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Catholic Higher Education Confronts Inequality

Disparities in healthcare outcomes, job losses, and victimization at the hands of police spurred pointed responses from Catholic college leaders


By Paula Moore

Spring 2020 was a season unlike any other. Just as the world began to reemerge from the grip of the coronavirus, with its effects on healthcare, the economy, and social engagement, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited a firestorm. Protests swept the United States at a level not seen since 1968 – and sent reverberations into other countries as well, where thousands turned out to denounce racism.

Still navigating the path to reopening their campuses in fall 2020, the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities responded to the unrest with a unanimous show of force and commitment to Catholic values. Many cited the tenets of their founders and others announced new initiatives aimed at tackling racism and injustice head on. Across the board, presidents used strong language to condemn police brutality, racism, and violence.

Edgewood College President Andrew Manion joins members of the college community in a peaceful demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter on June 11.

“The legacy of slavery and racism continues to this very day, and we fool ourselves if we believe that we can stand off to the side and let others solve this problem,” wrote St. Mary’s University of San Antonio President Thomas Mengler, joined by the Rev. Timothy Eden, SM, the university’s Rector and Vice President for Mission. “If we are American, this is our disease, and it must be with our minds and hearts and hands that we work for the cure. If we are Christians, this is our failure, and it is in the heart and teaching of Christ that we must find healing for this sin.”

Several presidents called attention to the relationship between racial unrest and the ongoing pandemic. Sr. Candace Introcaso, CDP, president of La Roche University, noted that the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor came amid the COVID-19 pandemic “that has once again exposed the inexcusable healthcare disparities in our nation’s marginalized communities.” 

Fr. James J. Greenfield, OSFS, DeSales University president, referred to racism as its own kind of pandemic. “We know that communities of color have been more greatly impacted [by COVID-19] than white communities due to inadequate access to healthcare, the lack of affordable housing, chronic unemployment, and poverty,” he asserted. “As we re-emerge from our homes, how will we change?  Will our hearts be stretched, souls softened, and hands strengthened to work for societal justice?”


Giving Voice to Values

For many in Catholic higher education, the death of George Floyd was evidence of an ugliness that runs counter to fundamental faith values. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that their responses were often grounded in those same values. Georgian Court University President Joseph Marbach, for instance, referenced the institution’s Mercy heritage to call his campus to action, “to fight institutional racism and to embrace non-violence. Both are among the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy, the founding order of Georgian Court University where we equip students to ‘shape a just and compassionate world,’” wrote Marbach. “It is not a catchphrase or a polite nod to social justice. It is what we are called to do.”

Floyd died on May 25, and many in the Catholic community also cited the Feast of Pentecost, celebrated the following Sunday, in their reflections. Greenfield, DeSales president, made note of two images related to the feast day.

“St. Luke paints a vivid scene in the Acts of the Apostles where the disciples were ‘all in one place together’ when a loud noise like a driving wind filled that place and rested on them as tongues of fire.  I am always intrigued by Luke’s description of those disciples as being all together in the same place.  Maybe they were physically together, but I am sure they were not emotionally or spiritually in the same place. Likewise, we ourselves are having different reactions to the loud noise and fires, rampant across our nation, as we wrestle with the civil unrest we see.  We also heard in John’s Gospel how Jesus breathed on the disciples to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This Pentecost, how can we not hear the desperate words of George Floyd saying, ‘I cannot breathe’?”


See a collection of ACCU member president statements on the killing of George Floyd...


An added concern for many presidents was the safety of their campus community. Officials imposed evening curfews in major cities across the United States in order to discourage violence, including in the nation’s capital. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, extended his plea to a city that continues to see ongoing protests. “For members of our community who are living now in DC, please take care and be safe. We ask that everyone abide by the citywide curfew. If you are participating in the protests, please be witnesses of peace.”

Similarly, University of St. Thomas (MN) President Julie Sullivan referenced the arson and looting that had plagued areas around Minneapolis in the days immediately following Floyd’s death. “I am very concerned that many of our St. Thomas community are living in the very neighborhoods most impacted by the frightening events of the last two evenings. I encourage everyone in our St. Thomas community to heed the calls of our governor and community leaders and to abide by the 8 p.m. curfew this evening and to use your networks and social media outlets to encourage others to do the same. I also encourage you to reach out to older or vulnerable neighbors and ask them what they need tonight and in the coming days. We are stronger as a community when we collaborate and care for one another.”


Words into Action

While serving as a platform for millions to express their solidarity with those protesting injustice, social media also offers an outlet for people to express opposing points of view – or worse. Early in June, several Catholic colleges revoked admission offers to individuals who had made disparaging and threatening Twitter posts related to the protests. In each case, the campus cited the person’s remarks as conflicting with its Catholic values.

“Catholic colleges and universities — rooted in Jesus Christ’s own boundless love — strive to cultivate a deep sense of human dignity and to form engaged citizens who fight every form of injustice and effect positive change."

— From the ACCU Statement on racial injustice

Catholic institutions are taking steps to effect positive change in other ways, as well. Several presidents described specific efforts in their statements, some announcing new resources to address inequity on campus. For instance, Georgian Court University’s Marbach announced plans to work with the Council on Diversity & Inclusion “to establish a chief diversity officer role and determine how we can become a more just and compassionate university.”

Similarly, Suzanne Mellon, president of Carlow University, called each member of her campus to action. “Call out actions, statements, humor, anything that seeks to diminish and make light of racism, wherever you encounter it. Only our collective actions will demonstrate the integrity of our values as a community,” she implored. “Today, more than ever before, we need to overtly participate in bringing about change in our country. We cannot allow bitterness and anger to prevail; we must find constructive ways to create equity and justice in our society. To that end, I am charging the President’s Council on Equity, Inclusion and Community and the Social Justice Institutes to set this as a priority for this upcoming year and lead our campus community in a call to action with the focus on calling out and ending injustices everywhere.”

Perhaps one of the most direct and heartfelt calls to action came from Fr. Thomas Curran, SJ, who wrote, “I am a white, Roman Catholic, Jesuit priest, who serves as the president of Rockhurst University. I wish to replace the usual effort of calling for dialogue, order and calm with: 1) a profound apology for my own racism; 2) an acknowledgment of my silence and the frequent silence of my Church and community to which I belong; and 3) the commitment to do everything I can, in my position, to bring about that right relationship” with God and neighbor to ensure justice.

Curran concluded with this plea: “I cannot do this alone. To our companions of color, will you consider allowing me to earn your forgiveness and your accompaniment?  To our white companions, will you join me in becoming fully and correctly informed about the system of white supremacy constructed for our comfort and in the difficult, daily work of dismantling this system within ourselves and within our society? Only together, in right relationship with one another, with the earth and with God, may true justice reign.”


Paula Moore is Vice President, External Affairs, at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.