There was a time when being a college or university president actually entailed some understanding of and devotion to the life of the mind. A few years ago, the Yale Alumni Magazine published a typical daily schedule of President A. Whitney Griswold, who served during the 1950s. With rare exceptions, the business part of his day ended after lunch; his afternoons were free for research and writing and, one supposes, occasional thinking about the nature and purpose of education.
In those halcyon days, the Xerox machine had yet to be invented, vital statistics were entered and retrieved by hand, and the phone was not yet an instrument of aggression. There were no e-mail, voice-mail, or other devices that put one at the mercy of importunate constituencies, near or far. The governance of students was informed by the principle of in loco parentis, which in effect reserved to the college the right to dismiss for “conduct unbecoming.” (This at a time when more or less everyone could agree on what that meant.) Faculty members, for all their feistiness, could be counted on to have some irreducible loyalty to the institution that employed them. The core of the undergraduate curriculum made a deep bow to the importance of the liberal arts and to the ideas that animated the development of what used to be called western civilization. And, in the case of Catholic institutions, one could expect that curriculum to embrace as well a thorough grounding in the depositum fidei.
Nowadays, college presidents are chiefly bureaucratic managers and fundraisers (when was the last time a college president had anything memorable, or even thoughtful, to say about higher education?); the institutional loyalty of faculty can no longer be counted on; in loco parentis has been replaced by diverse, politically correct Napoleonic codes of conduct; the liberal arts struggle to maintain even minimal status; and western civilization is denigrated as the province of dead white males. The same philosophical tendencies that have corrupted secular institutions have affected Catholic universities as well, most of which remain Catholic in name only. The worst of them—a very long list, alas—bank on the sentimental memories of alumni and the uninformed good intentions of parents even while their institutions willy-nilly undermine the faith.
There’s lots of blame to be spread for this sorry mess, starting with trendy presidents who love to invoke what William F. Buckley once called “the shibboleths of academic freedom” as an excuse for tolerating everything from heretical theology professors to campus organizations that, for example, endorse homosexuality and abortion. The decade-long debate over the meaning and implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, however, is finally beginning to bear fruit. A case in point concerns Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., president of Spokane, Washington’s Gonzaga University, who recently withdrew a speaking invitation issued by a group of undergraduates to representatives of Planned Parenthood. In an unusually forthright statement, Fr. Spitzer argued not only that a Catholic university had no obligation to extend campus courtesies to organizations like Planned Parenthood, the world’s leading advocate and provider of abortion, but that to do so would threaten the integrity of the distinctive doctrinal teaching that ought to inform Catholic institutions of higher learning.
Fr. Spitzer’s action has, predictably, embarrassed certain of his fellow Jesuits—for example, Fr. Thomas Reese, the editor of America, who has yet to meet a liberal trend in the Church he didn’t like. Liberal accommodationists like Fr. Reese, however, appear to be growing a bit long in the tooth. Much to their chagrin, Fr. Spitzer’s exemplary courage is receiving praise from many quarters, both lay and academic.
Washington lawyer Manuel Miranda, who doubles as the articulate president of the Cardinal Newman Society for Catholic Higher Education, hit the nail on the head when he responded, “Today’s college students are sufficiently immersed in a popular culture that feeds them everything but Catholic social and moral teaching. If places like Gonzaga University fail to give safe harbor to Catholic values, who will? Harvard?” Miranda’s question ought to be uppermost in the mind of every Catholic college president in America, but with a few exceptions, they have been conspicuously quiet about the episode at Gonzaga. Their silence speaks volumes about the character of their own institutions. Parents who want a truly Catholic education for their children, and who must shell out a princely ransom to acquire it, need to look beyond the labels. Gonzaga would be a lovely place for them to start.