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Spotlight Report

Laity head more Catholic colleges

Campuses shift from traditions

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 6/23/2003


Source: Dr. Melanie M. Morey, senior associate of Leadership and Legacy Associates, and the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., executive vice president of Niagara University

NEW YORK - The trustees at Caldwell College reappointed a 66-year-old nun last month as president for an unprecedented third six-year term knowing they wouldn't be able to find a replacement within the Dominican order, which founded the small Catholic school in northern New Jersey.

At the University of Dayton in Ohio, one of the largest Catholic universities in the country, the board felt compelled to take another tack this spring, inducting a layman as president, the first person to lead the school who was not a Marianist priest or brother.

Across the country, the dwindling memberships of religious orders that built Catholic colleges and universities are forcing institutions to reassess their leadership and, in many cases, the laity is gaining a greater hand in the governing of Catholic campuses. Specialists said that shift marks a change from the church tradition of exclusivity, and some said the trend raises serious questions about whether the schools will be able to maintain their Catholic identities.

A new study - released earlier this month at a conference at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., on the challenges that lay leaders face at Catholic schools - said that for the first time laypeople now outnumber nuns, priests, and brothers as presidents of Catholic universities and colleges.

''If they are going to lead and speak about the church's religious mission, then do they know something about the church's teachings?'' asked the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Niagara University. ''There is a whole academic area that is part of the church's intellectual tradition that, in part, is unavailable to these folks.''

Holtschneider, coauthor of ''Leadership and the Age of Laity,'' the study released earlier this month, said lay leaders have to stick close to the visions of their university's founding orders ''or risk losing the schools.''

Daniel Curran, who was inducted in April as the first layperson to lead the University of Dayton, with more than 6,600 undergraduates, said lay leaders are up to the challenge.

Initially, Curran's appointment raised concerns not from the Marianists who have run the institution since 1850, but from some of the school's lay faculty and students who questioned whether a layperson could lead with the vigor and commitment of a religious scholar. With the outgoing president by his side, Curran, 53, set out to dispel those concerns in a series of face-to-face conversations.

''So, it wasn't that Dan Curran was trying to explain himself but the two presidents were coming to people talking about the university's future,'' Curran said.

He said that he is committed to leading in the tradition of the Marianists, who emphasize public service, but also said he brings a unique perspective as a Catholic layman with a wife and teenage sons.

''The point I've been trying to get people to recognize is that the Marianists will still be on campus and their model is still important, but the lay leader provides a complementary model,'' said Curran. ''It's not a choice of one over the other. We are all working together.''

Nonetheless, some colleges are trying to retain their religious leaders. When the trustees at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia began searching for a new president a decade ago, they decided against changing the bylaws that mandate that the president be a member of the founding order of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

''We still have a number of sisters that would be qualified to be president, and that is unusual,'' said Chestnut Hill's president, Carol Jean Vale. ''Because of the decrease in the number of clergy, you don't have a lot of people with doctorates and experience as an administrator in higher education.''

Vale sees nothing wrong with Catholic institutions handing more power to the laity. She said it can be positive not only for the institutions, but for the church. She contends that the trend will force the church to be more inclusive.

''By including people with other backgrounds and experience, it's positive,'' she said. ''In some ways, they will be able to promote that religious tradition better than a sister or priests could, because they won't have a vested interest.''

Until recently, Catholic colleges and universities like Georgetown University, which chose its first lay president in 2001, were required by their bylaws to choose leaders from their founding orders. By the mid-1960s, membership of religious orders began shrinking. Clerics grew older, others died, while younger Catholics found other ways to serve the church.

Decades ago, the order of Sisters of St. Dominic in Caldwell, N.J., reached 400 members, but the number is less than 200 now. The average age of a sister in the order is 68, said Kathleen Tuite, who, at 38, is the order's youngest member and its new recruiter.

Lay people have also moved into jobs traditionally held by members of the religious orders, including sitting on the board of trustees.

Of the nation's 222 Catholic institutions, 116 are led by a layperson, compared with 106 schools with leaders from a religious order or congregation, according to the current study by Holtschneider and Melanie Morey, the senior associate of Leadership and Legacy Associates, an educational consulting firm based in Belmont, Mass. Boston College and the College of the Holy Cross are led by Jesuit priests.

Kathy McNamara, spokeswoman at Holy Cross, said one of the things that makes Catholic schools special is that academics, as well as ethics and morals, are discussed in the classroom. Members of the founding order of Jesuits retain a small but strong presense on campus, she said.

Some in the religious community said the decrease of nuns and priests at Catholic institutions marks the beginning of the end for Catholic higher education. According to the study, based on surveys of presidents at all Catholic universities, 33 percent said the shift to lay presidents would continue. More than half said there would be fewer Catholic institutions. In recent years, some schools have closed their doors, including Notre Dame College in Manchester, N.H., and Trinity College of Vermont.

Holtschneider said a number of Catholic colleges have converted to private institutions because, in some cases, the founding orders dwindled and the leaders did not continue the religious mission.

''No one at the institutions felt empowered or prepared to take leadership for the religious mission, and so the schools made the decision to become private,'' he said.

And, while lay presidents are often good managers and fund-raisers, most are not scholars on Catholicism, according to Holtschneider's study.

Michael James, associate executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said schools are starting to address the issue of better preparing lay presidents to lead Catholic institutions. Some schools have created positions filled by a member of the founding order to help explore how the institution can continue its religious mission. Boston College started an institution in 2001 to help administrators of Catholic colleges deal with the transition from religious to lay leadership.

Steven Freeman, vice chairman of Caldwell College's board of trustees, said Catholic institutions will be able to maintain their religious tradition by choosing lay people with the same beliefs and political demeanor as the school. He said Caldwell's board was never considering a layperson for the position of president and always hoped that Patrice Werner, the president of nine years, would stay on. Freeman said in a telephone interview that the time will come when the pool of candidates will include laity.

The fact that the two top leaders on the trustee board are laymen, said Freeman, signals that the school and the Dominican nuns who run it are prepared to move in that direction.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/23/2003.
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