Is Catholic U.’s Chaste Brand Scaring Off Students?

Is Catholic U.’s Chaste Brand Scaring Off Students?

[The debate begins: Will Catholic U remain Catholic or again become “Un-Catholic U”? – AQ moderator; hat-tip to PewSitter: “Secular Consultant Source Says Catholic U. is Losing Money for Being Too ‘Chaste’“]

APRIL 16, 2018  
Declining enrollment at Catholic U. of America has caused some on campus to question the institution’s embrace of religiosity, especially in a time of projected cutbacks.

cost-cutting proposal at Catholic University of America, where administrators are seeking to close a $3.5-million operational deficit through layoffs and buyouts of 35 faculty members, has divided the campus and provoked a broader discussion about whether the institution has overplayed its religiosity to the detriment of student recruitment.


It is self-evident that Catholic University, a 131-year old institution founded by American bishops and considered the national university of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, is inextricably linked to Catholicism. But at a time when many students of traditional college age have eschewed organized religion and come to question the church’s social teachings, Catholic University finds itself in an intensifying dialogue that pits the university’s core identity against market imperatives.

This is not a new debate for Catholic or for religiously affiliated institutions in general. Such colleges have long wrestled with how best to preserve their deepest values while still attracting students who want a vibrant social life and a collegiate experience that is more spiritual than it is strictly religious.

Yet, Catholic University, based in Washington, D.C., is at a particularly critical moment.

The visceral threat of faculty job losses has invited emotional exchanges about whether the bishops’ university — whose leaders have waded into today’s culture wars and tried to discourage college kids from having sex — has scared off some of the very prospective students that it needs most. Changes at the university, which in recent years has done away with co-ed dorms and promoted itself as a cultivator of “Catholic minds,” are now being scrutinized by campus critics as the unforced errors of an administration in need of a course correction.

Catholic University really started to feel the pinch in 2016, when just 723 freshmen enrolled, driving down total university enrollment to 6,076, the lowest in at least a decade, according to federal data. The downward trend dates back to 2010.

So Catholic University did what colleges often do in a crisis: Call in the consultants. A host of branding experts, web designers, number crunchers, and marketing gurus have descended on the institution in recent years with advice about cutting costs and gaining students. The result is a growing sense that, if it hopes to turn things around, Catholic University needs to position itself as a “global Catholic research university,” rather than as the more narrowly defined religious institution that some prospective students perceive it to be.


Changing public perception is not easy, even for the most well-resourced of institutions. For Catholic University of America, which plans to simultaneously cut faculty jobs, increase teaching loads, and improve its research profile, the challenge is significant.

‘Don’t Want to Go to Church’

In January, Catholic University professors huddled in Great Room B of the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, the same building where, a decade earlier, Pope Benedict XVI told an audience of Roman Catholic educators that they had a “particular responsibility” to “evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith.”

On the stage that day in January 2018 were guests of less renown, but their message got the professors’ attention. After a year of research, Art & Science Group LLC had concluded that prospective students do not see Catholic University as a top choice, that they are confused about its pricing, and — even among practicing Catholics — they are unlikely to respond favorably to additional faith-based marketing.

Prospective students, the consultants said in a videotaped presentation, perceive religion as a more-integral part of the student experience at Catholic University than at its peers.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t help you,” said Eric Collum, a senior associate at Art & Science. “In fact, to the extent that they see you as being a religious place, it actually hurts you.”

“Students are open to having their experience enriched by Catholicism, but not necessarily defined by Catholicism,” Collum later added. “They want to go to college; they don’t want to go to church necessarily.”

The presentation has proved to be a Rorschach test for administrators and the faculty. Critics left the room saying, “I told you so,” arguing that independent consultants had validated their longstanding concerns about the institution’s exceeding focus on religion. Others heard an affirmation that Catholic University had marketed its religiosity just right but need not go further.

“Unfortunately, there are probably some people who don’t like our focus on mission, and they are trying to pin enrollment challenges on that,” said Andrew V. Abela, the university’s provost. “There’s no data, no evidence whatsoever of that.”

Abela and others chalk up most of the university’s challenges to demographic shifts. Roman Catholic high schools, the most reliable pipeline for Catholic University students, are graduating fewer and fewer people. This fall, more than half of private colleges, religious or not, missed enrollment targets, Chronicle survey found.

In other words, factors beyond religiosity are no doubt in play.

“To lay it all at the feet of Catholic identity seems a narrow interpretation,” said Christopher P. Lydon, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing.

In its analysis, Art & Science stressed the need for Catholic to emphasize its existing research opportunities for undergraduates, to guarantee on-campus housing, and to not skimp on “athletics and fun.” At the same time, Lydon says, the consultants found that “we had no more market share to gain through Catholic identity alone.”

In 2016, about a year into Lydon’s tenure, the university rolled out a video on its website with the tagline, “Cultivating Catholic Minds.” Interspersed with images of students in classrooms were those of papal visits, nuns, priests, and mass services. In February, the video was moved from its prominent spot on the university’s home page to a separate tab, labeled “Faithfully Catholic.” That subtle shift, some faculty members say, was an acknowledgment that the university had gone too far in portraying itself as churchly.Lydon sees it a different way.

“It’s not about the relegation of Catholic identity,” he said. “It’s about the elevation of the academic student experience.”

Ideally, Lydon says, the university would like to see undergraduate enrollment around 4,000, up from current levels of about 3,300. To do so, Catholic would need to recruit freshman classes of 1,000 or more, the enrollment manager says. Over the last 15 years, Catholic’s freshman classes have averaged about 830, according to the university.

It is not uncommon, particularly during periods of financial stress, for questions to be raised about whether a religiously affiliated institution ought to recalibrate its marketing. It is seldom that simple, says Melanie M. Morey, director of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation at the Archdiocese of San Francisco. More often than not, she said, the real problem is a lack of financial resources to recruit students.

“Catholic identity is not discussed with nuance,” said Morey, who was previously provost of St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, in Menlo Park, Calif. “There is a tendency to assign it responsibility for things that are negative, when there are many, many things that apply. Frankly, one of the most significant factors is money.”

Culture Wars

Whatever changes Catholic University may make in its marketing emphasis, its religious affiliations are baked into its mission, brand, and governance. Unlike colleges that were founded by religious orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans, Catholic University was established by U.S. bishops, who maintain majority control of the fellows, a small group that owns the university and appoints its presidents.

At the same time, there is considerable debate on the campus about what it means to be a Catholic university. How tolerant is such a place to non-Catholics? How welcoming is it to the less orthodox?

Into that debate steps John H. Garvey, former dean of Boston College Law School, who was appointed Catholic University’s president in 2010. Garvey is just the third lay president of the university, but he has built upon his priestly predecessor’s penchant for taking public stands on matters of faith and morality.

In 2011, Garvey trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal that Catholic University would return to single-sex residence halls, an admittedly “old-fashioned remedy” to what Garvey described as the pervasive cultural scourge of binge-drinking and “hooking up” in college.

At a forum of faith-based college leaders, in 2015, Garvey suggested that the debate over sexual consent on college campuses missed a larger point that he presses on his campus: Don’t have sex out of wedlock. Period.

“The new mantra is ‘Yes Means Yes’ — you need affirmative consent before you can engage in sex,” Garvey said at the forum. “But at Catholic University, I am fond of saying to our students that ‘Yes Means No’ — this is something that we see as more sacred than the culture does, and should be attended to in marriage and not outside of it.”

Garvey is not the first Catholic University president to seize the bully pulpit of the papally chartered institution. Then-Rev. David M. O’Connell, Garvey’s predecessor, had clashes with students over issues related to abortion and gay rights.

(In the final weeks of his tenure, Reverend O’Connell was named bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.)

As the debate over Catholic University’s religious identity resurfaces, some professors are quietly suggesting that the institution, during Garvey’s tenure, has become less welcoming for non-Catholics or those deemed insufficiently devout. Professors who have these misgivings declined to speak on the record, saying that they feared being targeted at a time of potential layoffs.

About 60 percent of the university’s faculty members identify as Catholic, and the Vatican prescribes that the number must stay north of 50 percent. But even some Catholic professors see changes that trouble them. In recent years, for example, the university’s job advertisements have added more forceful language, prioritizing candidates who are “enthusiastic about” making a “significant contribution” to a mission that is “faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church.”

The university does not apply a strict religious litmus test in hiring, but a job candidate’s faith is something “that we take seriously in our process,” Garvey says.

“It isn’t necessarily a requirement that people that we hire be Catholic. Nor is it the case that we’re going to hire Catholics of inferior quality over people of other beliefs who are interested in teaching here.”

Litmus Tests?

Garvey, a constitutional lawyer, said it is legally appropriate and essential for the university to talk to candidates about how they would support the university’s Catholic mission. He was less comfortable, however, answering direct questions about whether the university weighs personal histories, such as whether a candidate has been divorced, in its hiring process.

“I’m not sure where you’re going with those questions,” he said.

Garvey describes Catholic University of America much like the University of Chicago’s economics department, whose faculty members are often credited with having provided the scholarly underpinnings of free enterprise. Just as an economist with a preference for regulation and big-government stimulus might be a poor fit at Chicago, Garvey said, so too would a professor with little interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition be an unlikely match at Catholic University.

“A seriously religious climate like this is inviting to people of many faiths,” Garvey said. “It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, just like a secular environment is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s a kind of tribal, Catholic, exclusive sort of thing.”

Cutting ‘Surplus Faculty’

The university’s fiscal challenges have put its capacity for compassion to the test. Some professors on campus say they fear not only for their jobs but for the long-term vitality of their departments. They feel threatened and disrespected by a process, they say, that has reduced professors to widgets.

The provost’s “academic renewal” plan seeks to cut 9 percent of the university’s full-time faculty without eliminating any programs or course offerings. To accomplish this, the university has hired Kennedy & Company, another consulting firm, to determine where the university has “surplus faculty” who could be eliminated once the university increases its teaching loads.


In his written proposal, the provost asserts that the university must eliminate faculty positions because “there are no reasonable alternatives available.” At the same time, Catholic’s leadership has played down the severity of the university’s financial challenges. The university’s proposed cuts of $3.5 million constitute less than 2 percent of its $237- million operating budget.

It is “prudent,” Garvey said, for the university to reallocate resources based on student demand. But “financially speaking,” he said, “we’re healthy.”

The president’s rhetoric has upset some professors, who say Garvey is unwilling to acknowledge the depth of the university’s problems or to take any responsibility for them.

“The faculty is the heart of the university. When the senior administration moves to excise a big piece of that heart, it’s objectively the case that the institution is not in good academic or financial health,” Stephen J. McKenna, an associate professor of media studies, who earned his doctorate in English from Catholic University, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.“When the administration won’t frankly acknowledge that reality, the disease is even more acute than it may appear.”

Under the plan, McKenna’s department would lose half of its full-time faculty members.

In addition to layoffs, the plan mandates teaching loads of 3:3 for professors in departments classified as “undergraduate” or “professional,” while reducing to 2:2 the teaching loads for professors in “doctoral” departments.

Some professors describe these classifications as a “caste system,” where faculty members who work the most with undergraduates are seen as less valuable to the research enterprise. The provost, on the other hand, says that the system merely seeks to recognize the additional work that professors in programs with graduate students put into overseeing doctoral dissertations.

“In fact, all it does is kind of balance things out a bit more fairly,” Abela said.

The proposal requires approval from the Academic Senate, a panel that, along with faculty members, includes the president, provost, and deans. A vote is expected May 9.

John C. McCarthy, dean of the School of Philosophy, said that the plan actually roots out “abuses” in the system, where he says there have been dubious justifications for course relief.

“It’s unreasonable to expect that teaching loads should be equal in programs across the board when programs have different responsibilities,” says McCarthy, whose department would transition to lower teaching loads under the plan. “If there’s a caste system, I dare say my school is member of the lower class.”

McCarthy said he is also skeptical of the narrative espoused by some of his colleagues that the administration, or its religiosity, is to blame for the university’s enrollment challenges. At the same time, he acknowledges, the university is under strain, and sometimes fierce debate is expected.

“Many of the people who are opposed to this proposal are people I’m fond of,” McCarthy says. “I share with those people, though I’m on a different side of the fence, a commitment to this place, and I want to see us become all the university we can be. We happen to disagree. But what else is new?”

What makes the debate at Catholic particularly raw is that it combines deeply personal questions about faith — how is it best expressed institutionally? — with difficult discussions about people’s livelihoods: Will I have a job when this is over? It is a distinctive moment for a university that, aspiring to a higher power, has to make some cold calculations about its future. “If we were as rich as Croesus, then none of this would be happening,” McCarthy said. “But we’re not as rich as Croesus — or Harvard.”

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5 comments on “Is Catholic U.’s Chaste Brand Scaring Off Students?

  1. This will not cost ten million Federal Reserve Notes, as from a slick New York marketing firm:

    Attention: President Garvey, faculty, administrators, and trustees of The Catholic University of America

    You need to get a television program on EWTN with a talk-show panel format, featuring select professors from, say, the Philosophy, Theology, Political Science, and English Literature departments discussing key issues, and featuring Catholic celebrity guests, possibly on the order of, say, Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, Raymond Arroyo, Robert Royal, Father Charles Connor, and Father George Rutler, as a Catholic alternative to the television diet of secular political cable news shows. Marketing college programs is all about media access and interface, getting the name and themes out in the Marshall McLuhanesque electronic jungle out there. There is plenty of history in the surrounding areas of Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, so get those cameras out in the field, engaging students in the history of their Catholic identity and culture.

    “Visibility, vitality, virtue, and veritas.”

    Don’t reject what hasn’t been tried before. You might even do a show on the history and controversies surrounding the Latin Mass.

  2. Not a bad idea, Howl. Not bad, at all.

  3. With Christendom College and Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary both within driving range of CUA there is no reason that all three should not go into a partnership together on such a project. The Washington political talk show scene could use some fresh air of Catholicism to blow through its postmodern windows.

    Think about it.

    Get the cameras out in the field and do a Catholic history feature segment at historic parishes and key sites each week. Have Catholic senators, congressmen, SCOTUS justices, writers, actors, scholars, and philanthropists as guests. Go at it.

    Where is the CUA panel on Amoris Laetitia? Form a partnership with the Thomistic Institute. Do feature segments on St. Anselm’s, Gonzaga, and the history of Catholic education in the area. There is an ordinariate parish within driving distance. Do an episode on former Anglicans who have become Catholics.

  4. Excellent ideas. Write Arroyo and let us know what he thinks. He’s prob’ly a bit shellshocked these days and might find it refreshing. He should check with St. John’s College in Annapolis. The college, one of the oldest in North America, is the original Great Books school, inspired by Catholic convert Mortimer Adler back in the 1930s. It sits directly across the street from the US Naval Academy and can boast of a few students who become Catholic quite regularly in the span of their life as Johnnies after reading from Aquinas. It is secular in nature but even Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. wrote a piece about it, calling it the greatest school in America and was a commencement honoree one year.

  5. PS: The Johnnies beat the Midshipmen in this year’s annual intercollegiate croquet showdown! Huzzah! 📖📚📓📔📙

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