e-mail us
Conservative St. Ignatius Institute revamped

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The recent revamping of the conservative St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco is proving to be as controversial as the institute itself.

In a written statement Feb. 7, Jesuit Fr. Stephen A. Privett, university president, defended his decision to make sweeping changes in the structure of the institute, which was founded by Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio.

Economic and academic reasons were cited for the changes. Privett, who became president last fall, wrote that the restructuring “creates efficiencies by consolidating resources.”

Fessio founded the St. Ignatius Institute in 1976 in reaction to liberalizing influences of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) and curriculum changes at the university. The institute operates as a separate school within the university, hiring its own faculty -- including conservative theologians -- and offering a traditional core curriculum under the umbrella of a Great Books program.

Fessio is a protégé of doctrinal watchdog Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and a celebrated figure in right-wing Catholic circles. He is often linked with Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network. Although Fessio has not been directly involved in the institute’s administration in recent years, he has remained an influential adviser. In 1992, he left his position as a tenured faculty member at the university in order to devote full time to another of his projects, the conservative Ignatius Press.

Fessio was in Europe and unavailable for comment.

Privett’s statement was issued in the wake of faculty resignations from the institute and protests from students and alumni regarding Privett’s Jan. 19 announcement that he would revamp the institute and replace its directors.

The university’s faculty and staff were notified Jan. 19 that institute director John Galten and assistant director John Hamlon had been ousted and replaced with history professor Paul Murphy. Murphy will continue in his present position as director of the university’s Catholic Studies Certificate Program.

Administrators said the institute’s popular Great Books program would not be dropped.

Both supporters and detractors of Privett’s move cite a deep ideological split between the institute’s faculty and staff and the mainstream academic community at the school.

Galten said, “Over the past 25 years the institute has been assaulted by members of the Jesuit community.” He said the institute had been singled out for punishment by members of the Jesuit community who disagreed with its tone, despite its academic excellence.

“This represents a hostile takeover,” he said.

Speaking for Privett, James L. Wiser, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the university faces a revenue shortfall of $5 million, “so we’re looking at all of our programs.”

Acknowledging the existence of ideological conflicts, Wiser said, “Some critics believed the institute’s understanding of orthodoxy was too narrow.” Wiser emphasized that this was not the reason for the restructuring.

Six faculty members who taught in the institute’s programs have resigned in protest and will leave after the spring semester. Thomas Cavanaugh, Raymond Dennehy, Rosemarie Deist, Erasmo Leiva, Kim Summerhays and Michael Torre issued a joint statement protesting what they called “the injustice” in the firing of the two directors.

Friends of the Saint Ignatius Institute has urged alumni to withhold donations to the university in the wake of the changes. In a letter to Friends, the organization’s director Anthony L. Francois said its leaders held the “near unanimous view” that the recent changes were “effectively the end of the Saint Ignatius Institute as directed first by Fr. Joseph Fessio and subsequently by Fr. Robert Maloney and Mr. John Galten.”

Members were also encouraged to write to the chairman of the university’s board of trustees and to San Francisco Archbishop William Levada.

Although critics claim that the institute will be absorbed into the Catholic Studies Certificate Program, administrators say that is not the plan.

In his Feb. 7 statement, Privett denied charges by critics that his changes would destroy the 25-year-old institute. “The changes are neither an overt nor veiled attempt to dismantle or weaken the [institute],” Privett wrote. “When the university is accused of destroying the SII, I find myself in the difficult position of ‘defending’ what I have not done and have no intentions of doing.”

Privett’s statement said the institute duplicated services provided by the greater university community, specifically citing study abroad programs and recruiting efforts. Such parallel facilities were costly, he said.

Wiser said that faculty members who resigned had done so on their own accord. He said there had been no effort to undermine the academic nature of the institute and that these faculty members are “welcome to teach as they have taught in the past.”

As for efforts by Friends to undercut alumni donations, Wiser said, “I don’t think we can say that they are the voice of the alumni.”

In response to the administration’s financial rationale, Galten told NCR, “The institute has always more than paid for itself.” He said the institute has attracted students, and that alumni contributions have always been generous. He said the financial reasoning behind the restructuring is “shortsighted.”

In his Feb. 7 statement, Privett explained his academic concerns, “From day one, I found the anomaly of a staff person running an academic program of [the institute’s] stature unacceptable.” Wiser said Paul Murphy was selected because he is a faculty member who “understands the mission of the program.”

In the NCR interview, Galten said, “I deferred to the faculty to make academic decisions. I don’t think it hurt to have a non-Ph.D. in charge.” Galten said he became associated with the institute one year after its inception, and he was confident of his competency to direct the program.

Galten expressed concern about the institute’s survival under the new arrangement.

“They’re not giving him [Murphy] the resources,” said Galten. He said he wonders how two full-time administrators and a full-time secretary can be replaced by Murphy, who is a full-time professor and a part-time director with an administrative assistant. The administration responded to this by stating that redundant facilities, such as recruiting and foreign travel, will be administered by other university departments.

Jesuit Fr. Francis Buckley, professor of theology and religious studies at the university, cheered Privett’s actions. “I don’t think it’s a restructuring,” he said. “It’s a move to strengthen the program … [to] up the quality.”

Buckley said the institute had fostered isolationism and inhibited dialogue in the past.

In response to those who worry about the loss of faculty in protest, Buckley said he is already getting calls from people who are interested in teaching at the university and he expects students to continue to be drawn there as well.

Galten has a different view, “I think it’s a great tragedy, despite the spin the administration is trying to put on it. There was a real ethos, a real culture founded by it. It’s a sad moment, I think.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001