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Why a Bishops’ Accreditation Process Could Be the Best Thing for Catholic Higher Education

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Randall B. Smith - published on 11/12/14

Let Georgetown be Georgetown—and the rest of the universities be truly Catholic.
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When I was a graduate student, I had a professor who for a time sent his daughter to a venerable, old Catholic girl’s school run by an order of sisters. It boasted a tradition of Catholic education that went back over a hundred years.

One day, this professor announced to us in frustration: “I’m taking my daughter out of that school and putting her in the public high school. “Why?” we asked. “I’ll tell you why: they’re constantly bad-mouthing the Pope. They wouldn’t dare bad-mouth the Pope and the Church over at the public school the way they do constantly at that Catholic school.”

I was still a fairly new Catholic then, so the notion that “Catholic” schools could be hot-beds of anti-Catholicism came as something of a shock. At the very secular humanist undergraduate college I had attended, Catholic principles and values were always quietly under attack, but then again, all objective moral principles were. There was almost no outright criticism of the Pope or the Catholic Church. Administrators tended to be very friendly to Catholics, even when they clearly disagreed with them.  

This sort of friendly acceptance of Catholics was not the case, as I was soon to find out, at many Catholic institutions. The degree of open hostility to the Catholic Church and openly “faithful” Catholic faculty at many ostensibly “Catholic” institutions is really quite shocking. You can be assured that as soon as the Catholic hierarchy is critical of the work of some writer, that person will almost immediately be invited to speak at some Catholic college or university, even if that person was entirely unknown to the faculty up to that point. Many “Catholic” colleges and universities now seem to take it as a badge of honor to be openly and stridently anti-Catholic.

What to do?  A brief aside, if I may. Every ten years, my university, like every other college and university in the country, must undergo a major “accreditation review” to renew our accreditation with the regional accrediting agency.  And every ten years, roughly eighteen months before the accreditation review team is scheduled to show up, the faculty are forced to write (and then re-write according to some bureaucrat’s specification) endless reports documenting what we do, why we do it, the outcomes we hope to achieve by what we do, how we measure those outcomes, and the ways we have developed the program over the years in order to achieve better outcomes — presuming, of course, that we knew what outcomes we wanted in the first place. It’s all very annoying. But we put up with this nonsense because we know we must. We take time away from our actual teaching and grading and helping students in order to jump through these hoops so that we don’t get put on some sort of “warning list” by our accreditation agency.  

And even though this process is very intrusive — we are required to keep on file for review by the accreditation review board all of our class syllabi and tests and be able to account for how they were structured so as to meet our stated departmental and university “outcomes” — nonetheless, the faculty tolerates all of it. No one considers any of this intrusive probing into what we do and how we do it and why we do it to be a violation of our “academic freedom,” even though if we don’t account for ourselves adequately, we would lose our ability to operate as a viable educational institution. Every Catholic college and university in the country must undergo this sort of probing investigation into its activities and show that it has “measured up” every ten years, and they do so largely without complaint.

It is rather odd, then, is it not, that if the local bishop were to come on campus to investigate the activities of a Catholic college or university even minimally, there would be a huge outcry over this illegitimate “intrusion” on the “academic freedom” of the institution. It often seems as though the only group whose authority Catholic colleges and universities are loathe to accept is that of the Catholic Church.  

In Catholic universities, we accept the authority of unelected bureaucrats and functionaries of the State who tell us what we can and cannot teach, but some faculty members would fight to the death to resist even the most minimal oversight on the part of a local bishop.  Why is that?

It seems as though many of these “Catholic” institutions have accepted modernity’s presumption that it is the State that has proper authority over all such matters, not the Church — including questions about whether abortion or physician–assisted suicide constitutes proper “health care,” about what a “marriage” is, and about what is to be taught or not taught in the nation’s schools. Such is the largely unquestioned authority of the State in modernity. So be it.   

But what about these “Catholic” institutions that have effectively become hot-beds of “anti-Catholic” bias; what is to be done about them?

One thing we can learn from the State is the value of a good bureaucracy to keep an effective oversight.  One proposal in this area would be for the bishops to initiate a process of reviewing Catholic colleges and universities for a designation I would call “accreditation for Catholic mission.”

The nature of this process, I want to make clear right off (to the relief of some and the consternation of others), would not be a witch hunt to root out dissident faculty. Accreditation agencies don’t generally engage in this sort of assessment of individual faculty members (unless they are teaching subjects for which they have not adequately trained or properly credentialed), and this accreditation commission shouldn’t either. The sort of assessment I have in mind would involve an institutional assessment, taking into account a wide range of factors, such as:

1. Is the curriculum offered identifiably “Catholic” in any way, shape, matter, or form, or is the curriculum absolutely indistinguishable from the education a student would receive at the most non-religious school in the nation?

2. Does the school make any effort to uphold and teach the basic intellectual traditions of Catholic faith and morals, or does it make every effort to disabuse students of these “burdens” at every turn?

3. When the bishops suggest that a text is not appropriate for teaching undergraduates, does the school immediately order copies in bulk and invite the author for very public campus lectures?

4. Does the school abide by the principles of Catholic social justice in terms of a “living wage” and appropriate health care benefits for all of its staff (including so-called adjunct faculty), or does it conspicuously fail to live up to the standards it constantly accuses corporate America of failing to abide by?

5. Does the school abide by the Church’s fundamental prohibitions against grave sins, such as avoiding aiding in abortions or stem cell research?

6. Are courses in Catholic thought being taught by faculty who are qualified to teach those subjects and who teach them honestly and with fidelity to Catholic thought and practice?

These would be just a few of the questions the accreditation agency would examine. All in all, the process would be a fairly standard accreditation process of the sort that every institution in the country not only tolerates, but undergoes regularly — it’s just that this process would be carried out by the Church, not by the State. And the Church would not be judging the quality of, say, the math, science, or French classes, simply the overall “mission fidelity” of the college or university to the goals and principles of Ex corde ecclesiae.

If an institution should not wish to be accredited, or if they should fail to measure up to the basic standard, that’s fine.  They can of course continue to operate as before, simply without the bothersome designation “Catholic.”

To me, this is simply a matter of “truth in advertising.”  If a student in this country wants to go to an “agricultural and engineering” school, like Texas A&M and a host of other excellent “agricultural and mining” institutions across the country, they should be allowed to do so. If they want a Great Books school such as St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas College, they should be allowed and encouraged to do that instead. And of course if they want to specialize in “hotel management,” that’s fine too; the University of Houston has an excellent program, I am told.  

What’s not right is if a program advertising itself as “Great Books” really doesn’t read great books anymore, but they just haven’t gotten up the courage to mention it to their alumni or the incoming students yet. So too, if a student enrolls in a “Catholic” school expecting to get a “Catholic” education, and the school hasn’t really been interested in that sort of thing for years, then this seems as grossly unfair to the student as a school advertising a specialty in “hotel management” or “criminology” when it doesn’t actually have one.

Quite frankly, there are any number of these “historically Catholic” schools around these days that are not any more Catholic than the “historically Methodist” college I attended as an undergraduate was Methodist. At that very secular institution, the name “John Wesley” was never once uttered during my four years and the only religious service on campus occurred weekly when the local Catholic priest came on campus to say mass for the Catholic students in one of the little Methodist chapels left over from the early 1950s. The Methodist students, by contrast, had to go to church in town, as I recall — in a Presbyterian parish.

Many of these “historically Catholic” institutions should similarly be allowed to trumpet proudly and publicly the secular institutions they have become, no longer haunted by the specter of their former Catholicism. If these institutions are embarrassed by the Catholic Church (as Harvard, Yale, and other formerly pious religious institutions became embarrassed by their relationship with their founding religious congregations), then perhaps we should just set them free.  There’s nothing more painful than seeing a decidedly secularized faculty member come into one of these pseudo-Catholic institution with the promise that the whole “Catholic” business won’t “get in the way” and then later finding out that — to their deep consternation — it does, and that LGBTQ issues, same-sex marriage, and abortion are not treated in exactly the same way as they are everywhere else. It’s a great embarrassment to them.  

I say, please leave these poor institutions alone and let them be free. Let poor Georgetown be what it wants to be. All I ask is that they not continue to fool themselves (or others) by calling their institution “Catholic,” when being true to that designation is the one thing they struggle against more than anything else.

And of course if they decide they want to make the sort of changes needed to measure up to Catholic accreditation the way they measure up to the state accreditation, then fine.  But when you have one firmly established and entrenched bureaucracy bearing down on these schools from one direction, demanding their submission to one set of secular standards, and nothing to answer to in terms of their Catholic character, who do you think is going to win that tug-of-war?  That’s a ratchet that’s going to move only in one direction.

I have many non-Catholic friends.  We have plenty of interesting and worthwhile discussions, and I learn a great deal from them. Among the many things I like about them, though, is that they don’t pretend to be Catholic. In such matters, self-honesty is the best policy.  And sometimes in life we need someone else to help us clarify for us when we’ve left our innocence behind.

Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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