What Makes a University "Great"?GEORGE WEIGEL
Milwaukee’s Marquette University has been in a bit of a flap.
I’m told that there were minor riots on campus. The local media were having a field day, and Father Wild finally announced yet another "process:" there would be a national plebiscite among interested parties, who would vote on a nickname from a list of ten names (chosen, of course, by a committee selected for its "diversity").
In the midst of all this, Father Wild, evidently trying to get the conversation refocused, said this about his school: "Just last week we received the largest single donation in university history with a gift of $28 million that will transform our College of Communication. For the third consecutive year, we celebrate the fact that students are applying to Marquette in record numbers. Marquette has risen in national academic rankings. The campus has undergone a physical transformation, and Marquette has enjoyed the most successful fund-raising period in its history, raising more than $300 million during the current comprehensive campaign. These are the true measures of a great university."
That would come as news to St. Ignatius Loyola, who thought that the real test of higher education was what happened to the students intellectually, socially, morally, and spiritually under Jesuit tutelage. A university that measures its "greatness" by application numbers and endowment rather than by the character of its graduates is a school with a decidedly secular notion of greatness.
Fixing what was broken did not require the wholesale abandonment of required courses and core curricula, however, much less the widespread rejection of character formation and spiritual direction as a function of Catholic higher education both of which took place in the late 1960s. According to the Ellis formula, improving Catholic higher education should have meant building on the traditional strengths of Catholic colleges and universities: rigorous training in the liberal arts complemented by solid personal formation (a combination recognized by thoughtful law and medical school administrators as the best preparation for demanding professional studies). Instead, too many Catholic schools began aping Harvard, Stanford, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith, just when those schools were imploding, intellectually and morally.
One sad result of that forty-year long trend is intellectual: graduates of Catholic colleges and universities today often have no more idea how to put their knowledge together into a coherent and compelling worldview than do other recent graduates.
Another sad outcome is the phenomenon that Loyola-Maryland professor Vigen Guroian calls the "dorm brothel" the college as sexual free-fire zone, which is a very bad place to learn how to love. (And if you think the "dorm brothel" isn’t a feature of too many Catholic campuses, think again.)
And yet another sad result of misreading Father Ellis’s prescription is a Catholic university that measures its "greatness" by dollar signs and numbers of student applicants.
On this fiftieth anniversary of Msgr. Ellis’s critique, surely another, equally critical reflection is in order.
George Weigel. "What Makes a University 'Great'?" The Catholic Difference (July 6, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
© 2004 George
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