Leading a Catholic liberal arts university

Aaron Credeur, Staff Writer

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President Thomas Keefe stands behind the school’s Catholic identity. Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

Incendiary language. Rampant firing and demotion of faculty. Degraded Catholic identity.

Problems like these may seem foreign here at the University of Dallas. But for students at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, they are all too real, sparking debate about the role of a leader in an institution that values faith, integrity and justice.

As a small, Catholic liberal arts university that shares many principles with UD, Mount St. Mary’s has been rocked by a new president whose administrative actions have stoked controversy with the student body and across the country.

Mr. Simon Newman’s hiring as president of Mount St. Mary’s roughly a year ago was accompanied by praise of his skill as a businessman. However, the school community quickly became alarmed by drastic cuts he made to retiree benefits with little prior warning to faculty and staff.

Subsequently, it became evident that his personal conduct and language failed to reflect the traditional principles of the school.

“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Newman reportedly told a professor when explaining a controversial program aimed at increasing retention rates. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

After the school newspaper published an article reporting Newman’s behavior, he proceeded to fire Ed Egan, the faculty advisor for the newspaper, and Dr. Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor who expressed his own discontent. Additionally, other faculty members were demoted including Dr. David Rehm, who served as provost.

Newman’s unacceptable behavior is not limited to attacks on the academics of the school, however. According to statements from Naberhaus, he has also expressly denounced the Catholic identity of Mount St. Mary’s.

“He said publicly, ‘If you go in the marketplace, Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell,’ ” Naberhaus told the Catholic News Agency.

Newman is also reported to have referred to groups of students on campus as “Catholic jihadis.”

After backlash from local and national media and a push from students and faculty for Newman’s resignation, he apologized for the harshness of his language and reinstated Egan and Naberhaus. But the damage inflicted on the community goes much deeper than a few professors or an ill-advised choice of words.

Whether or not they were well-intentioned, Newman’s actions show a fundamental disregard for the Catholic principles of the university and a willingness to alter the very core of the institution in favor of better numbers and financial success according to his own singular vision.

Of course, changes had to be made in order to keep the doors of the school open, but surely there is a problem if sacrificing the Catholic identity becomes necessary to meet that end.

But what exactly is the solution? In order to answer that question we examined the leadership styles of two other Catholic university presidents: Dr. Kevin Roberts of Wyoming Catholic College and our own Mr. Thomas Keefe.

At Wyoming Catholic College, a liberal arts education and strong Catholic identity are melded with a love of the outdoors. And as a school in the infancy of its development, the necessity of financial security is especially important. Despite this need, Roberts has gained recognition by forgoing any federal aid money in order to ensure that the independent Catholic identity of the college thrives.

“We have to articulate the beauty of this intellectual tradition and explain its relevance to the modern age,” Roberts explained. “There’s a tension between this tradition and the finances, and we can get really caught up on either side of the equation. They should complement each other, but sometimes they collide.”

When asked about the issue of political correctness and its role in leadership, Roberts emphasized the importance of an unaccommodating expression of the truth while maintaining prudence about what is said.

“We must think about how being tactful is different than being a slave to political correctness,” Roberts said. “People can be sensitive about the truth. We have to be careful if we are going to be candid.”

Dr. Roberts also explained the need for cooperation and collaboration when making administrative decisions in a small institution like Wyoming Catholic College, where change is acutely felt. And he should know: the school has about 150 students and around 20 faculty members.

“We may have the legal right, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for the community and for the common good,” Roberts explained. “Satan is always lurking. We have to pay particular attention to decisions the Devil might influence.”

Keefe, meanwhile, offered a distinct, though equally inspiring, idea of his job as a leader of a liberal arts university faced with the challenge of balancing financial success with the Catholic values at its core.

“You can’t outfox the auditors,” Keefe said. “You win by being good. I know we’re good. It’s my job to communicate to others just how good we are.”

When asked about the Catholic identity of UD and its role in the character of the school, Keefe explained that everyone plays a part in promoting the ideals of our community.

“Our essential mission is enthusiastically Catholic,” Keefe said. “We are not hindered, but enhanced by our faith. We own our own values.”

Keefe also stressed the challenge of change, particularly at an institution rooted in longstanding traditional values.

“There’s a difference between dogma and ritual,” Keefe said. “Ritual can change, but I’ll protect dogma with my life.”

“We have academic rigor, a strong Catholic fidelity, an amazing Rome program, and people love it here. It’s my responsibility not to screw that up,” Keefe said.

The leadership styles of Keefe and Roberts might differ in their points of emphasis. But it is clear that they both share a fearless commitment to Catholic traditional values in the 21st- century. Both are known for speaking loudly in the public square, but unlike Newman, their words are used to promote the values of the institutions they lead.

While there is no set mold that every Catholic university president must fit, the enduring principles remain the same: a balance of the core values of truth, beauty and goodness with financial security for the institution; a candid yet prudent mode of expression that embraces transparency; and an unabashed and fearless approach to change while maintaining a respect for tradition.

It seems that to uphold each of these principles is to score the hat trick of leadership at a liberal arts university and, perhaps, of leadership in general.

President Newman of Mount St. Mary’s University has shown by his actions an inability to balance these principles within the community, threatening the future of an institution that was one of the first Catholic universities in the country.

And as these principles also lie at the core of the UD community, we are called to join in the debate so as to celebrate what we stand for and foster Christian unity with other institutions struggling to protect the same ideals.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent, balanced, clear representation of a difficult situation. I agree wholeheartedly with Aaron’s summation of what a Catholic university president should be.

  2. Excellent, clear, balanced representation of a difficult situation. I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s summation of what a Catholic university president should be.

  3. Not that long ago, the UD School of Ministry hosted a forum where panelists discussed the “Catholic Taliban.” When one UD professor stood up and spoke out against this term (citing that Catholics dont have suicide bombers), UD President Frank Lazarus stood up and chastised that notion, reminding everyone about the Spanish Inquisition. Cue Monty Python!

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