The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why so many are alarmed by the ongoing controversy at Mount St. Mary’s

In rural Maryland, a battle is taking place over the future of religious colleges in the U.S.

What began as a public relations flap in a student newspaper has boiled over into a national controversy, with the editorial board of The Washington Post joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s in calling for university president Simon Newman to resign.

To recap: the student newspaper of Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic liberal arts college in Emmitsburg, Md., published an article investigating efforts by university leaders to improve the school’s retention rate, a key metric used in rankings systems such as U.S. News and World Report’s influential annual list. In the article, Newman was quoted as saying to a member of the administration, “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.”

The imbroglio worsened when Newman abruptly fired two faculty members who had opposed his plan, with academics from across the country signing an online petition protesting what appeared to be political retribution for their disagreement.

The controversy at Mount St. Mary’s goes national after professors are fired

Late last week, the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s issued a letter to the school’s president, asking him to resign. Thus far, Newman has resisted such calls, and a survey commissioned by the student government actually revealed strong student support for the embattled president.

It would be easy to view this episode as a unique instance of a brash personality from the business world clashing with academics in the ivory tower. But to do so would be a mistake.

Rather, the incident represents a pivotal moment in the history of American higher education, and it portends future battles. At issue is nothing less than the purpose of a university in the 21st century, and whether the future landscape includes a place for religious colleges in the U.S.

The modern university system can be traced back to medieval Europe’s cathedral schools and monastic schools. The sons of nobles and landowners studied classical liberal arts, and the majority of those pupils not in line to inherit the family fortune would end up as members of the clergy.

Over time, guilds of skilled artisans sprang up across the continent, and sons of these newly affluent tradesmen joined the academic ranks. Coinciding with the demographic shift to urban centers, these expanding cathedral schools in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford became the first institutions empowered by temporal rulers and Catholic officials to certify teaching credentials and issue degrees to students.

Underpinning this intellectual enterprise was the guiding belief that knowledge was valuable for its own sake, and that the study of certain disciplines led to a more fulfilled human life.

Down through the centuries, the mission and composition of Western universities remained largely the same. Harvard, Princeton, Yale–each was founded upon a liberal arts curriculum for the purpose of educating wealthy young men and ordaining Christian ministers. It was not until the mid-19th century that the paradigm began to shift.

Several factors contributed to this shift: first, the political revolutions of Europe, in which monarchies supported by the Church gave way to constitutional republics and democratic assemblies; second, the insistence of the Enlightenment that human knowledge be scientifically categorized and explored without reference to religious authority; third, the Industrial Revolution, which catapulted chemistry, engineering and agriculture to the forefront of importance.

All of that led to the genesis of the first modern research universities. In Germany, physics laboratories popped up to explore atomic particles, and, across the United States, land-grant colleges were established to study soil composition and mechanical engineering.

The Morrill Act of 1862, which outlined provisions for a series of state-sponsored agricultural colleges, may well qualify as the singular fulcrum in the evolution of higher education. Over 100 leading public research universities were founded as a direct result of this legislation, and with their creation came a completely new understanding of a university’s mission. For students learning about circuits rather than reciting Cicero, the purpose of a college education was simple: to prepare them to get a job.

Fast forward 150 years, and this central tension over the role of a university education is at the heart of the controversy at Mount St. Mary’s.

At a time when the Department of Education is touting federal funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), college rankings guides are publishing salaries charts of recent graduates, and a growing movement is advocating the elimination of tuition at public colleges, Mount St. Mary’s is something of a living fossil.

Like so many religiously-affiliated colleges across the country, it is faced with the daunting prospect of convincing families that the study of theology, philosophy and literature is worth its steep annual cost of over $50,000 a year.

With student loan debt having surpassed $1.3 trillion nationally, and an economy marked by “stagnant wages and limited job opportunities,” the challenge of selling students on a liberal arts degree is more than just a marketing campaign–it is an existential necessity.

The reality is that there has been an under-discussed split of U.S. institutions of higher education into one of three categories, all of which we colloquially lump together as “going to college.”

The first category is elite research institutions following what some have dubbed the Harvard-Berkeley model. These universities boast a wide array of distinguished faculty, who oversee graduate programs churning out Ph.D. candidates. Undergraduate instruction takes a back seat to research endeavors, and graduate students are pressured to gain publication in academic journals, even as they are required to grade exams for college courses.

The second category is state schools and community colleges that function primarily as pre-professional training grounds for careers in education, health care, business, law enforcement, and the like. Some of these schools are branch campuses of a larger research university; many others began as teachers colleges and have since expanded the breadth of their degree programs.

Over the last several decades, a percentage of these public colleges have sought to cease primarily being commuter schools, building dormitories, adding graduate programs and increasing their research focus.

The third category is liberal arts colleges, a majority of which maintain affiliation with a religious denomination. Nearly all of these schools have been, from their founding, conceived of as residential colleges, and the total cost of attendance is generally two to three times that of nearby public institutions. Irrespective of major, students continue to follow a core curriculum of subjects like philosophy, literature and math, and a high value is placed on personal relationships between undergraduates and their instructors.

Not all institutions can be neatly classified–schools like George Mason, Towson and the University of Buffalo, have endeavored to transition from category two to category one, and there exist outliers such as the Colorado School of Mines, Julliard and the Service Academies.

Within the pantheon of American higher education, those in the third category are most likely to be facing an institutional identity crisis of the sort taking place at Mount St. Mary’s.

A select few — Georgetown, Notre Dame, Baylor — could be said currently to occupy a position among the research universities, and a large swath of regionally respected institutions are debating whether to pursue a similar path.

Should a College of the Holy Cross, Lipscomb University, or Santa Clara University hew more closely to its liberal arts founding? Or ought it augment its graduate programs and professional schools, in an effort to climb the rankings and increase its research reputation?

But for many religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges, a comprehensive institutional makeover is simply not feasible. Schools like Calvin College, Belmont Abbey College, Messiah College, and Mount St. Mary’s cannot suddenly add MBA programs or pharmacy schools.

If they wish to survive, these schools have to carve out a niche for themselves that compels high school students to seek out an education on their campuses. Lacking the large endowments of top research institutions, these schools are dependent on tuition dollars to cover operating costs, so a first-year class that yields 20 fewer students than expected can translate to a $1 million budget shortfall.

This stark financial reality is what has led numerous colleges to select leaders from the business community, as is the case with Mount St. Mary’s Newman, who holds an MBA from Stanford and spent decades working in private equity.

It is likely an acute awareness of the necessity to communicate to prospective students the distinctive value of his institution’s very expensive product that led Newman to opine that “Catholic doesn’t sell,” “liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

But for schools like Mount St. Mary’s, the existential question that will need to be answered is: if religious identity and liberal arts are off the table, what is left?

Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.

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