Change in philosophy poses threat to devoted profs at Catholic university

Change in philosophy poses threat to devoted profs at Catholic university

[As well as to the identity of a Catholic university as a Catholic university]

Dorothy Cummings McLean

HOUSTON, Texas, May 19, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — There’s a new war being waged between tenured Catholic faculty and the administration at the University of Saint Thomas that has left professors fearing the elimination of the philosophy department.

Professors in the English and philosophy departments of the Basilian-founded university did not get their contracts as expected on May 15. Instead, they received a letter warning that their departments are “currently under review for a potential reorganization and/or program elimination.” The university denies that departments will be cut.

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Dr. John Hittinger, a philosophy professor at the university and a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, has taken the fight to social media. He published the news on Facebook’s “Concerned Alumni of UST” page and began a GoFundMe account called “True to the Core.” Funds will go toward the legal fees of tenured faculty members who have been, Hittinger states, “illegally denied a contract for the fall.”

The rocky relationship between the faculty and administration was exposed in October by Dr. Randall B. Smith in Catholic World Report. According to Smith, a theology professor, a committee of three tenured professors was “bawled out” by university administrators, including a superior of the Basilian order, after asking why no Basilian candidates were finalists for the office of university president. Each member of the committee received an official letter of reprimand.

Smith claims the professors were told “to refrain from any further action of this type relating to the Basilian Fathers and to the search process.” Disobedience would “result in disciplinary action up to and including potential termination of tenure and/or employment.” Legally, tenured U.S. professors can be dismissed only for not fulfilling their teaching duties, breaking the law, scandalous behavior, or when the university decides to eliminate their department.

The new president is Catholic layman Richard Ludwick, who stepped down as president of the Independent Colleges of Indiana to accept the post. He has a BA in history from the University of Evansville (Indiana), a master’s in higher education administration from Columbia University, a law degree from Indiana University, and a doctorate in policy management and organization of higher education administration from the University of Oregon.

In a recent email to the university community, outgoing president Robert Ivany defended possible plans to reorganize and merge academic departments, claiming it is a response to “students’ increasing interest in market-driven professional and pre-professional programs.” He denied that the university had “indicated” or “intend[s] to eliminate core academic departments, such as English or philosophy.”

Since Ivany arrived in 2004, he has transformed the university thanks to his capital campaign that has raised more than $143 million to date. He re-established the university’s athletic program, which now has seven intercollegiate teams, and fostered the growth of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments. He also opened the Carol and Odis Peavy School of Nursing. Other additions include the McNair Center for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship and the Center for Ethical Leadership inside the Cameron School of Business.

Ivany was presented with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo on behalf of Pope Francis in February.

Hittinger told LifeSiteNews that the conflict involves two different battles coming together: academic collegiality versus the business model, and classical Catholic education versus a new “service”-based philosophy.

“It’s not directly ideological,” said Hittinger. “It is about a differing vision of Catholic education. English and philosophy professors are expendable [in President Ivany’s plans]. … Our president is trying to get rid of Thomism and embrace the Land o’ Lakes Statement.”

The Cardinal Newman Society has described the 1967 Land o’Lakes Statement as a “watershed moment in Catholic higher education” that led to the creation of a “parallel magisterium” of “dissenting Catholic theologians.”

Hittinger earned his BA at the University of Notre Dame, and his MA and Ph.D at Catholic University of America. His career has taken him from CUA to Benedictine College (Kansas) to Ave Maria University (Michigan) to the University of Saint Thomas, where in 2006 he became vice president of academic affairs. Hittinger says Ivany fired him from this position because he wouldn’t agree to the destruction of the university’s founding principles, or “core.”

“The beauty in Houston was the vision of the Basilian priests who started UST (in 1947),” Hittinger said. “They were on fire for Aquinas, and their founding vision [lasted until] five years ago. Saint Thomas was a beautiful place because it was based on the vision of students of [Etienne] Gilson and [Jacques] Maritain.” It was founded for the study of Thomist philosophy and Christian literature.

Hittinger observed that Catholic university administrative attacks on both Thomism and professors’ rights are neither new nor confined to the school. “The first thing [Father Theodore] Hesburgh did when he got to Notre Dame was suppress Thomism,” he said. And while Hittinger very much admires Tom Monaghan, the founder of Ave Maria University, he called his business model of higher education “out of control.”

“This attack on tenure … is really the final explosion [caused by] the business model,” said Hittinger. “I feel like [in Ivany] we have Monaghan and Hesburgh rolled into one.”

He says he and his colleagues are accused of being nostalgic and oriented to the past. He argues that they are for a living tradition, not a nostalgic one. “We consider a loving memory to be a part of our Catholic identity. In the name of future flourishing, [university administration] are willing to discard the past and marginalize the role of faith in education. As the deficits mount up at UST and the administration ruin many human lives, we must see that [theirs is a] failing vision.”

The GoFundMe “True to the Core” legal campaign raised more than $7,000 in 48 hours, and Hittinger is both pleased and defiant.

“With the law in one hand and my rosary in the other, I will face the distortion of Catholic education in this attempt to ruin a good university and its best professors,” he said.

Sandra Soliz, assistant vice president of marketing communications at the university, told LifeSiteNews that all tenured professors in the English department have been given contracts and all tenured professors in the philosophy department will be offered one-year contracts on June 12.

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