Do we need priests to run Catholic colleges?

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Before Loyola University Chicago introduced Jo Ann Rooney as its 24th president in May of this year, Jesuit Father James Prehn delivered an invocation to a packed campus auditorium: “We pray for our new president, that she will be given the Holy Spirit, (and) for the gifts of fortitude and courage, to lead us in who we claim to be,” Prehn said. “Give her the wisdom and prudence to discern your holy will for Loyola,” he continued. “Finally, give her joy and peace in fulfilling the role of president.”

The college had not released information about the candidates, and “at the mention of the first ‘she’ a low murmur spread throughout the auditorium,” according to an account in Catholic New World, Chicago’s diocesan newspaper. Rooney is the first layperson and the first woman to serve as president of Loyola Chicago. She succeeds Father Michael J. Garanzini, a Jesuit who resigned after 14 years.

Bob Parkinson, chair of the board of trustees and of the search committee, told the campus gathering that the announcement was both exciting and historic. The search committee sought the “best-suited person,” he said, and was “compelled by Dr. Rooney’s commitment both to her Catholic faith and our message as a university.”

In her introductory speech, Rooney focused on how members of the Loyola community describe the university’s character and mission. “I consistently heard about how it is about more than just the work,” she said. “It’s a passion; it’s a calling. It’s about making sure that this is a community that respects each other but that challenges each other to be the best possible people we can be, no matter what your role.”

A shift in leadership

Rooney’s appointment reflects just how common lay presidents have become at Catholic colleges. Rooney is the second female and 12th lay president among the 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States. Only about 40 percent of the country’s more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities that belong to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) are led by men and women religious.

Many have welcomed lay presidents as a sign that the Second Vatican Council’s call for increased roles for laypeople is being taken more seriously, but some bemoan the watering down of Catholic tradition. Lay presidents highlight the reality of declining vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. They’re at the center of cultural debates about the place of religious institutions in a secular society where students increasingly identify as religious “nones.” And they’re on the financial hot seat, under constant pressure as costs rise and government aid declines.

Because the pool of professed religious men and women continues to decline, the number of lay presidents is likely to increase. In 1965 there were 58,632 priests in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Of that number, 22,707 belonged to religious orders, founders of the majority of Catholic colleges. In 2015 those numbers had dropped to 37,578 total priests and 11,710 religious order priests, according to CARA. Women’s religious communities have seen even steeper declines in numbers, dropping from almost 180,000 in 1965 to just under 49,000 in 2015.

Perhaps the most closely watched lay appointment came at Georgetown University, which in 2001 appointed John DeGioia as its first lay president. “It was not without grumbling from some Jesuits and Georgetown graduates who felt it represented a major breach with tradition,” National Catholic Reporter (NCR) reported in 2004. Georgetown, founded in 1789, is the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in the United States.


Three years after his appointment, DeGioia had proven his fundraising abilities by helping close a $1 billion campaign—a skill at any institution of higher education. He also quickly showed a commitment to social justice, a key to the identity of Catholic universities. NCR called him “the most visible—and arguably the most articulate—advocate of Jesuit spirituality.”

Catholic vs. corporate

Maintaining a Catholic university’s mission and identity is a delicate task. In February Simon Newman resigned as president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland amid criticism he had failed in his stewardship of the second oldest Catholic university in the country. Controversy surrounded his plan to boost student retention by dismissing students judged unlikely to succeed. Newman, a former investment banker, told a colleague, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies . . . put a Glock to their heads.”

Newman, the fifth lay president of Mount St. Mary’s, faced harsh criticism for his effort to “cull the class” and his firing of faculty who disagreed with him. More than 6,000 people, many of them professors from colleges and universities across the country, signed an online petition seeking reinstatement of the fired faculty members.

As the Washington Post described it, the controversy revealed “a clash between those open to change and those mired in tradition.” Others felt it had become a debate over the very soul of the university: Catholic or corporate?


The balance isn’t easy. Some people thought that Anne Carson Daly, the second lay president at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, wanted to make the campus too Catholic. An early conflict emerged in fall 2014, just months after her appointment, when college officials unveiled a stricter dorm visitation policy. “It seemed a little dated, but just a dumb policy,” says Jack Reilly, a commuter student who started his senior year last fall. “With what I know now, it was part of the conservative trend.”

Over the next 18 months, students and faculty complained about censorship and trustees meddling in campus affairs. Students said the administration was censoring the student newspaper. Administrators forced students to remove Bob Marley posters from dorm rooms, and female students were told to take down posters advocating safe sex, Reilly says. In the midst of campus upheaval, Daly announced on March 8, 2016 that she was resigning.

These high-profile campus conflicts reflect a Catholic culture war, says Mathew N. Schmalz, who teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and has studied Catholic higher education. “Some Catholic colleges and universities see themselves as the last refuge for Catholics in a culture that is perceived as being actively hostile to their beliefs and practices,” he says.

A changing role

Amid these competing agendas, lay presidents often become lightning rods, attracting criticism from both conservatives and liberals and reflecting how underlying tensions in American Catholicism have played out. “People assume if you have a lay president, an institution has lost its Catholic identity,” Schmalz says. “There’s an idea of this institution that persists throughout time and this priesthood that you look up to, and all that’s changing.”


Others see their mission as “one of engagement, of ‘being leaven in the world’ and trying to create intellectual connections between Catholic thought and a largely secular culture while simultaneously forming students in a faith and spiritual tradition that recognizes the importance of those marginalized and forsaken by society,” Schmalz says. Still other Catholic institutions “see themselves as an important, and perhaps final, bastion of the liberal arts that counters contemporary trends of professionalization and specialization,” he adds.

The reaction to Simon Newman’s behavior reflects another change. “CEOs at Catholic schools have to do so much more with fundraising and financial management than looking out for the spiritual welfare of a community,” Schmalz says.


It’s not just about the numbers, though, says Michael Galligan-Stierle, ACCU president and CEO. Lay presidents, he says, are an appropriate response to Vatican II’s universal call to holiness. “The entire baptized community of the Catholic Church is called forth to make a difference by filling the roles in which they’re competent,” he says.

It’s not their status as lay or religious that makes presidents successful, but their competence and commitment to advancing the gospel, Galligan-Stierle says. “In the last 20 years, some priests and sisters and brothers have not ended their presidencies well,” he adds. “There are also some laypeople who have been removed.”


Galligan-Stierle has a quick response to people who claim Catholic colleges with lay leaders have lost their way. “I would ask them to take a deeper look,” he says. “All humans will fall short at times and all institutions will fall a bit short, but there’s so much more good that comes from having a Catholic college in a diocese than not.”

Linda LeMura, the third lay president and the first woman to lead Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York, has defended the college against criticism that some of the college’s diverse speakers and events don’t align with Catholic teachings. “I see it as healthy,” she says. “There should be a creative tension as the church continues to evolve.”

Le Moyne “teaches students to address the God that’s in all of us,” LeMura says. She points to a partnership between the college and Cathedral Academy at Pompei, an urban school that serves a diverse immigrant neighborhood. “Ninety-five percent of the students there are not Catholic,” she says. “Why do we support them? Because we’re Catholic. It’s simple. That’s what a Catholic college does.”

LeMura says her life—one foot in the church and one in the world, married and living off campus while committed to the college she leads—sets an example of how to live as a modern lay Catholic. “It’s abundantly clear I’m Catholic in how I live my life and how I express myself,” she says. “I think the college is more Catholic than ever.”

Everyone’s job

Another way Catholic colleges maintain their identity is through mission officers. Although the job has existed since the 1970s, its importance has grown as the number of lay presidents has increased. Among the 220 institutions that belong to ACCU, 159 employ someone to care for the Catholic mission at their campus.

Georgetown created a mission officer after DeGioia became president. “The charism of the Jesuits is more intentional than when there were a lot of priests around campus,” says Father Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit who is Georgetown’s vice president for mission and ministry. He graduated from Georgetown in 1988.

O’Brien organizes seminars, retreats, and service projects all aimed at providing experiences in line with Catholic values. He also lives in an undergraduate dorm and teaches theology.

“It’s not just about the numbers, but about what the Jesuits and the priests are doing to promote and share the identity of the university,” he says. “Compared to when I was a student, our curriculum is more informed by the priorities of the Jesuits, and the commitment to faith and justice is much more clear than it was.”

The University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, hired Daniel Curran as its first lay president in 2002. Three years later, the university convened its first group of Marianist Educational Associates to ensure the school maintained its Catholic identity and Marianist charism. Members pledge “to support others in growing in the knowledge and appreciation of our Catholic and Marianist traditions in order to embody and witness to these traditions and their benefit to our world.”

“We see community as a gift and a responsibility,” says Joan McGuinness Wagner, director of Marianist Strategies since 1997. She was among the first group of Marianist Associates. “We are equal disciples in our work in the university,” she says.

Like LeMura, she sees herself as a lay role model for students. “I have to be the best Joan that there is,” she says. “Whenever I’m speaking for the college I am wearing that mantle of being Marianist. It is a sacred mission and a responsibility.”

Even 10 years into Curran’s tenure, some people questioned whether he was an appropriate leader. “You would still hear people say, ‘We’ve lost our identity,’ ” McGuinness Wagner says. But she disagrees. “We tend to romanticize the past,” she says. “We need to change with the times.”


In July, Eric Spina, a longtime Syracuse University administrator who was educated in Catholic schools, became University of Dayton’s second lay president. “People are marginally less concerned,” McGuinness Wagner says. “I hope it’s always a question. When we stop asking those questions is when we lose touch with our mission and our identity.”

This article also appears in the October 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 10, pages 28–33).

Image: Pixabay via Pexels

About the author

Renée K. Gadoua

Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor based in Syracuse, New York. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.

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