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Catholic Higher Ed Confronts Pivotal Issues


ACCU’s 2021 Annual Meeting addressed big challenges faced by Catholic institutions, while providing hope for a bright future

By Kenya McCullum


To sum up the racial division that has plagued the United States for centuries, as well as the killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, Rev. Bryan Massingale, professor of theology at Fordham University, recalled the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “The Three Evils of Society” speech: “If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”

During the 2021 ACCU Annual Meeting on February 5 and 6, Massingale joined others in the Catholic college and university community to encourage leaders as they navigate new challenges in the wake of the turbulence presented in 2020 — from the protests that demanded social and racial justice to the COVID-19 pandemic to the overall changing landscape of higher education.


Healing the Soul of a Nation: The Challenge of Racial Justice

In the opening plenary session, Massingale (pictured, below right) did a deep dive into the calls for racial justice that occurred in 2020, and the rise of white nationalism around the country that culminated in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. He cited the killings of Floyd and Taylor, as well as incidents of law enforcement being weaponized against Black people, such as when a white woman called the police on a Black man last year for asking her to leash her dog in accordance with the rules of New York’s Central Park. Massingale stressed that understanding the origins of such racially motivated events is necessary in order to move forward as a country and truly heal.

He went on to outline four strategies that Catholic institutions can utilize to facilitate this healing:

  • Engage in a thorough curriculum review and overhaul with Catholic Social Teaching and fundamental human dignity in mind. If the voices of Europeans dominate, then the curriculum advances the cause of white nationalism, “and Catholic higher education becomes complicit,” he said. The curriculum needs to be recreated to include the voices of people of color and their contributions to society.

Rev. Massingale

  • Look at hiring practices and specifically, hiring for mission. The composition of the faculty matters, so just as diversity in the curriculum is important, diversity in the faculty is also vital. “It’s often said that the faculty is your curriculum,” Massingale asserted, and so a school can’t have a diverse curriculum without a diverse faculty creating it.
  • Address governance and look at who the members of the board are and the criteria that is used to choose them. Selecting board members should move beyond just fiduciary responsibility and a concern for numbers, to selecting board members who are accountable for mission, which should include ensuring a racially just and engaged institution.
  • Explore ways to increase public engagement because in many areas, Catholic colleges are considered the center of Catholic intellectual life. As such, it’s important to sponsor civic engagement, allow people who do not attend the institution to take advantage of certain resources, and provide continuing education for lay and ordained ministers to help them better lead their congregations in the work of healing.


“People invest in authenticity. The question becomes, how much is our integrity worth to us?"


Massingale said he recognizes that the work of healing is hard work, and it will inevitably make some white people uncomfortable, but he believes it’s worth it.

“People invest in authenticity. The question becomes, how much is our integrity worth to us,” he concluded. “We often hear it said, no money, no mission. And that’s true, but I also want to say it’s equally true that if you have no mission, then there’s no reason to give, there’s no reason for support.”


Student Success in the New Reality(ies)

Among the other challenges confronting Catholic higher education, particularly in light of the disruptive effect of COVID-19, is student success. In another session, Joretta Nelson, senior vice president at higher education consulting firm Credo, discussed one of the most important markers for student success: retention. Nelson said that the needs of students have significantly changed throughout the years and it’s important for Catholic colleges and universities to recognize that and offer what today’s students really need to be successful.

“We have done so much work in the last 25 or 30 years in researching new protocols, new systems, and new strategies. All along, research says different types of students are coming to our campuses today,” Nelson explained. Each recent generation of students, in fact, has brought a different set of needs to campus. The Gen Z students of today, compared to the Millennials and the Gen Xers before that, bring new challenges to the table, she noted.

Based on her research into why students stay at an institution, Nelson went on to discuss a framework that Catholic colleges and universities can use to meet the demands and challenges of today’s students:

  • Help students identify their personal goals and then help them achieve those goals.
  • Meet students where they are on their academic and personal journey, and learn what they bring to the table and what motivates them.
  • Understand students’ financial and academic readiness, as well as their background and current experiences.
  • Help students meet their academic goals by challenging them and providing support for them outside the classroom.
  • Create a culture on campus that helps students feel like they belong and can flourish.
  • Engage students’ families, because they will act as advocates for education and for remaining at the college that the student is attending.


Moment to See, Courage to Act

Keeping the focus on students, Marie Lynn Miranda (pictured), provost at the University of Notre Dame, discussed research from the Pew Charitable Trusts that indicates how younger generations are increasingly moving away from the Church and what that means for Catholic colleges and universities. Despite this decline in religious participation, Miranda said she believes that institutions can continue to reach younger generations because they still value spirituality and are hungry to find meaning in their lives and a community where they belong.

Marie-Lynn-Miranda“We should be very good at building the community that is missing in our civic culture right now,” Miranda said, “but in order for us to do that, because we have a different kind of student coming to us, we have to think about moving from explaining things to allowing people to experience them.”


“As members of Catholic colleges and universities, we need to think very hard about ensuring that we have radical hospitality for every member of our community."


In order to provide this community for all students, Miranda suggested that Catholic colleges and universities need to practice a “radical hospitality” that makes students feel at home.

“As members of Catholic colleges and universities, we need to think very hard about ensuring that we have radical hospitality for every member of our community, so that our low-income students feel welcome, that they’re part of things, [and] so that our students of different racial backgrounds or different nationality backgrounds feel they are welcome,” Miranda explained. “What we see are these clear signals that young people are sending us about what they need and what they want in terms of engagement.”


The Future of American Higher Education 

During the closing session of the conference, Arthur Levine of the Steinhardt Institute of Higher Education Policy at New York University, outlined the recent trends disrupting higher education — trends that will be instrumental in shaping its future:

  • A demographic sea change in communities that has left some areas of the country with an oversupply of colleges and universities, as well as a growing population that may be unable to afford higher education.

  • The rise of the knowledge economy that has caused the workplace to be transformed after the loss of industrial jobs.
  • The digital technology revolution that has created competition for colleges and universities because other content providers are increasingly gaining student enrollments.


Levine went on to discuss how the music, movie, and newspaper industries were also affected by the same trends that higher education is confronting now. In his advice to Catholic colleges and universities looking to respond to these trends, he said that, first and foremost, it’s important to understand — and meet — the needs of students in light of increasing competition.

“It’s not at all clear what choices students are going to make between traditional and nontraditional providers,” Levine said. “However, it is crystal clear that mainstream higher education is facing mounting competition from a mushrooming number of new content providers and students have dramatically more choices, often at lower cost, in how, when, and where they learn.”

Levine also stressed that, although many colleges may want their operations to go back to business as usual after the pandemic ends, they need to understand that they can’t recreate the past, but they can create a new future in which Catholic institutions thrive.


"We’ve been given an unprecedented opportunity to reshape higher education for the 21st century, and the chance to reimagine Catholic higher education in the future.”


“As we look to the future, we are being presented with an extraordinary challenge, daunting and urgent, and it’s the greatest facing higher education in this century, but an even larger opportunity is ahead for us. That’s what we’re being presented with,” Levine said. “There are going to be closures, there are going to be consolidations, but there are also going to be enormous successes of historic importance in the future. We’ve been given an unprecedented opportunity to reshape higher education for the 21st century, and the chance to reimagine Catholic higher education in the future.”

While the Annual Meeting speakers all recognized that overcoming the challenges Catholic colleges and universities face will take a great deal of energy and effort, all struck a hopeful chord, noting that Catholic institutions are uniquely equipped to handle these issues, given their ongoing dedication to mission and Catholic Social Teaching. The event provided a realistic view of what’s to come, but also was an inspiring acknowledgment that these problems can be tackled and solved in ways that only the Catholic community can.


Kenya McCullum is a freelance writer who often writes about higher education.

Recordings of selected presentations from the
 2021 ACCU Annual Meeting are available for general viewing