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Too Catholic, Even for Many Monks

Too Catholic, Even for Many Monks
April 22, 2008

Whining and grumbling is frowned on at Benedictine institutions like Saint Vincent College. Benedict of Nursia, the Sixth Century cleric whose guidelines for living daily life underpin the philosophy of the Roman Catholic order, characterized "murmuring" -- the sort of internal bickering and in-fighting that all too often characterizes academic life -- as immensely disruptive to community living, and essentially banned members of the order from engaging in it:

For if the disciple obeys with an ill will
and murmurs,
not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart,
then even though he fulfill the command
yet his work will not be acceptable to God,
who sees that his heart is murmuring.

Few sins are as great in Benedictine philosophy as murmuring. Which makes the widespread expressions of unhappiness from staff members and students at Saint Vincent all the more noteworthy. A month ago, nearly three-quarters of the Latrobe, Pa., college's tenured faculty members wrote to the college's Board of Directors about the “unparalleled crisis” facing the institution because of the “systematic and pervasive disregard for collegiality and shared governance” showed by President H. James Towey. They focused most sharply on his decision to short-circuit a search for a vice president for academic affairs and to rewrite the college's accreditation self-study to limit unflattering material, and what they describe as his misleading comments about what he did and why.

Interviews with nontenured professors and staff members in recent weeks suggest that many of them share the impressions of the tenured faculty, but believe they lack the job security to speak out.

And last week, a group of student leaders sent their own letter to Towey, endorsing the faculty’s concerns but adding their own. Although they declined to make it public, several students say that they and many of their peers at Saint Vincent are uncomfortable with the college's drift to the right (it made its first appearance in 2006-7 in a national ranking of the top 10 most conservative colleges) and with the president's unilateral decision to impose an Internet filter aimed at gambling and pornography sites, among other things.

Towey, who came to Saint Vincent two years ago from the White House, where he oversaw the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, plays down the level of opposition to his presidency, acknowledging in an interview that there have been some "growing pains" but that he believes he and his critics on the faculty are "working in a renewed spirit of cooperation."

He writes off much of the dissension to a clash of cultures, noting that he is “new to academia” -- “I’m only a sophomore” as president, he says -- “and maybe the pace of change I’m accustomed to is different from what people are used to.” He attributes some of the concerns about him to residual hard feelings among some faculty members over his 2007 invitation to President Bush to speak at Saint Vincent’s commencement, and says that "if I were in their shoes, when I heard that the new president of Saint Vincent was coming from the Bush White House and was a stranger to academia, I wouldn't have been too happy."

To those students and others who contend that he and the Right Rev. Douglas R. Nowicki, who is archabbot and chancellor of the college, have pushed a hard religious line and increasingly pulled the institution to the right, "the reality is that this is a Catholic Benedictine college, and I embrace its identity and its connection with the church," Towey says. While some students and faculty members have bristled at what they describe as his overbearing emphasis on faith and his repeated references to the time he spent working with Mother Teresa, Towey does not apologize for his perceived orthodoxy and emphasis on the college's religious grounding.

"I said in my inaugural that my hope is that one day we're all together in heaven," the president says of Saint Vincent's students. "For individuals here at the college, setting their sights on a diploma is too low. They should be setting their sights on heaven."

It might be easier to dismiss the consternation about Towey's presidency off as unhappiness from liberals or heathens if less of the criticism was coming from the Benedictine monks on the campus. Saint Vincent has a strong concentration of monks because of its affiliation with the nearby Saint Vincent Seminary, which includes one of the world's largest monasteries, and the fact that monks -- who, unlike lay faculty and students, are bound by the Benedict's prohibition on "murmuring" -- have been among the most vocal critics of the institution as led by Towey and Father Nowicki speaks volumes.

"The mechanics of the university are grinding to a halt,” says the Rev. Mark Gruber, one of a small number of the more than 15 faculty members, administrators and students interviewed for this article who agreed to be quoted. “The tenured faculty took the lead, fortunately, but there are a lot of other people who share their views, and who are tired of the overriding of collegial discourse, the discounting of the consensus way of decision making, and what I see as the obfuscation of our Catholic mission.”

Serious words, those, and ones that faculty and other critics at Saint Vincent say they did not offer lightly -- and insist that they did not intend to make public.

Two Years in the Making

Jim Towey came to Saint Vincent in July 2006, following four years heading President Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and after a career in which he worked for Florida's former Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, and was the chief lawyer in the United States for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity order of nuns.

His inaugural address focused on his hope that Saint Vincent under his leadership would produce students who could help change a culture that he described as desperately in need of change: "A culture that does not revere life and hold it sacred from conception until natural death; a culture that does not esteem marriage and family life and the complimentary nature of the sexes; a culture that abandons its elderly, discards its poor, and defaces its environment; and a culture that is so highly sexualized and violent that God-given human dignity is routinely degraded, is a culture that is living lies and in need of renewal."

Leaders at Saint Vincent were said to be drawn to Towey, who had no background in higher education, in part because they believed he would help raise the well-respected college's national profile. (He has maintained close ties with the Bush administration, gaining an appointment to the federal panel that advises the education secretary on accreditation, where he has been a voice calling for more accountability for colleges in the accreditation process.) Many faculty members say they had high hopes for him because of his energy and enthusiasm, and because he often acknowledged, in a self-effacing way, how eager he was to learn about working in higher education.

Starting last year, however, faculty leaders began talking among themselves about what they saw as a combination of troubling developments since Towey arrived in 2006: departures of significant numbers of senior administrators and faculty members (which Towey and his aides characterize as the usual turnover with a new administration, but critics say amounted to more than that); the president's seeming lack of interest in the academic life of the college; and, at the same time, his hands-on involvement in faculty hiring, which greatly exceeded that of previous presidents at Saint Vincent.

What had been topics for private discussions among professors catalyzed into something larger this academic year with two major events. In the first, Towey and his aides last fall criticized as "unrelentingly negative" a draft of the college's self-study report for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which had been developed through a process that included significant involvement by various constituencies on the campus.

In September, the president's office essentially took over the preparation of the document, producing a document that was widely portrayed as having stripped out virtually all critical language. Only after vigorous complaints from faculty and staff leaders did Towey's aides reconvene the original self-study committee to consider reinstating language that had been dropped. That negotiation restored some of what had been cut, but paragraphs questioning a perceived tilt in the ideologies of the outside speakers invited to the campus and suggesting that a decline in the tone of dialogue on the campus were excised from the draft and not restored.

Towey's chief spokesman, Don Orlando, concedes that administrators rewrote the document but notes that the self-study steering committee "approved the document" after some of the administration's changes were "adjusted to accommodate the request of the faculty." He also points out that the early and final drafts were both posted on Saint Vincent's Intranet for comment, though he declined to make copies available to a reporter.

The other precipitating event was the search for the college's vice president for academic affairs. After approving a process to identify candidates for the key position, Towey scuttled the search committee called for in that process after all of its members but one had given a negative rating to an internal candidate seen as the president's favorite, John Smetanka. Three candidates were subsequently interviewed as finalists, and a reconstituted "host committee" organized those meetings. One of the three candidates was widely viewed as unqualified, and Towey, after seeking the opinions of the host committee, hired Smetanka, an assistant professor of physics at Saint Vincent who directs its honors program and opted not to be considered for tenure.

As recently as two weeks ago, at a campuswide forum, Towey told students that all members of the search committee had chosen Smetanka as either their first or second choice, a characterization that misrepresents the situation in two ways, faculty critics say. First, most members of the original search committee deemed Smetanka not to meet the qualifications laid out for the position. And by the time the members of the "host committee" were asked for their opinions, only two viable candidates remained. So being their first or second choice is no endorsement, they say.

Orlando acknowledges that Towey (who he describes as "very anxious for change at Saint Vincent") short-circuited the search process after deciding "that the process needed to change in order to bring it to a conclusion more quickly than the committee might have preferred.... The fact that the process changed at the end is really irrelevant, particularly in light of the person that he hired.... The procedure for the hiring of a vice president is really one that can be determined by the president."

Most faculty members probably wouldn't disagree that presidents have broad latitude to do what they wish. What troubles them most, though, and ultimately led them to take the unusual step (for a campus like Saint Vincent, where "murmuring" is discouraged) of writing to the Board of Directors, was that the president established processes and then abandoned them. That behavior is part of a pattern of actions, they wrote to the board in February, in which he has violated the principles of collegiality and shared governance that are central to any college but especially to one where the Benedictine concept of community is supposed to be "nourished by mutual respect, appreciation and charity."

"If the president were in his first year, one might consider excusing these deeply regrettable actions.... But the time is long since past that this president could have learned the culture of the institution, and made it work to his advantage.... We call on you to make the president understand the necessity of working in a collegial manner with all members of the community... In the absence of clear and decisive action on your part, it is unclear how long this faculty, or the dedicated staff and administrators of Saint Vincent College, can continue to do the jobs we love so well, and this institution will be damaged beyond recognition."

Or, as one faculty member put it: "He insists on saying he's going to play by the rules, in fact that he is playing by the rules. Except when he gets caught not playing by the rules, he apologizes and say, 'You didn't tell me I had to play by the rules.' The inability to be straightforward and truthful is extraordinarily disorienting. And it leads people to assume the worst all the time, because then you won't be disappointed."

Seeping Into Public View

Faculty leaders insist that they sent their letter only to the members of the board and to Towey, hoping to stimulate an internal conversation, and that they were surprised when it was appended to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month entitled "St. Vincent's president a lightning rod for criticism."

In a statement, Susan Sommers, chair of the faculty council, said: "Articles dealing with difficulties between the faculty and administration at Saint Vincent College have recently appeared in the press. We are neither a contentious nor confrontational group, and had hoped to deal with the matters discussed in these articles internally. Faculty have taken extraordinary measures to maintain the confidentiality of documents to which the articles refer. We have also avoided making statements of substance to the press. Faculty deeply regret that members of the administration and of the Board of Directors have chosen to do otherwise. In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that their statements are at odds with what many faculty members believe to be true about the situation on campus."

Administrators dismiss the suggestion that they were the ones who released the faculty's letter or a stinging response, quoted in another article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, from Father Thomas Acklin, a member of the Board of Directors, that called the faculty's letter "so unprofessional and the allegations so unsubstantiated that I have trouble understanding how it can further a spirit of dialogue that it seeks."

"There's no reason why we would feel compelled to share them," says Orlando, the Saint Vincent spokesman. "This difference of opinion is just an internal matter, and the issues really don't impact the public in any way."

Despite the faculty's strong language about Saint Vincent facing an "unparalleled crisis," Orlando characterizes the current unhappiness as typical cyclical unrest that occurs at all institutions, where "sometimes faculty morale is down, sometimes administrative morale is down, sometimes hourly employees morale is down." In this instance, he says, the only people who have spoken out publicly are "a small portion of the faculty -- those tenured faculty who have the luxury of tenure, which enables them to be braver in their outspokenness."

Wouldn't the fact that 31 of the college's 42 tenured faculty members signed the letter suggest similar levels of dissatisfaction on the part of others on the faculty of about 120? a reporter asks. "I would never generalize their views as more than the view of those people who signed the letter," Orlando says.

During an interview last month, Towey is sanguine about the turmoil around him. He says that he took the faculty's letter seriously -- "clearly I have work to do to communicate better" -- but also defends his performance so far, citing upticks in enrollment and academic standards, a rising endowment and, he emphasizes, a faculty pay increase.

He also says he doubts that the tenured faculty's view is representative of the "great majority" on the campus, and tells a reporter that "your story would have been more interesting in early March." Since the Board of Directors met at that time and both backed the president's performance and urged him to work more closely with faculty members, Towey says, professors are "getting a better understanding of what I'm trying to do."

In the interview, Towey also virtually gushes describing how much he enjoys dealing with Saint Vincent's students, noting that he and his wife have had more than a sixth of its 1,700 students over for dinner, that he is taking a dozen to Calcutta this summer, as he has in the past, to participate in Mother Teresa's work with orphans and other needy people. "I'm loving the student life here," he says.

Which must have made it all the more painful last week when a group of students reportedly delivered to him a letter of their own, expressing their own deep frustration about his leadership of the college. While they declined to characterize the contents of their letter, several of them said in interviews that they shared some of the faculty's concerns about governance and had their own example of the president's heavyhandedness.

Early in his time at the college, before the start of the fall semester in 2006, Towey ordered that an Internet filter be instituted to block sites related to gambling, pornography and "adult or mature content." As Towey explained in the entry on his blog last fall about the decision, "Saint Vincent College, from its founding 161 years ago, cares about the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional formation of the students who come here, and seeks to provide an environment conducive to such growth. We promote academic freedom and embrace it. I made this decision because I believe the Internet filter is consistent with both worthy goals. And quite frankly, my focus is not on what we are against as a College but what we are for -- beauty, human dignity, gender equality, justice, and the pursuit of the truth."

Students say they object not so much to the decision, which some agree may be justified, as to the way the president put it in place -- secretly, and without consultation with those subject to it. That change, and the president's constant references on his blog and in his speeches to students' spiritual health and to seeing his job as helping them get to heaven, makes students feel like they're "being pontificated to all the time," says one student leader. "He's trying to make this into a more uber-Catholic place, and it's not what many of us signed up for."

Students griping about preachy college administrators -- not such big news. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the situation at Saint Vincent's is the extent to which many of the Benedictine monks on the campus feel that, as one put it, he is "imposing his narrow view of Catholicism" on a campus with its own vision established over 160 years. It's not, they say, that they are unwilling to have their views be challenged or to see the campus "revivify a genuine Catholic tradition here," as Father Mark Gruber says.

"I would have welcomed an intellectually sound reconsideration of the best way to embody the Catholic philosophy at a college," Father Mark says. "It would be useful to take John Newman's discussion of the university from the 19th century, or even Benedict XVI's scholarly approach, and having a set of faculty discussions about what we should do. Instead, we get Mother Teresa of Calcutta a great deal and a lot of talk about heaven.

"My mission in the classroom, and our mission as a university, is to inform and enlighten, to bring the kingdom of good and of God to this world. I don't see it as my mission, or his mission, to be a preacher of revival that gets students to heaven."

 

 

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