Most alumni of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are blind to what is troubling Catholic higher education today. Despite increased public awareness of scandals at many Catholic colleges, including pro-abortion commencement speakers, campus performances of The Vagina Monologues, and dissident and heretical theology professors, alumni publications rarely hint at the controversies on campus.
But for those faithful alumni who are aware of the scandals, it is cause for great dismay. Alumni often feel powerless to stop the secularization that has engulfed many Catholic colleges, frequently with the tacit approval of college officials, faculty, and staff.
But there are ways that alumni can have a significant impact and contribute to the growing movement for the renewal of Catholic higher education. Since 1990, when Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic colleges have increasingly demonstrated a willingness to embrace their religious heritage. Alumni have played an important role by urging them on.
What follows are ten ways alumni can help improve Catholic colleges. The suggestions draw on my twelve years of working with alumni through the Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization dedicated to strengthening Catholic identity at American Catholic colleges, and my leadership of a now-defunct association of alumni from Fordham University.
1. Get Informed
The first and most important step toward strengthening the Catholic identity of your alma mater is to get informed about what is happening on campus and in the Church and share that information with others.
Especially when angered by scandal or slighted by misrepresentation, one can be tempted to fire off an angry letter before getting all the facts. Limited time to study an issue, or the sometimes difficult process of digging for details about happenings on campus, can seem justification for skipping the process altogether. Worse, one may be quick to assume the truth of a rumor simply because it appears consistent with a college’s past actions.
But as Christians we should never forget that there is nothing so powerful as the truth—and nothing so destructive as falsehood, even when unintended. Misinformation gives college leaders the opportunity to ignore your concerns under the assumption that you are insufficiently informed and therefore unqualified to make a judgment about the college’s internal operations. On the other hand, irrefutable facts—supported by documentation, statements by college officials, Church documents, etc.—can make an important impression upon open-minded people.
The Information Age offers a variety of ways to keep tabs on your alma mater, especially via e-mail and the Internet. Often alumni can purchase subscriptions to student newspapers, a much better record of campus events than alumni publications. Some college Web sites offer Internet access to campus newspapers, as well as online forums to monitor student discussions or communicate with other alumni. Web-based news services will allow you to schedule an ongoing search for media articles and other news about your alma mater. Faithful Catholic organizations like the Cardinal Newman Society (www.cardinalnewmansociety.org) and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (www.catholicscholars. org) regularly report on developments at Catholic colleges, as do Catholic publications including Crisis and the National Catholic Register.
When you come across news of special interest or concern, share it with others. Interested parties include not only fellow alumni but also Catholic media and the Cardinal Newman Society, which relies heavily on information received from members and other concerned Catholics.
2. Get Involved
Alumni who remain actively involved with Catholic colleges can have a significant impact by providing a voice for faithful Catholic education and representing the interests of other alumni. The most obvious way to do this is through a college’s alumni association, which is usually eager for alumni to serve as local and regional coordinators, alumni club officials, student mentors, etc. Most of these positions provide occasional opportunities to meet college officials and have some influence.
Class reunions and class gift campaigns can be perfect opportunities for raising concerns and making suggestions. At class reunions, alumni often have opportunities to arrange small-group discussions, invite speakers, or set up informational displays. At the very least, they provide access to fellow class members with whom you can share information and encourage action if necessary.
Alumni who have contributed to a college—whether financially or with their time and skills—receive greater respect from college officials, even when complaining about campus scandals. If a college leader has never met you, it is possible that you will be regarded as a troublemaker without true dedication to your alma mater. Any sort of track record is helpful and can make positive contributions.
3. Donate Wisely
Catholic higher education is one of the most important resources the Church provides to modern youth, whose catechetical and spiritual formation is often lacking and who sometimes face overwhelming challenges to the Faith at non-Catholic institutions. So even in the current climate of scandal at many Catholic colleges, it seems a terrible shame to abandon them. After all, most of these institutions were built up with the donations of trusting Catholics, and their tributes to faithful Catholic education ought to be honored.
On the other hand, sending a check in response to a general alumni appeal can have uncertain results. Will your gift be spent on dissident theological faculty, a student health center that provides abortion referrals, a lecture series including anti-Catholic speakers, or a theater department’s presentation of The Vagina Monologues? These things happen all too often, and while a very small portion of a college’s general budget supports them, you do not want to be a party to it.
The moment you donate to a Catholic college is your moment of greatest influence over the college’s direction. You are no longer an observer of what college officials are doing to change your alma mater; you are their bread and butter. If only a small portion of alumni donated wisely and made a clear statement in support of genuine Catholic education, the message would have great impact.
The key to giving wisely is to control your gift—not only the amount, but how it is spent. You as a donor have the right to designate your gift for specific purposes, without actually controlling a college’s operations. If the college does not like the purpose you declare, its only ethical and legal option is to refuse the gift. Fortunately, no college likes to refuse any gift, so wise donors have an advantage.
Even small donations, which are minimally appreciated by colleges when pooled with operating or endowment funds, can have a significant impact on campus life if they are given directly to Catholic-oriented student clubs and programs. These include prayer groups, spiritual retreats, pro-life clubs, Catholic-oriented campus media, fraternal clubs (e.g., Knights of Columbus), theological study groups, campus speaker funds, etc. On today’s college campuses, students are allowed considerable discretion as to what they can do and which speakers to invite. This discretion often leads to scandal, but it also presents opportunities for faithful students partnered with alumni benefactors.
At minimum, be sure to earmark your donations for specific purposes and exclude uses that you find offensive. If you do so in writing, sufficiently well-crafted to avoid loopholes, you can ensure that your gift is not used inappropriately. Perhaps more importantly, your earmark sends a clear message to the college about what you support and what concerns you.
For perhaps the best advice for donors to higher education—albeit from a conservative rather than a Catholic perspective—get a copy of The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA also advises donors on how to set up endowed faculty chairs and scholarship programs in a way that prevents a college from distorting the donor’s intent. The Cardinal Newman Society is currently discussing with ACTA options for Catholic college donors to participate in ACTAs Fund for Academic Renewal, which among other things manages donor-advised funds by which you can designate a particular institution or type of program for ongoing support. For advice on funding opportunities that strengthen Catholic higher education, feel free to contact the Cardinal Newman Society.
4. Revitalize Student Life
Whether by financial support or mentoring, alumni and other concerned Catholics can have an impact on student life on Catholic campuses. Throughout American higher education—including most Catholic colleges—educators have rejected the in loco parentis model, the operating principle whereby colleges once embraced a semi-parental role for young adults living away from home, and have largely abandoned any real sense of responsibility for students’ personal and social development outside the classroom. But the extraordinary freedom allowed students to organize activities and mold their campus life offers opportunities to those who are disturbed by the status quo.
Alumni can establish dialogue with students who want to work for the renewal of Catholic life on campus, usually by identifying existing student clubs and contacting their leaders. Expect students to be a bit cautious at first—despite obvious opportunities for alumni and students to work together, students are rarely exposed to the idea—but they will usually grow comfortable when convinced that you offer valuable financial or other support. Be sure to look out for younger students and encourage them to consider leadership roles on campus; students come and go quickly, but you can help provide consistency to any effort.
Your financial support, even with small gifts, can make a big difference for student clubs with annual budgets often less than $500. Together you can sponsor Catholic lecturers to speak on campus or help prayer groups purchase rosaries and meditation guides. Larger gifts can help support Catholic-oriented publications, mission trips, a Eucharistic adoration chapel, and the like.
Students who are generally inexperienced and uncertain of their abilities can also benefit greatly from alumni mentors. Your own experience, whether as a former student activist or a career professional, can be valuable to students moved by the Holy Spirit. If only by modeling adult Christian behavior, your relationship with students can be a formative experience.
5. Revitalize Academics
Alumni also have opportunities to improve the academic quality of Catholic colleges—including proposing revisions to the core curriculum, sponsoring faithful Catholic theology programs, making scholarships available to students, and providing for endowed chairs and academic programs—but these are possible almost exclusively via large donations.
In most American colleges today, faculty have near-absolute control over the curriculum and faculty hiring. This means that, aside from urging on good faculty members to exert what influence they can, the best way to bring change is to control the purse strings by earmarking gifts. It never hurts, however, to make your views and recommendations known to college officials and trustees.
Again, for further advice I recommend ACTAs The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving and a supplementary article by ACTA president Anne Neal on how to protect your interests when endowing a faculty chair (posted online at www.goacta.org).
6. Appeal to the College
Here is one thing that every concerned Catholic, but especially alumni, can and should do to help renew Catholic higher education. The Church relies heavily on Catholic colleges for much of its theological study and preparation for Christian ministries; and because of this, the decline of Catholic education since the 1960s is a major contributor to problems experienced throughout the Church. As long as these institutions bear the Catholic label, every practicing Catholic has a stake in their fidelity and the education of their students.
Conveying concerns and recommendations to Catholic college officials is also quite easy to do, so there is no reason Catholics cannot communicate frequently and with little effort. Letters, phone calls, e-mails, and faxes to the college president’s office, alumni office, or other appropriate officials are noticed. Never underestimate the impact of praise when something is done well and criticism when it is done poorly. Your communication by itself may bring no immediate change, but when combined with other communications, it adds to a steady drumbeat of support or complaint that can have an important impact on a college’s future decisions.
Making the process even easier is the “Catholic Higher Education Alert,” a free e-mail service provided by the Cardinal Newman Society to subscribers at www. cardinalnewmansociety.org. Occasional bulletins are distributed that report on scandals and other developments at Catholic colleges, with contact information for college officials. By devoting just a few moments a week to conveying your concerns to Catholic colleges, you bring much strength to the movement for the renewal of Catholic identity.
Communications need not respond to specific incidents or concerns. Petition your alma mater to ensure that all theology faculty obtain the mandatum from the local bishop. Urge officials and faculty to read and take to heart Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Begin a dialogue and perhaps even forge a friendship with a college official or faculty member.
When communicating to a college official about any concern, keep the following in mind:
• Anger is a natural and often appropriate response to scandal, but while making a strong case against serious problems, be sure to do so with respect and charity. Not only is this what Christ expects of His followers, but a nasty e-mail can also detract from the practical impact of your protest.
• Always have your facts straight. (See point No. 1 above.)
• Generally, it is most effective to communicate with the college president’s office—and include others if you have the time. It is the president who is ultimately responsible for what occurs at the college, and your communication ensures that the president is fully aware of the problem. Your communication should acknowledge that the president may not already know of the problem and may not be personally responsible for it—but must accept responsibility for correcting it.
7. Appeal to the Bishop
There is a particular bishop in the United States who is well respected and clearly sympathetic to concerns about the decline of Catholic identity at Catholic colleges. In his diocese, there are Catholic colleges where theology faculty are heretical and scandals frequent. In a recent conversation with an education official in the diocese, I expressed my frustration at the bishop’s lack of any public statement or action in response to these problems. Amazingly, I was told the bishop did not act publicly because he was not receiving large numbers of letters about the problems, and therefore he did not define them as public scandals.
Obviously the bishop’s argument ignores the scandal to the college’s students. But the unfortunate reality is that most Catholics are already jaded by scandal while others do not expect the bishops to act in response to letters. We are caught in a vicious circle. Too often bishops react defensively to complaints, properly noting that it is college officials who are directly responsible for their problems and that most Catholic colleges do not answer to the bishops on day-to-day decisions. But if bishops are to exercise their authority to assess and promote the Catholic identity of colleges, they need to know what is going on.
You have every right—and in cases of scandal, the obligation—to inform a college’s local bishop of what is occurring in his diocese. Your goodwill toward the college is more readily assumed if you are a graduate (possibly even a donor) of the college. One surefire way of indirectly appealing to a bishop for help, without the bishop assuming that you are blaming him for the problem, is to send the bishop copies of protest letters addressed to college officials.
If you find that the actions listed above are having little impact, and scandals continue at your alma mater, it is time to discern whether you are called to more aggressively serve the Church by going public with your concerns and organizing other alumni to advocate change.
Organizing can be informal: communicating with other alumni and urging them to take action, publishing letters and commentaries in local newspapers, urging Catholic and pro-life lobbies to spur their members to action, etc. If you can dedicate the time, formally creating an alumni organization can have even greater impact and attract significant attention to your concerns. Alumni groups can do as little as produce a Web site and an occasional e-mail alert to notify others of college developments, or as much as sponsor direct-mail campaigns to alumni, as well as campus events and rallies.
For an example of an excellent alumni organization that has had a real impact at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, see www.hccns.org. The Cardinal Newman Society also provides advice and support to alumni groups.
9. Take Charge
By definition, alumni have primarily a historical relationship to their alma mater, and they have little direct influence over a college’s day-to-day operations. Nevertheless, in cases where a college’s leadership is clearly out of step with its Catholic mission, alumni may have limited opportunities to help steer the institution.
You can work to secure a prominent position in the alumni association, thereby having some control over a college’s fund-raising and communications apparatus. Major donors and other influential alumni can ask to be placed on boards and committees that determine internal operations and policies. Work to establish positive dialogue with officials, faculty members, and staff employees who may be able to influence decision-making.
A recent development at Dartmouth College spurs the imagination, although I am not aware of any such occurrence at a Catholic college. Conservative alumni upset by Dartmouth’s liberal biases managed to secure two seats on the board of trustees, which had been set aside for alumni. At significantly wayward schools like Georgetown University, it might be worth a try to petition for designated alumni seats on the board of trustees and other governing boards. Presumably older alumni would support a candidate who values the Catholic tradition that Georgetown was built upon.
In the end, there is always the option simply to disengage from a Catholic college, concluding that it has irreversibly changed—perhaps so much that it could hardly be described as the same school you attended. Too many alumni assume that financial support for their alma mater is an expectation to be fulfilled. In truth, Christians have an obligation not only to share their blessings but to properly discern how their gifts might best serve God.
Unless you can be certain that your financial support for a Catholic college will be used appropriately, consider other options that celebrate the Catholic education you received years ago. There are several Catholic colleges that are faithful to the Church, including new institutions that are in great need of financial help. There are organizations that are working to improve Catholic higher education and foster Catholic scholarship. There are Catholic elementary and secondary schools, both private and parochial, providing the catechesis that young Catholics so desperately need.
If you do decide to disengage from your alma mater, be sure to notify college officials. Even if you stopped donating to your alma mater years ago, or if you never gave a penny, drop a line to the college president and the alumni office explaining your long absence from their donor rolls.
The bottom line is this Catholic colleges need to know where their alumni and other concerned Catholics stand. The scandals in Catholic higher education have become so shameful that those few Catholics who take notice are called to engage in some form of fraternal correction. In this way, we can hope that the renewal of Catholic higher education—a process that has taken root in the past decade and shows many hopeful signs of continuing—will result in many blessings for future generations.