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Colleges and Universities

Exciting days to be on campus

Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer once remarked in a commencement address at Princeton, “No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows.”

Today, with a bit more sensitivity to sexist language and a good deal more sensitivity to economic reality, we might suggest, “No one should escape our universities without knowing how much she owes.”

The aggregate cost of college has increased 234 percent since 1980, according to the General Accounting Office, and public alarm has triggered a spate of negative media reports (Time magazine’s “How Colleges are Gouging You” cover story being perhaps the most sensationalist instance). Expensive private colleges are now pressing Congress to increase loan limits for undergraduates so they can go even more heavily into debt to pay their bills. A congressional commission has been created to study the problem of rising tuition, and strong political pressure on colleges to hold down costs will no doubt ensue.

As NCR’s story relates, however, a seemingly simple problem (rising costs) in this case has surprisingly complex causes and consequences. The struggle over how to manage costs and maintain accessibility is shared by everyone in post-secondary education today, but perhaps most acutely by America’s 230-plus Catholic colleges and universities, many of which are precisely the sort of small, tuition-dependent institutions most at risk when fiscal times are tough.

If economics deals with the “body” of Catholic higher education, then Pope John Paul’s 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, aimed for its soul. The document called for a thorough re-examination of what it means for a college to call itself Catholic. Some fear that conservatives will use Ex Corde as a club to drive progressives out of theology departments and perhaps off campus altogether. Others worry that the search for consensus will result in a lowest common denominator approach to Catholicity, focusing on external and observable features of campus life, such as how many Masses are offered and whether classrooms have crucifixes, while deeper questions fall victim to a “let sleeping dogs lie” avoidance of controversy.

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, has been on the forefront of the debate. Her perspectives form the core of our coverage of this issue.

To focus solely on the anguish over mission and cost, however, would present an incomplete picture of the Catholic college scene these days. On many Catholic campuses, visitors will find more energy than ennui. Despite everything, these colleges are finding ways to thrive. One such success story is St. Louis University and its dynamic president, Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi. Pam Schaeffer’s look at SLU under Biondi is testimony to how imaginative leadership can still make a difference.

Three provocative book reviews round out our coverage of Catholic colleges and universities in this issue. Reading through these stories, it’s hard to escape the feeling that today is an exciting time to be on campus.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997