John’s Gospel opens with the bracing proclamation that “the Light came into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.” We’re reminded that while it was still dark, Jesus was born; while it was still dark, Christ rose from the dead. Light will always win. Always.
I open my introduction, my colleagues in Catholic higher education, with that salvo of zeal because we all face facts, figures, and images that can make it feel like the darkness is winning. From the tectonic shifts COVID-19 has wrought in our personal and work lives, to ongoing painful and vital racial reckonings on our campuses and in our communities, to the leadership transitions U.S. colleges and universities are facing, including ACCU institutions, there’s no doubt that these are not times for the faint of heart. The challenges for current and aspiring leaders in Catholic colleges and universities are daunting and real. And, ACCU has placed good people in your corner as we take on those challenges.
I count myself among those who have benefitted from good people who have walked along and ahead of me over the years. And now, I consider myself among those who are in your corner. My name is Karen Eifler and I am the Incoming Executive Director of Collegium, a colloquy on faith and intellectual life that is undergoing a leadership change for the first time in its 28-year history this year. The visionary founder, Tom Landy, will retire from his Collegium duties in July, and the operation will shift from its current home at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts to the University of Portland in Oregon. Collegium was the single most catalytic professional development experience of my own life. Ever. Collegium is a singular experience for participants, no matter their faith tradition or academic discipline. As ACCU members know so well, lay people are increasingly responsible for the flourishing of the Catholic identity of their colleges and universities, and we wrestle with how to bring that identity to vibrant life during this present era’s tumultuous shifts. Collegium offers an immersion into the sustaining potential of Catholic intellectual tradition, and the quest for justice at the heart of the prophetic imagination that lives in ongoing—and potentially fruitful—tension with the sacramental imagination—in which everything, everywhere, has the potential to reveal an aspect of the Divine. As I am forever reminding anyone who will listen, the Greek roots of “catholic,” “kathos” and “holus” mean “toward wholeness.” A fully Catholic education invites us away from fragmentation and silos, into experiences that integrate the strands of our spirits and minds into whole selves in communion with others’ whole selves. Every academic discipline, every leadership role in our institutions, has a crucial contribution to make, without which we would be incomplete … we would not be fully Catholic or catholic.
As ACCU members know so well, lay people are increasingly responsible for the flourishing of the Catholic identity of their colleges and universities, and we wrestle with how to bring that identity to vibrant life during this present era’s tumultuous shifts.
A fundamental vision I have for Collegium’s future is to build on the “mountaintop experience” of the summer Fellows and expand the programming and resources for member institutions and institutions considering membership. We learned a lot about effective online programs in the last two years. We saw how effective our online tools were to re-connect our alumni network of 2000+, and the curious, to presentations and conversations about ideas and issues that matter twice each semester. We learned the power of welcoming multiple faculty Fellows from member schools to the summer colloquy, allowing them to go back bolstered by the knowledge that one of their colleagues had been similarly inspired—because all of us are braver and smarter than one of us. This year, we have a few new developments planned:
- The cost of sending a second faculty Fellow to the summer experience will be lowered more than 50% starting this year.
- Online sessions and video resources that offer practical pedagogical practices for bringing sacramental and prophetic imagination into STEM and DEIJ initiatives on campuses are now included with an institution’s Collegium dues.
- All future summer colloquy plenary talks will be livestreamed to all member institutions, providing booster shots of Collegium inspiration to alums, as well as the opportunity for the curious—and the time-strapped—to sample the program.
- Collegium catalyst grants of up to $5,000 provide opportunity for faculty and aspiring leaders at Catholic colleges and universities to develop programs suited to their own unique contexts to form faculty and campus leaders in the vibrant tenets of Catholic intellectual tradition, renew the spirit of vocation as educators and administrators, and cooperate with the Holy Spirit in creating something new.
Accurately, hopefully, ethically “reading the signs of the times” is one of the great contributions Catholic higher education can make in response to the exhortation of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. ACCU and Collegium concur that the signs of our times do not point fundamentally to a narrative of decline, but to evidence of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah, “behold, I am doing something new.” Yes, it’s true that the numbers of consecrated religious men and women from many of our institutions’ founding orders are greatly diminished, and that formidable obstacles to the price-tag of Catholic higher education are real—just to name two signs that keep so many mission and admissions officers and administrators up at night. But being up at night means we are paying attention, and the vulnerability inherent in facing challenges head- and heart- and spirit-on flexes imagination, inspiration, and collaboration muscles that might go dormant in different times. One Benedictine abbott has noted that religious leaders today are in the distinctive position of providing hospice care as one way of leaning into the world, while simultaneously serving as midwives to a whole new way of teaching, healing, accompanying others. Perhaps this is a taste of what the earliest apostles felt like when they were huddled in that one place together, in that dizzying liminal space between beholding Christ’s ascension before their eyes and the great unknown of what would follow as they took on the leadership and ministry of bringing the Good News of redemption to the world. The Pentecost described in Acts is not the gentle tongues of yellow construction paper or birthday candle flames that were portrayed in my childhood catechism classes, but “a strong, driving wind” that pulled the quaking apostles out of their safe room and exposed them to a refining fire of Spirit that awakened gifts beyond their comprehension: fishermen and peasants from a remote outpost of Israel suddenly speaking so that people of many nations could understand them, leaving the stolid known to create something brand new. It was messy. And confusing. And exhilarating.
ACCU and Collegium concur that the signs of our times do not point fundamentally to a narrative of decline, but to evidence of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah, “behold, I am doing something new.”
Two thousand years later, that is pretty close to where we are now in Catholic higher education. We need not huddle in despair or complacency as we ponder our roles as leaders in a Catholic college or university. Collegium is one tremendous resource to help develop faculty of all backgrounds in what it means to teach in a Catholic institution. We have accepted the task of cooperating with the Spirit to build something new; in times that will sometimes bequite dark. God has been there before and the Light God sends us is more than up to the task of conquering that darkness. That’s a promise.
Karen Eifler, Ph.D. is the incoming Executive Director of Collegium.
In addition, she is Professor of Education at the University of Portland where she is also the Director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture.