many of the criticisms are justified and much of the students’ behavior is inimical to the very idea of the university, it is important to remember that there remains significant diversity of thought and attitudes on college campuses.  Consider my experience on a recent visit to China.

A small group from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and I were at Southwest University in Beibei, China, recently to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our exchange program.  While there, we spent some time with the group of our students studying there this semester.  I had the chance to talk to most of them and asked them how they ended up studying in Western China.  I expected to hear that they were mostly experienced travelers for whom, having already done Europe and maybe experienced somewhere in South American or the more developed parts of China or Japan, the less known western regions of China were simply the next step in their world travels.  What I found was quite the opposite.  Most of the students had never been to China and several had not even been out of North America prior this adventure.  We have nearly twenty off-campus options at CSB and SJU, so I wondered why they did not opt for the more traditional London or Greco-Rome alternative.

To a person, they gave some variant of the following:  “I wanted to go to a place where I would not be in the majority.”  “I wanted to test myself.”  “I wanted a challenge.”  “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”

IMG_6272 (002)Choosing a study abroad program is not exactly parallel to the choices about protesting that college students were making in the past weeks, but I can’t help thinking that the college students recently splashed all over the media could learn something valuable about their education from these brave and adventurous Bennies and Johnnies.

Students sharing the attitudes of the Bennies and Johnnies I met in China obviously exist in great numbers at Yale and Missouri too.  They just were not getting much air time in the past few weeks.

So there is no need to despair about millennials and the universities they attend.  Most understand that uncomfortable learning is central to their education.

By |November 23rd, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Francis Effect Redux?

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States was striking not so much for its impact among Catholics, for whom Francis is the leader of their Church, but for its impact among non-Catholics, who were widely moved by both the Pope’s pastoral message and his humble style.

The media widely and enthusiastically covered his visit and his message but with the public’s short attention span in a 24-hour news cycle, during an election year one would think that the Pope might fade from view. Yet while he has returned to Rome, Pope Francis surprisingly continues to occupy media interest, including in the rarified media space of The New York Times.

I have found a recent series of stories featuring Pope Francis and the Church to be fascinating and possibly unprecedented, at least for many years, maybe since Vatican II.

First, a couple weeks ago New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a column entitled, “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” It focused on the recent Bishop’s Synod on the Family, and in particular on the debate within the Catholic Church about whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion without having their first marriage annulled.  This column provoked a surprisingly powerful response, not least among professional theologians.

On October 26th, on the website Daily Theology, over a hundred leading theologians from universities all across North America, including Notre Dame, Boston College, Villanova and Georgetown, signed a letter critical of Douthat’s column.  The brief letter said:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

The letter got widespread coverage in the press and Douthat responded in another column in the Times with, “Letter to the Catholic Academy,” in which he explains his objectives to “My dear professors!”:

I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated – as it should be – by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.

So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church…

While the controversy over divorce and communion is certainly deeply meaningful for the many divorced and remarried Catholics and even for their Catholic family and friends, it is very much an “inside baseball” kind of controversy, with the theological subtleties confusing to non-theologians and probably boring to non-Catholics. Why would the wider world care about these controversies in the Roman Catholic Church?  Why does the establishment’s most prestigious print media outlet devote precious column inches to such minutia?

Certainly much of the interest comes back to Pope Francis, whom the world finds compelling and fascinating. He is more accessible and engaging than the scholarly Benedict, with the personal warmth of John Paul, while delivering a generous, human and inclusive Gospel message.  But there is also a surprising interest in Francis’ “efforts to reshape our church,” as Douthat notes.  Some non-trivial part of the non-Catholic world seems to have a stake in matters that would seem far removed from their lives.  Maybe these internal controversies matter because the wider public, finding this Pope’s compassionate message especially compelling, want or need his moral authority to extend to the Church hierarchy as a ratification of Francis’ Gospel message.

Regardless of the exact nature of the interest, the Catholic Church and its leader, in some small way, are influencing the moral conversation in the world. On the one hand, that’s not surprising for an institution that has shaped morality profoundly for more than two millennia.  On the other hand, it’s very surprising in a secular 21st century where at least overt religious interest and practice are on the wane in the West and the same Catholic Church continues to suffer from a self-inflicted moral crises around sexual abuse.  For the Church to have regained some moral authority so soon after the widespread and deserved public shaming over clergy sexual abuse is surely surprising to even its most supportive followers and is an obvious tribute to the personal appeal of Pope Francis, whose influence may be only beginning.

Interesting times indeed.

By |November 10th, 2015|Categories: History||0 Comments

Product Differentiation in the Higher Education Market



Conferences are a central part of academic life.  Faculty members each know when the important national conferences are held in their disciplines, at which academic research is shared, a job market is often held and graduate school/professional friendships are renewed.  Administrators have their own calendar of conferences that address administrative concerns: mentoring and staff development, the pressing challenges in higher education, legal or regulatory or re-accreditation issues, student life topics, etc.

As important and substantive as the formal sessions at conferences can be, I have always found the informal conversations with colleagues to be most helpful.  They provide an opportunity to probe more deeply into topics and learn about the specifics of the challenges and issues facing other colleagues, departments or institutions.  Invariably and unsurprisingly, I find myself comparing life at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to that being described (of course only imperfectly) by my conversation partner.  They are undoubtedly doing the same.

I recently attended a conference sponsored by the Lilly Foundation for colleges and universities that are sponsored by religious orders or affiliated with various Christian denominations.  The topic was “leadership for mission:”  how do different schools encourage and mentor faculty and staff to include a focus on the religious mission (however defined) of the institution?  While these conversations and presentations were helpful and engaging, what I found most interesting were the ways in which different schools were choosing to approach the very competitive higher education market.

A common approach of the particular schools at this conference was to use their religious tradition and history as a point of differentiation and even uniqueness.  A number of the Protestant institutions were clearly seeking to attract primarily students (and presumably their parents) from their own traditions.  This was done either through curriculum, where a number of required courses were taught with doctrinally determined syllabi, or through faculty hiring,  with an explicit eye toward religious beliefs in addition to disciplinary training.  In some cases all faculty have to be active members of the denomination sponsoring the institution.

There are a number of Catholic institutions that are part of the Lilly network and several of them were represented at this conference.  What was striking, though probably a statistical aberration, was the different approach they took to differentiation.  They tended to present themselves as Catholic with an emphasis on their founding order: Jesuit or Franciscan or Sisters of Mercy, etc.  But there was also an explicit openness to other faith traditions, both for students and faculty.  They were Catholic and catholic—making diversity, ecumenism  and inter-religious dialogue selling points.

These observations simply suggest that the diversity in American higher education is rich and deep and more complicated than most outside observers understand.  The hundred  or so school that are part of the Lilly Network of Church-Related Institutions might, at first glance, appear to be very similar, but they are not, despite a commitment to a religious tradition.  And what is even more interesting is that when exploring institutional subtleties of the differences, they do not follow expected patterns, say along Catholic and Protestant lines.

Plenty of Protestant schools emphasize their small “c” catholic mission.  In Minnesota alone, places like St. Olaf, Augsburg, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia—Moorhead have a lot more in common with many of their ecumenical Catholic peers, like the college of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, than they do with some of their more traditional Lutheran co-religionists, at least in how they position themselves in higher education.

At the same time, there are, of course, Catholic institutions that emphasize their capital “C” Catholicism—Ave Maria in Florida, Franciscan University of Steubenville, University of Dallas, Benedictine College, among others.  While none of these schools happened to be at this Lilly Conference, Catholic schools approach their mission and differentiation in the marketplace in the same fashion as some of their more traditional Protestant peer schools do.

There is no right way to approach the market, though both of these broadly described approaches have their obvious downsides.  If the pool is too narrow or changes for some reason, institutions with a more focused approach could find themselves without a sustainable market.  Those who have a broader mission could be so expansive as to have no clear identity—trying to be all things to all students could result in being nothing to any.

While deciding among and living out these significant differences requires thought, nuance and hard work on the part of the individual schools, they are a great thing for students.  Product differentiation results in an incredible range of choices and the ability of higher education to meet the needs of a wide range of students.  Choice among so many excellent options is arguably the greatest glory of American higher education.  It explains why we continue to attract nearly a million international students to our shores for their undergraduate and graduate education.

By |November 5th, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments