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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Is Catholic University’s Devotion To Its Faith Scaring Off Students?

Catholic 2Chronicle of Higher Education, Is Catholic U.’s Chaste Brand Scaring Off Students?:

A cost-cutting proposal at Catholic University of America, where administrators are seeking to close a $3.5-million operational deficit through layoffs and buyouts of 35 faculty members, has divided the campus and provoked a broader discussion about whether the institution has overplayed its religiosity to the detriment of student recruitment.

It is self-evident that Catholic University, a 131-year old institution founded by American bishops and considered the national university of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, is inextricably linked to Catholicism. But at a time when many students of traditional college age have eschewed organized religion and come to question the church’s social teachings, Catholic University finds itself in an intensifying dialogue that pits the university’s core identity against market imperatives.

This is not a new debate for Catholic or for religiously affiliated institutions in general. Such colleges have long wrestled with how best to preserve their deepest values while still attracting students who want a vibrant social life and a collegiate experience that is more spiritual than it is strictly religious.

Yet, Catholic University, based in Washington, D.C., is at a particularly critical moment.

The visceral threat of faculty job losses has invited emotional exchanges about whether the bishops’ university — whose leaders have waded into today’s culture wars and tried to discourage college kids from having sex — has scared off some of the very prospective students that it needs most. Changes at the university, which in recent years has done away with co-ed dorms and promoted itself as a cultivator of "Catholic minds," are now being scrutinized by campus critics as the unforced errors of an administration in need of a course correction.

Catholic University really started to feel the pinch in 2016, when just 723 freshmen enrolled, driving down total university enrollment to 6,076, the lowest in at least a decade, according to federal data. The downward trend dates back to 2010.

So Catholic University did what colleges often do in a crisis: Call in the consultants. A host of branding experts, web designers, number crunchers, and marketing gurus have descended on the institution in recent years with advice about cutting costs and gaining students. The result is a growing sense that, if it hopes to turn things around, Catholic University needs to position itself as a "global Catholic research university," rather than as the more narrowly defined religious institution that some prospective students perceive it to be.

Changing public perception is not easy, even for the most well-resourced of institutions. For Catholic University of America, which plans to simultaneously cut faculty jobs, increase teaching loads, and improve its research profile, the challenge is significant. ...

[T]here is considerable debate on the campus about what it means to be a Catholic university. How tolerant is such a place to non-Catholics? How welcoming is it to the less orthodox?

Into that debate steps John H. Garvey, former dean of Boston College Law School, who was appointed Catholic University’s president in 2010. Garvey is just the third lay president of the university, but he has built upon his priestly predecessor’s penchant for taking public stands on matters of faith and morality.

In 2011, Garvey trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal that Catholic University would return to single-sex residence halls, an admittedly "old-fashioned remedy" to what Garvey described as the pervasive cultural scourge of binge-drinking and "hooking up" in college.

At a forum of faith-based college leaders, in 2015, Garvey suggested that the debate over sexual consent on college campuses missed a larger point that he presses on his campus: Don’t have sex out of wedlock. Period.

"The new mantra is ‘Yes Means Yes’ — you need affirmative consent before you can engage in sex," Garvey said at the forum. "But at Catholic University, I am fond of saying to our students that ‘Yes Means No’ — this is something that we see as more sacred than the culture does, and should be attended to in marriage and not outside of it." ...

As the debate over Catholic University’s religious identity resurfaces, some professors are quietly suggesting that the institution, during Garvey’s tenure, has become less welcoming for non-Catholics or those deemed insufficiently devout. Professors who have these misgivings declined to speak on the record, saying that they feared being targeted at a time of potential layoffs. ...

Garvey describes Catholic University of America much like the University of Chicago’s economics department, whose faculty members are often credited with having provided the scholarly underpinnings of free enterprise. Just as an economist with a preference for regulation and big-government stimulus might be a poor fit at Chicago, Garvey said, so too would a professor with little interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition be an unlikely match at Catholic University.

"A seriously religious climate like this is inviting to people of many faiths," Garvey said. "It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, just like a secular environment is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s a kind of tribal, Catholic, exclusive sort of thing." ...

The university’s fiscal challenges have put its capacity for compassion to the test. Some professors on campus say they fear not only for their jobs but for the long-term vitality of their departments. They feel threatened and disrespected by a process, they say, that has reduced professors to widgets.

The provost’s "academic renewal" plan seeks to cut 9 percent of the university’s full-time faculty without eliminating any programs or course offerings. To accomplish this, the university has hired Kennedy & Company, another consulting firm, to determine where the university has "surplus faculty" who could be eliminated once the university increases its teaching loads. ...

In addition to layoffs, the plan mandates teaching loads of 3:3 for professors in departments classified as "undergraduate" or "professional," while reducing to 2:2 the teaching loads for professors in "doctoral" departments.

Some professors describe these classifications as a "caste system," where faculty members who work the most with undergraduates are seen as less valuable to the research enterprise. The provost, on the other hand, says that the system merely seeks to recognize the additional work that professors in programs with graduate students put into overseeing doctoral dissertations.

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