The Battle for St. Anselm College

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Fearing that New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College is at risk of losing its Catholic identity, and that their voices will be silenced, members of the order of Benedictine monks of Saint Anselm Abbey—the monastic order that founded the college—have filed a lawsuit against Saint Anselm’s Board of Trustees. The lawsuit, filed on November 27th in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, asks a judge to prevent the college’s Board of Trustees from changing the bylaws without the consent of the monks. The first hearing took place last week.

Founded on August 1, 1889, when the New Hampshire Legislature incorporated The Order of Saint Benedict of New Hampshire [later re-named Saint Anselm College], the Legislative Charter granted the five founding monk members and their associates and successors the power to “make such bylaws for the government of said corporation, and the admission and expulsion of members and associates thereof, as they shall deem necessary and proper.”

These bylaws have not been changed in more than 130 years, although, in 2009—ostensibly to comply with the regional accreditor’s requirement for independent oversight—the bylaws were changed to increase the number of trustees to 40 and limit the number of monk members to 7 of the 40. Still, the bylaws continued to delegate substantial powers to the monks on the Board of Trustees.

However, in August of 2019, the leadership of the Board of Trustees proposed further changes to the bylaws—severely limiting the monk members’ power to determine what constitutes the College’s Catholic and Benedictine mission and identity. The proposed bylaws also limit the monk members’ power to approve changes to the bylaws, while extending the terms of the leadership of the Board of Trustees.

The lawsuit alleges: “The changes put forward by the leadership of the Board of Trustees carry an unreasonable risk of the secularization of Saint Anselm College. Saint Anselm College is a Catholic institution.” Responding to this, Ann Catino, Chair of the Board of Trustees, told a Boston Globe reporter that the monks are “trying to turn back the clock on Saint Anselm to a time when the religious order was in charge… We don’t want to retreat to the old opaque world that existed.”

Saint Anselm’s President, Joseph Favazza—who serves at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees—released a statement indicating that he “fully supports the Board of Trustees in their efforts to act on behalf of the College to resolve this matter.” Lauding the Board of Trustees’ willingness to “make it clear that in no way do they wish to impede the fundamental role of the Catholic, Benedictine mission and traditions of the college,” Favazza put the blame for the removal of the authority from the monk members squarely on the shoulders of the accreditors. Favazza said that the Board of Trustees is “committed to meet the NECHE (accreditors) standards which call for trustees to have sufficient independence to carry out their fiduciary responsibility to the governance of the college.”

The disingenuous plea for total independence from the Church and her clergy is a common one when Catholic identity is being deliberately diminished. Blaming accreditors has been a common theme—one that worked in the past for dozens of schools desiring to secularize their boards. However, it is false. The most important standard for national accrediting bodies is the requirement that the school remain true to its mission—providing the education they promised to students. In fact, in an accreditation report for St. Mary’s College of California by the Western Association of Colleges (WASC), the accrediting team faulted the college for a failure to allow the Catholic tradition to “truly guide” the institution. In his research on Catholic campuses, the late Rev. James Burtchaell uncovered a report by WASC which implied that St. Mary’s may be misleading potential students and their families about its Catholic identity. Publishing the report in his magisterial book, Dying of the Light, Burtchaell reported that the WASC team observed that “the liberal arts, Catholic and Lasallian traditions which are used to define the character of St. Mary’s College are appropriate and laudatory and consistent with WASC standards. However, we found little evidence that these traditions are truly guiding the institution.”

Rather than attempting to diminish the role of the Benedictine monks on their campus, it would seem that the Board would want to enhance it. The University of St. Thomas is included in the “list of faithful colleges” promoted by the Cardinal Newman Society, but that list is always dependent upon faithfulness to the Catholic identity. Mt. St. Mary’s in Maryland—a longtime “Cardinal Newman Society” university—was recently deleted from the CNS listing of faithful colleges.

It appears that Catino and her board appear to be part of a cohort of Catholic college leaders who seem to believe that the road to upward mobility for their schools circumvents the Church. This sentiment was first promoted by Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who served as Notre Dame’s president from 1952 until 1987. In his book, The Challenge and Promise of the Catholic University, he writes: “The best and only traditional authority in the university is intellectual competence… A great Catholic university must begin by being a great university that is also Catholic.”  In some ways it is laudable that Saint Anselm’s continued with its Benedictine charism for as long as it did. So many others succumbed much earlier. This formal distancing from the Church by most Catholic colleges and universities began on July 20, 1967, when Fr. Hesburgh gathered a small group of male Catholic academic leaders—including ten Jesuit priests—in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, to declare total independence from Church authority. Viewed nostalgically by progressive professors and administrators—and presumably now by board members as well—the statement was better described by Magdalen College professor Anthony Esolen as a “suicide pact” for Catholic higher education.

It is difficult to predict how the Anselm lawsuit will turn out. One thing is certain: Saint Anselm’s will not be the last Catholic college to attempt to diminish the involvement of priests on their campus.  The University of St. Thomas in Houston is currently embroiled in a controversy over the removal of the last Basilian priest from campus. Claiming that the school is making necessary faculty cuts for financial sustainability, the contracts of 30 faculty members, including three tenured professors, will not be renewed for the 2020-21 academic year. As Catholic News Agency reports, “one dismissed tenured faculty member is philosophy professor Fr. Joseph Pilsner, CSB, the former Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Basilian Fathers, the religious community that founded the university in 1947 and has served the school to this day.” Fr. Pilsner, a popular professor on the campus, is the last full-time Basilian faculty member on the Houston campus.

University of St. Thomas alumni have organized protests, and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott resigned from the university’s Board of Trustees after nearly a decade of service. Christopher Evans, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, claims that the decision was a “fiscal reality” and that “the absence of Basilians on the faculty is more a reflection of the Basilians themselves.” Others, both on campus and off, are not so sure.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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