e-mail us
University president responds to critics

Below is an abbreviated version of a statement in question-and-answer format from Jesuit Fr. Stephen A. Privett, new president of the University of San Francisco explaining his controversial decision to revamp the St. Ignatius Institute. The institute, which offered a Great Books curriculum, operated as an independent school within the university, hiring its own directors and faculty and developing a separate curriculum. Critics have objected to Privett’s decision to fire the institute’s two directors and install his own (NCR, Feb. 16). Privett’s Feb. 6 statement, based on questions posed by members of the university staff, was distributed to faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Q: Isn’t the recent change in St. Ignatius Institute leadership really an attempt to dismantle the institute?

A: No. The changes are neither an overt nor veiled attempt to dismantle or weaken the St. Ignatius Institute. As I stated in my Jan. 19 letter to the university community, appointing a new director for St. Ignatius Institute provides the requisite academic leadership, promotes synergies between St. Ignatius Institute and other university programs and creates efficiencies by consolidating resources. … For St. Ignatius Institute to duplicate services provided elsewhere in the university is inefficient, redundant and expensive. USF cannot afford to do business this way. …

The St. Ignatius Institute will remain an integrated, historically based program rooted in the Great Books and steeped in the Catholic tradition. St. Ignatius Institute students are and will be taking the same courses, celebrating daily Eucharist and having their retreat experiences. I do not want the administrative changes to weaken or undermine the St. Ignatius Institute. I cannot say it any more clearly.

Q: Why did the university replace such popular individuals as Director John Galten and Associate Director John Hamlon?

A: For the credibility and integrity of the program within the university and across the academy in general, the directors of academic programs must be faculty members. Messrs. Galten and Hamlon are not faculty members. …

Q: What do you say to those who feel that Messrs. Galten and Hamlon were not treated properly?

A: … The St. Ignatius Institute has one director, and I could not appoint a new director without removing the former director. There was no way to do this that would leave everyone satisfied, including myself. Regarding concerns that the timing appeared abrupt, I felt that the circumstances required decisive action. … In contrast to my ordinary way of proceeding, I felt that consultation with St. Ignatius Institute faculty would only heighten tensions and exacerbate hostile feelings. …

Q: How do you answer the allegations that the Jesuit community does not support the teachings of the Catholic church and that you are moving to quiet “the voice of orthodoxy?”

A: It is difficult to answer such unsubstantiated assertions about the men I live and work with and for whom I have great respect and affection. Let me put it bluntly. I don’t see any basis for questioning this Jesuit community’s loyalty to the Catholic church. I cannot help but be struck by the ways in which these public attacks … resonate with similar charges in different contexts over the entire history of the Society of Jesus. In the face of assertions that I have received about Jesuits not being loyal to the Catholic church, I need only refer to the blood of Jesuit martyrs over the ages, which speaks more eloquently than I of the society’s authenticity, integrity and loyalty to the church.

On Jan. 19, six St. Ignatius Institute faculty asserted in an e-mail to the university community that my decision was driven by jealousy and representative of that liberality that can abide all things but orthodoxy and spoke of a relentless assault on the institute. I do not see how or why those individuals assumed the role of judges of “orthodoxy.”

That they lack the academic and ecclesiastical warrant for making such judgments is apparent to me, but inconsequential to them in this self-appointed role as the guardians of authentic Catholic theology.

A “one size fits all” approach to theology is contrary to the Catholic tradition, which from its origins has embraced distinctive theologies, those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Jude, [the message of] Hebrews, Augustine and Aquinas, for example. There are different theological styles then, now and always. A common characteristic of authentic theology is universal charity and a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue.

… Issues, especially theological ones, are rarely black and white, either/or. I am reminded of Augustine’s dictum, there are many whom the church has whom God does not have, and there are many whom God has whom the church does not have. A Catholic university in particular should evidence Augustine’s tolerance, respect and understanding. It must take people and culture seriously and engage them to the enrichment of all, acknowledging that God is always larger and more magnanimous than our own narrow minds and hearts.

Q: What would you like to say to current students of the institute?

A: In the institute that bears Ignatius’ name, I think his admonition or presupposition for those embarking upon the Spiritual Exercises says it best:

“A favorable interpretation should always be given to the other’s statements. If misinterpretation seems possible, it should be cleared up with Christian understanding. So, too, if actual error seems to be held, the best possible interpretation should be presented so that a more correct understanding might develop.” …

Q: How can concerned constituents express their views on this administrative change?

A: E-mail and letters are the most effective way to communicate with me... Whether I respond or not, I do read and consider all opinions.

I would encourage everyone to temper their rhetoric and argue from specific evidence and a genuine concern for our students and the future of St. Ignatius Institute. Angry threats appear to be coercive in their intent and are not compelling in a university that values solid evidence and well-reasoned arguments. …

Q: You made this decision after only four months on the job. Are you acting rashly and with insufficient knowledge of the university and St. Ignatius Institute?

A: I do not think so. From day one, I found the anomaly of a staff person running an academic program of St. Ignatius Institute’s stature unacceptable and it was the subject of an early conversation between the dean and me.

I became further disenchanted with the daily operations of the St. Ignatius Institute when I learned that, for the past year and half, the daily liturgies for St. Ignatius Institute students were celebrated off campus and no Jesuit from the university was allowed to preside. When I questioned this practice, the director offered a “compromise” resolution that was unacceptable. I subsequently instructed the director to work with university ministry to provide a daily liturgy on campus for St. Ignatius Institute students using priests from the Jesuit community as presiders. It is important that the table of the Lord be open to all believers and that the St. Ignatius Institute be an integral part of the university, eager to spread its influence and open its arms to other students. ... Any allegations that I “shot from the hip” are false. I made a fully informed decision for which I am accountable to the board of trustees.

Q: Why didn’t you consult with the St. Ignatius Institute advisory board, as required by its by-laws?

A: … Holding the university accountable to a board of advisers that we have no voice in naming and by-laws that we had no voice in writing or amending and have never accepted is like holding someone to a contract they neither drafted nor approved. I welcome constructive dialogue with the board about its role in the future of the institute.

Q: Any final comments?

A: I want to say a word about “faith seeking understanding,” which was [St.] Anselm’s definition of theology. To my way of thinking, faith is not a commodity that one keeps under wraps for fear of contamination. … Faith compels us to always seek a deeper and richer understanding of ourselves, our world, our God.

My hope is that the USF community will not identify with the disciples huddled in the upper room with the doors and windows locked shut for fear of the people outside, but will see itself as spirited spokespersons of a power and a love bigger and stronger than us all. … USF, and St. Ignatius Institute in particular, aims to offer the knowledge, skills, values and sensitivities that enable us to proclaim that power and love to peoples of every race and language and way of life. I am sure that many of our USF and St. Ignatius Institute alumni live their lives just this way. This is an exciting time to be at USF ... .

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001