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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Georgetown board chairman says independence threatened


“Truth, wisdom and faith are not exclusively clerical pursuits and not exclusively male. Every major U.S. university is graduating equal numbers of men and women,” said John R. Kennedy, the chairman of the board of Washington’s Georgetown University.

At a dinner in Paris on April 27 that gathered Georgetown University alumni together for presentation of the John Carroll Awards, Kennedy spoke about the relationship between Catholic higher education and the church, particularly the relationship with the bishops and the Vatican.

Kennedy has chaired the Georgetown board for seven years. He is former chief executive officer and director of Federal Paper Board Company in Montvale, N.J., and former director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

In his talk, Kennedy sketched out his assessment of the achievements of Catholic higher education in the last 30 years, including opening universities to women and welcoming non-Catholics. He noted that Catholic colleges and universities have earned a well-deserved reputation worldwide for excellence. Catholic higher education, he said, “is admired … and has produced the best-educated laity in the history of the church.”

Noting the attempt by the Catholic bishops to exert an “increased degree of influence over Catholic universities, particularly the faculty,” Kennedy stated that these actions seriously threaten the independence of every Catholic university, especially Georgetown, because of “our location in the capital of the world, the diversity of our university population and our fundamental pluralism.”

Referring to the implementation of the 1990 Vatican document on Catholic colleges and universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Kennedy said: “The licensing of professors would smother academic scholarship and open the door to the banning of teachers who do not fall in step with the local bishop. In the process, Georgetown’s academic integrity would be severely compromised.”

Kennedy warned, “Ex Corde would require that a Catholic university have a majority of its faculty and board of director members be Catholic. I don’t believe this would ever be acceptable at Georgetown. … These and other measures attack academic freedom and may very well be inconsistent with U.S. labor and discrimination laws.”

Bishops should recognize Catholic success in higher education, Kennedy urged, “and use it, at least in part, as a model for introducing badly needed reform in the diocesan system.”

Kennedy acknowledged there are different issues and objectives between an academic institution and a church, but pointed out there are also similarities. “Catholic higher education has succeeded through pluralism and openness. … It met the challenge years ago, and in doing so strengthened its institutions and strengthened Catholicism.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002