National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

Lay leaders in Catholic higher education need a wake-up call


Of the 222 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States, 116 now have lay presidents and, if current trends persist, that number will increase in the years ahead.

Parenthetically, the trends also point to a decrease in female leadership. In 1967, 169 of the 266 Catholic universities and colleges open to lay enrollment (64 percent) were founded by women religious, and all of these were headed by members of the founding communities. But in the most recent academic year, only a third of Catholic colleges and universities had women presidents, and only one of these (the University of San Diego) is a doctoral-granting institution.

Forty percent of the presidents of Catholic universities and colleges have indicated that there is something lacking in the preparation and development of lay leadership in the matter of the Catholic identity and mission of these institutions.

One religious president observed that there is a “limited pool of potential lay leaders who are familiar with the Catholic religious and educational heritage.”

However, only 9 percent of the lay presidents surveyed expressed any concern about their own lack of preparation in this area, even though 55 percent have had no religious training at all beyond high school, and 30 percent report no religious or theological education of any kind.

These are among the findings contained in an important study by Melanie Morey and Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, executive vice president of Niagara University, presented at a national conference in June on “Lay Leaders in Catholic Higher Education,” cosponsored by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

“Whatever the reasons for the personal optimism” of the 91 percent of lay presidents who feel themselves up to the task of articulating and promoting the Catholic identity and mission of their institutions, the Morey-Holtschneider study observes, “the data clearly indicate that lay presidents lack significant preparation for leadership in the areas of mission and identity and, at least in general terms, identify this gap as a serious problem for the future of Catholic higher education, but not for themselves individually.”

The study points out, “There is little concerted effort [being] made by institutions to educate presidents in a systematic way.” On the contrary, 77 percent of the lay presidents claimed that they were essentially “self-taught” in the areas of Catholic heritage and mission.

“This lack of religious education and formation,” Morey and Holtschneider warn, “could have a negative impact on the enterprise of Catholic higher education.”

One of the “interpretive results” of their study is that boards of trustees, which are themselves increasingly lay in character, have done little to identify minimum standards for religious education and training that lay presidents should be expected to meet.

While trustees “have become more proficient in terms of assessing the capacity and fit of candidates in traditional areas of executive leadership,” the authors note, “their expectations regarding mission and identity leadership have remained vague, unfocused and largely unarticulated.”

In the meantime, many lay presidents “genuinely struggle with their own lack of clarity about the Catholic intellectual tradition. They lack clarity about the degree to which they can assert moral and religious leadership over other lay professionals at their institutions. They are unsure about how much explicit focus on religion the market will bear, now that the true market for Catholic higher education is broader than just Catholics.”

At the same time, they do “care deeply about maintaining the Catholic identity of the institutions.”

The situation reflects the failure of the post-Vatican II church to provide its lay adult members with a level of religious education commensurate with their intelligence, background and experience. For all practical purposes, religious education still ends for most Catholics at Confirmation.

The challenge is clear. “Lay leadership is increasingly the norm, not the exception, in Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.” In principle, that is a very positive development, given the council’s insistence that the church is the whole People of God -- laity, clergy and religious alike -- and its encouragement of greater lay participation in the life of the church.

But it cannot happen automatically. The Morey-Holtschneider study provides a wake-up call that Catholic universities and colleges dare not ignore.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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