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The Wrong Idea of a University

“A University may be considered with reference either to its Students or to its Studies; and the principle, that all Knowledge is a whole and the separate Sciences part of one, which I have hitherto been using in behalf of its studies, is equally important when we direct our attention to its students.  Now then I turn to the students, and shall consider the education which, by virtue of this principle, a University will give them; and thus I shall be introduced, Gentlemen, to the second question, which I proposed to discuss, viz., whether and in what sense its teaching, viewed relatively to the taught, carries the attribute of Utility along with it.”
– John Henry Cardinal Newman

On April 15, 2010, Southern Catholic College closed its doors a month earlier than planned, and likely for the last time ever.  Its closing was abrupt and, had but by a few, with little forecasting.  Many—parents, students, professors, supporters and advocates of Catholic higher education—were left bewildered; how had its end come so suddenly, so unexpectedly; where had the school’s finances gone, and why had more money not been given?  What led to Southern Catholic’s dissolution?  Many were quick, after its fall, to point fingers at the Legion; in no way was the minimal Legion presence responsible for the school’s faults or its downward plunge, but only of being unable to save what was quite possibly doomed regardless.

Part of what was taught at Southern Catholic was that in every action, in every set of actions, there are four ways to divide the causes of it happening: the first cause, the efficient cause, the material cause, and the final cause.  Money, in many ways seen as every cause of every action in modern society, is never in fact more than a material cause, be it an amount sufficient, deficient or excessive.  Money is always active only in someone’s hands; its employ is always dictated by an efficient cause; and an efficient cause is always dictated by (though at times identical with) a first cause—the instigator, the initiator.  The first cause too is moved by something other—the final cause, the goal, the raison d’etre of the whole ordeal.  This causal chain is present in every human action, and simultaneously nested within a larger chain: the good professor tells the student to close the door because he wants an uninterrupted discussion; he wants an uninterrupted discussion because he wants the student to learn; he wants the student to learn because the knowledge is good for man, and so on and so forth, up until one finds that all actions are nested within the act of God—a metaphysical speculation for another time.

In the case of Southern Catholic, money most certainly was the material cause of its failure as an institution; the efficient cause was its embarrassingly incompetent administration.  At this point in the causal chain, there are divergent explanations.  Certainly, the existence of the school as a whole was initiated with beneficence by Tom Clements and the original Board of Trustees, all of whom had in common the cause of a genuinely Catholic college in Georgia.  Unfortunately, while the wording of their goal was in harmony, their understanding of what is meant by a genuinely Catholic college was not.  Their idea was not bad—it was simply loose, lacking, ill-defined, and therefore ill-sustained.  Between the school starting and the school closing, the mission and vision statements saw roughly half-a-dozen revisions; it could never be decided precisely how to say what the purpose of the school was because it was never rightly established what the school itself was.

Southern Catholic College

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the school’s difficulties, in terms of its mission and vision, is the one statement that truly did remain constant, the one part of the vision that was definite and immutable: that Southern Catholic instructs and forms “moral and ethical leaders who enlighten society and glorify God.”  It is a noble goal, a wonderful idea, and much needed: the world does need moral and ethical leaders in all aspects of life, in every part of society.  Insofar as business, and medicine, and psychology, and science, primary and secondary education are important parts of the contemporary cultural framework, good Catholic leaders ought to be in those fields; there is a noble mode of being for each, and people of intelligent faith are needed to enact such a mode of being.  However, the formational process at Southern Catholic was never what it should have been.  For far too many of the students, the liberal arts became an obstacle, a stepping stone, to the pre-professional training in business, psychology, or science (many more in the two former than the lattermost; but what can be expected of a science program without a lab?).  The liberal arts became subservient to a practical, pragmatic career path; in short, glorified vocational training.  Perhaps the situation would have been acceptable (though far from ideal) had the three programs truly integrated an understanding of the faith and the liberal arts; had the lessons learned in literature and philosophy been shown as applicable to psychology and business—but they did not, and as a consequence, the campus was unable to form an intellectual unity; and thus, it was also divided in spiritual practice.  The ambiguity of the school’s intent attracted a diverse crowd—in itself, a good thing; but sadly, the diversity was more divergent than dialogical; those who favor the traditional liturgy were unable, by intellectual divide, to communicate with those that persist in the charismatic movement of praise and worship.

This inability for the school to be unified, to be universal in the sense of proclaiming one Word amidst its various words, left it with no honest image to show to the world.  Promotion of the school has, for some years, been noticeably vapid, nondescript.  Diversity, it turns out, does not paint a good picture.  A visitor might see a group of young women singing praise and worship songs by the pool—and 30 feet away see a group of young men smoking (though the office of Student Affairs did all it could to make sure no one could see the smokers) and discussing the metaphysical implications of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Meanwhile business majors could be seen studying quietly in a common area.  All-in-all, this would be alright… if it, and like divisions, were not diurnal occurrence, if there were some attempt, some possibility, some force that motivated all towards the same truth.  What could any one group say to visitors, prospective students, and the curious outsider?  Naturally, each would think his niche superior, in some sense, to that of the others (however egalitarian people may be, they always select something because they find it better somehow—but that is a digression for another time).  How can it be said that Susie Praise is on the same page, or even reading the same book, as Joe Trad, when the tangible, tactile evidence is so strongly to the contrary?

This fault of disunity and consequent schizophrenia, however, is not the fault of the students.  Part of the attraction of Southern Catholic, for at least a good number of the students in the classes of ’09 and ’10, was that there was a lot of opportunity on campus for actual leadership.  Most of the frustration of those same students was that their attempts to lead were suffocated by manipulative and selfish administrators who lacked all understanding of not only what the school could have, should have been, of its potential, and of the Catholic faith, but of the very concept of the University.  It was said repeatedly in the early days that the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University was an essential document in the foundational ideas of the school, next to Ex Corde Ecclesia.  It is doubtful, however, that the majority of the administration—including the school’s president from inception through 2009, Dr. Jeremiah Ashcroft—ever read either.  Neither work’s teachings were fully implemented, and the administration, particularly the office of Student Affairs, did much contrary to both.  Were more attention paid to academics, to the spiritual life, and less to diversions and distractions; were more money spent on more good teachers for the humanities, and less on incompetent administrators—four of them to do one person’s job, to be frank; were a dialog concerning the nature of the liberal arts nestled in the tradition of the Faith encouraged instead of smothered, perhaps the school would preparing for a new class and rising seniors, rather than desperately, sadly, trying to sell the same vague vision.

The problems that brought Southern Catholic to dissolution are not, however, greater than what good it does have, despite the school ultimately capitulating to them.  The school did have a core of interested students, who pursued the humanities with alacrity, who would discuss liturgy and theology, the Church, politics, and the world as a whole; who pursued the Truth in Faith and Reason, intertwined.  They valued the school for its professors, for its smallness and communal intimacy, and greatly for its priests, and they were indeed given a gift that is capable of being articulated only in their development as persons, as academics, and as Catholics.  As Fr. Brian Higgins, chaplain from 2007-2009 stated in the commencement speech given to the Class of 2010, there is no pity for those who were the school’s students—only for those who will now never get to be the school’s students.

An edited-in addendum: it should be noted that these incompetent administrators were also grossly overpaid, as is a matter of public record.  The Vice President of Student Affairs made at least $110,000 every year, Dr. Ashcroft at least $185,000, both after taxes and with additional retirement contribution.  While this is comparable to other small schools, other small schools also had money coming in.  Southern Catholic has lost money every year of its operation, and is in considerable debt.

  1. Fr. Gjengdahl
    May 30, 2010 at 6:28 am

    A well written article. I would like to see a follow up article discussing the way in which you think Newman’s Idea of the University should be applied to future universities that are being formed.

  2. S. Petersen
    May 30, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Your note about the salaries prompts me to add that academic salaries, like all those set by bodies or committees in which the recipients have significant influence, are excessive. Education has become a means to money, government controlling education and money controlling government. An “ideal” university would go back to one being run by clerics vowed to povery, chastity and obedience.

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