Q&A with president of Catholic University of America

| August 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

CNS photo / Bob Roller

John Garvey is the 15th president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a nationally renowned expert in constitutional law, religious liberty and the First Amendment. He spoke earlier this summer at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul on “The Challenges of Mission-focused Leadership at a Catholic University.” 

Why is religious liberty important in the context of any Catholic university?

It’s intruded on the management of the university in some ways that are of concern to us at Catholic University. To take the most recent example, there’s been a back and forth with the [Obama] administration over the health care mandates that were proposed last fall and made final this spring, where Catholic institutions like The Catholic University of America have to provide — at no added cost to their students — insurance coverage of prescription contraceptives and surgical sterilizations and some things that we, in our ordinary daily business, tell the students that the church frowns on. . . . To have to turn around, at the same time, and provide them free of charge to our students, undermines the message that we are trying to deliver.

It’s our feeling — and the courts will see it the same way — that our own system of religious freedom allows institutions like ours to be exempt from things like this that they view as seriously wrong.

What are some other challenges for CUA and other Catholic universities?

Other issues that have come up in the life of universities that haven’t struck us but are culturally salient issues at some other Catholic universities are, for example:

• Several regional directors of the National Labor ­Relations Board in New York and Chicago [have said that the schools] are not Catholic universities [that qualify] for exemption from the National Labor Relations Act. The disagreement between the universities and the labor board on this issue is about what makes a university Catholic.

The regional directors and the board seem to have suggested that if you allow academic freedom; if you admit students who are not Catholic; if you don’t require people to go to Mass every day; that if you have faculty that aren’t Catholic; then you’re not truly Catholic for exception to the [Act].

The schools maintain and I believe that the decision about what are Catholic universities and what are not is one best left to the church itself to decide. Certainly allowing academic freedom in your business shouldn’t be disqualifying, I would think. That’s a second example.

• A third example this year, not in higher education but in elementary and secondary education: There was an important case before the Supreme Court earlier this term called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC about whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could subject religious schools to supervision under various non-discrimination laws.

For years, there has been an understood exemption by religious institutions from the hiring and firing of people who are key employees performing religious functions. The EEOC and the Department of Justice asserted authority to oversee the hiring and firing and treatment of employees who were religious teachers. The Supreme Court thought that this view was remarkable — this was an Evangelical Lutheran church — and ruled that the government doesn’t have any business saying who churches and religious schools can hire to preach the message of the Gospel. That, too, is a concern about government intruding into the affairs of religious institutions.

What’s the good news about Catholic higher education today?

There’s a lot of good news about Catholic higher education. It’s an environment in which we all — people in the business of higher education — are concerned about questions of affordability and what is the value that we offer to our students for the tuition they pay. I think one of the great advantages Catholic universities have is that they are offering something that other people are not offering. It isn’t just preparation for a trade or instructions in English grammar or literature. We spend as much of our energies thinking about what kinds of people our students are becoming in the course of their education as about teaching them mechanical engineering or architecture or finance and economics.

Speaking as a parent of five children, I can say that is something that my wife and I would happily spend our money on. Nothing is more important to us than that our children turn out to be well-educated serious Catholics who have happy marriages and happy lives and continue to go to church and receive the sacraments when they grow up. The school can help us in the process of getting them to that point.

You spoke at UST about the challenge of mission-focused leadership at a Catholic university. What is the biggest challenge in today’s world of higher education?

There are several:

• One of them has to do with the educational process itself. One or two generations ago, there was, in America, a set of implicit cultural presuppositions about the value of religion and the role that faith played in people’s intellectual lives. We didn’t have to begin at the very beginning in undertaking conversations about why teachers and scholars at a Catholic university might take a particular point of view about literature or criminal law or the history of the Middle Ages.

Nowadays, people grow to adulthood without absorbing from the culture a set of principles, ideas and so on. Partly, it’s a result of the increasing secularization of the culture. Partly, it’s a result of the increasing religious diversity or, in many orders, indifference.

So, finding faculty and hiring faculty who care about those things and presenting that intellectual vision to students in a way that’s attractive is a real challenge. It’s also a real opportunity, if you think of higher education as a business — that’s another aspect of a product that we’re offering that others don’t offer, and differentiation is good. That’s one challenge.

• The second challenge has to do . . . with the culture in which young people grow up.

Today, there have been so many changes since my generation’s childhood: in the wealth of American families; in the stability of American families, both keeping together and living in the same place; in the religious commitment and faith of young families; and attitudes toward sex and substance abuse.

Young people are presented images of materialism, of ways to live a happy life that are very much in variance with what the Catholic Church has always believed and what the generation that grew up after World War II and the Korean War believed. I think they are finding that it doesn’t really make them happy, and many young people are looking for an alternative that’s attractive. The challenge is to offer them that sort of alternative in an environment that is, itself, conducive to an education in a different kind of world.

Do you find that because our world has changed so much that it can be difficult for Catholic universities to form these young adults?

It is difficult in two ways:

• One is the kind of things we used to call sin are always [seemingly] attractive and fun, and the appeal of that is the same as it always was — but the opportunities are much more available as well. In this kind of culture, where we don’t make value judgments as we go, there isn’t any kind of social stigma to living that sort of life as opposed to another one. Kids are genuinely unsure about how they ought to behave.

• Another sort of difficulty is that when you’re offering an alternative that is countercultural, you’re going to make some people unhappy.

When you take steps like Catholic University did a year ago, when we said we were going to return to single-sex residence halls, there were a lot of good and sensible reasons for doing this, beginning with it’s just a way of communicating a message of respect for people of the opposite sex. . . .

There were a lot of good reasons for doing it, and I was curious to hear what the case was on the other side. I listened very hard and I tried to keep an open mind to the extent that I wanted to hear [a good answer to the question:] “Why should we put boys and girls 18-19 years old together, living in the same proximity to one another?” And I just [didn’t] hear it. But people were really upset about it to the point that somebody sued me for violating the D.C. Human Rights Act.

I think that some of the disagreement was a result of a misunderstanding. Some people mistook the changes we were proposing for a kind of suggestion that we were going to return to a period where men and women had defined sex roles and women weren’t welcome in the workplace and workplace boards and so on. It had nothing to do with that.

I am the father of five children and three of them are girls and they all played sports and they’ve all been to graduate school and they’re all professional women like their mother. We have no intention of trying to undo that. We want the same opportunities in all respects as men. But people sleeping together in the same quarters isn’t any necessary part of that. So some people mistook it as an antique feminist agenda, which it’s not. It’s as much about the guys as it is about the girls.

Some of the people were, I think, defending their own lifestyle. Nobody was willing to come out and say it’s a good thing for kids to have sex. Nobody was willing to take that position. If you think that is something that people ought to wait to do until they are married, why tempt fate.

What are the other challenges that are facing Catholic education today and what ideas to you have to address them?

We face many of the same challenges as public and other private universities.

Stories in the Times and the Wall Street Journal [recently] talked about the crisis of financing in public higher education as we get further into the recession we’ve been in for four years. States are contributing less to the support of universities. States have tried to deal with the problem by raising tuition faster than private universities have, and this is difficult for students whose families are less well-off. Dealing with those financial challenges is a big issue for everybody. That’s one nonspecific to Catholic universities.

The second set of challenges, not specific to Catholic higher education — but as important for us as for other people — is the rapid transformation of our intellectual environment from a local one to an international one. Education in other languages and cultures has become a really important thing for young people going through college. I think no student should graduate from college without learning another language and culture. Providing that sort of teaching is connected to the first problem, it’s expensive.

At Catholic University there is a Catholic aspect to this — the American Catholic Church. If you take all American Catholics under the age of 30, more than half are Hispanic or Latino. One of the big challenges and opportunities for American Catholic higher education is — that’s our market. Those are young people who need a college education. If we are to be The Catholic University of America, we need to recruit those students. For us, that means recruiting more in the middle and south and west of the country then we have traditionally done. We are putting a lot of emphasis on that.

It has intellectual side effects. The most obvious example is the one we were talking about a minute ago, about students learning another language and another culture. For American students of the last century, that typically meant one Western European country or another, such as:  France, Italy, the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Spain. That’s because when American Catholics came from those countries, they landed on the Atlantic seaboard.

Nowadays, I think, as we attract more and more American Catholics who have Latin roots, we’re going to have to pay much more attention to Latin America. I’ve spent some of my time this year visiting Argentina and Chile and other Latin American countries and Catholic universities in those countries that are the same intellectual quality as ours and that might want to establish relations with us. I think our students and faculty are increasingly going to look in that direction for things that they are doing. That is a fun opportunity, too. It’s a new direction for Catholic higher education.

Finances and international programs are difficult because kids at universities abroad are not accustomed to paying the kind of tuition that American students do, so you can’t just swap. You need to figure out ways to finance those exchanges.

Anything else you are looking at and trying to address?

This isn’t’ a new issue, but its new to me. I’ve spent my entire academic career at public universities like Kentucky and Michigan and Catholic universities like Notre Dame and Boston College that are Division I athletic schools — they have Division I sports. Catholic University, like the University of St. Thomas, is a Division III school and athletics is an entirely different thing.

Our students don’t watch athletics, they play them. As many as 25 percent of our freshmen class would be varsity athletes. The great thing about Division III athletics is that we don’t give scholarships for athletics, and we don’t recruit students who can’t meet our academic criteria. On the contrary, the students we recruit for our athletic teams are students who could go to some other school and ride the bench, but who want the opportunity to play sports and are attracted to Catholic University for that reason.

Our athletics teams almost always have a higher grade point average than the rest of our student body. They are our best students. That is a fun thing. It’s related to finance as well. The ability to support athletic teams is a tricky thing. I think there is a demand for sports that we just can’t afford to support right now, but we would like to, and providing facilities for students who play them is a greater challenge at Division III schools. At Division I schools, you have boosters who are willing to pay a lot of money to get their name on a stadium or get good seats at a football game. At Division III, it’s about playing the sports. So supporting that part of the enterprise is an interesting challenge.

The difference between athletics now and when I was in college is, No. 1, young women as well as men play sports, so we’ve doubled the number of participants and this is one of the great things about Title IX. We have a whole generation of young women who play soccer, swim, play lacrosse, play field hockey and play tennis. That’s great.

It’s a good challenge to have.

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Category: Colleges and Careers