On November 8, 2017, St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, announced to student, staff, and the media that it would “suspend operations” indefinitely at the close of the fall semester. The announcement itself wasn’t particularly surprising, as the financial woes of the university were an open secret. University leadership, working with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and former members of Congress from Oklahoma had applied for a US Department of Agriculture rural development loan to pay off the past debts of the university, which would have signaled to important donors connected to the university that the institution had a future. The loan was denied a few days before the announcement was made. How the university found itself in this position is a depressing story, especially considering the hidden struggle to re-assert the university’s mission and identity as a faithful and authentic Catholic organization.
St. Gregory’s University was founded by a group of French Benedictine monks who came to Oklahoma to teach and evangelize the Citizen Potowatomi Nation of American Indians. Founded in 1875, what would become St. Gregory’s was for most of its history a high school, then a junior college. In the 1990s the school began offering Bachelor’s degrees. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, St. Gregory’s began offering Master’s degrees. The school had prided itself on being the only Catholic institution of higher education in Oklahoma. In recent years the university became known for having a solid, faithful theology and philosophy department, made possible in part due to the requirement the university put in place that each theology professor bear a mandatum from the Archbishop of Oklahoma City.
The administration of St. Gregory’s, under the leadership of President Michael Scaperlanda, issued a new Strategic Plan in February 2016 designed to give the university direction towards a secure and sustainable future. Critical to this was the focus on an authentic Catholic identity. To this end, members of the planning team removed language from institutional guiding documents that invoked the Land O’Lakes declaration and instead explicitly cited Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae as a key guiding document. The implementation of the Strategic Plan was part of a larger effort at re-establishing Catholic orthodoxy at the university, since the institution had for many years embraced the pedagogical model of more well-known and increasingly secular Catholic institutions around the US.
A story could be easily told recounting the numerous lost financial opportunities that were directly responsible for the university running up debts year after year. Two years ago the university nearly shut its doors, only to receive an outside financial intervention mere hours before the deadline. There are stories of numerous students from wealthy, elite families, who throughout the years attended St. Gregory’s University, and relationships with these families that were never developed. There are stories about relationships with local wealthy donors and organizations that were undermined by fiscal mismanagement. There are even stories about the university not running a deficit only one year in the past several decades (the year the Benedictine Abbot was the president). The situation the university faces now is very heavily influenced by financial mismanagement going back decades. The present administration enacted much needed changes that turned fundraising and student enrollment numbers around, but not soon enough to make a difference; had these changes been enacted two or three years earlier, St. Gregory’s might still be operating today.
Behind the scenes, a war for the identity of the university was being waged. The battle was being fought between the faculty, staff, and administrators who favored a pedagogy that was characterized by orthodoxy and fidelity to the faith, and those who favored a more secular approach (either explicitly or implicitly). This internal battle for the heart and soul of SGU was fought away from the eyes of students in committee meetings that would determine the future of the university, had it survived its financial situation. One such battleground was over the revision of the Institutional Core, which sought to update the core curriculum that students would be required to study as they pursued the various majors offered by the university. The revision of the core curriculum sought to re-establish a classical liberal arts education that was fully in line with the Catholic and Benedictine identity of the university.
Dr. Jason Fugikawa, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at St. Gregory’s, oversaw the revision process. “We at the center of the core curriculum revision were committed to putting together something truly grand. Very few institutions in Catholic higher education are doing that these days,” Fugikawa said recently. “Everyone is calculating, marketing, and appealing to student-customers. We desired instead to ask ourselves what was best in the tradition that we had received and how best could we present this to the students entrusted to our care.” Essential to this process was the re-establishing of the fundamentally Christian value that the university had a responsibility to be a good steward of the education of students. In a Catholic university, the formation of students is of primary importance.
The process of revising the institutional core was part of a larger restoration of fidelity at St. Gregory’s. “In the core revision, there was a certain jubilee restoration of each discipline’s ancestral territory with the fresh energy of Easter morning in the garden beside the empty tomb,” Fugikawa said. “While the Integrated Humanity Sequence we were developing dealt with what was perennial and old, we sought to give it life and renewal through the classical Trivium and Quadrivium presented in versatile, team taught courses.” Spiritual renewal was a core theme at St. Gregory’s, with Daily Mass attendance of students and staff being higher in the final year of operation than at any time in recent history, and Eucharistic processions being institutionalized as important practices on the university campus.
Of course, life had not always been this way at St. Gregory’s. At one time the Catholic identity of the university was not as centrally important as it had become under the leadership of President Scaperlanda. Characteristic of the cultural rebellion of the 1960s, the opening pages of the Land O’Lakes statement famously calls for greater independence for Catholic institutions: “The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.” The linking of academic excellence to freedom from external authority is a highly dubious claim in hindsight given the state of higher education in the US and West broadly today. Early drafts of the university’s strategic plan referenced both the Land O’Lakes declaration and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in a likely attempt to reconcile both positions. This futile attempt was ultimately corrected by faithful Catholics who removed the Land O’Lakes references entirely when the opportunity arose.
Much of the financial problems that undermined the university began in earnest when the number of monks and nuns teaching courses plummeted in the face of the vocations crisis that the wider Church has been unable to address. As the numbers of religious faculty decreased the university was forced to replace them with lay faculty, which was especially difficult in a state like Oklahoma, where no more than 6 percent of the population self-identify as Catholic. Combined with the financial constraints faced by the university consistently throughout its recent history, the inability to pay competitive salaries to faculty and administrative staff resulted in an understaffed university, which in turn seriously harmed the ability of St. Gregory’s to attract students in numbers that would have enabled it to achieve financial sustainability. Combined with internal struggles over the reform of the institutional core, the questions that must be asked for other Catholic institutions must be: can institutions return to an authentic Catholic identity after decades of adherence to the Land O’Lakes statement? What effect does academic separation from the magisterial authority of the Church have on the vocations of those religious orders whose apostolate was education?
It is worth inquiring how many of those Catholic institutions that adopted the Land O’Lakes statement—beyond Notre Dame and Georgetown—are thriving today. Is there a link between the adoption of “academic freedom” in the secular sense and the closing of numerous small Catholic institutions in the United States? For now, the staff, faculty, and administrators who brought a sense of fidelity back to St. Gregory’s University can know that they were faithful to their duties as Catholics to present an authentically Catholic education to the students whose education they were entrusted with. In the end, despite the closure of the university, that may be all that matters.