Philosophy at a Catholic College

Newman University wants to align its philosophy program with its new seminary. What does that mean?

October 17, 2019
Saint Maria De Mattias statue at Newman University

Newman University this year opened a School of Catholic Studies -- good news for a Roman Catholic institution struggling with enrollment declines. In addition to offering seminarians new place to study, Newman hoped that students from other fields would embrace the opportunity to study alongside them in some courses.

But now the university’s Board of Trustees has approved a plan to “align” Newman’s theology and philosophy programs with the new college -- without clear input from the philosophy department. In addition to concerns that the plan will lead to faculty layoffs, some are worried about what it all means for the future and integrity of the philosophy program.

“What we’re trying to do in this department is have a small but outsize effect on the curriculum, and it would be a great loss to this community if this model was trashed or went away,” said Christopher Fox, an associate professor in Newman’s philosophy program.

Fox said “small” because his department is just that, at two tenured professors and one untenured colleague. The department is also short on majors. But Fox said “outsize” because Newman has a four-year general education program with an interdisciplinary emphasis, in which the philosophy department plays a big role. And while Newman philosophy majors are few, he said, they tend to go on to get graduate degrees and interesting jobs.

If the alignment with the new school means a reduction in faculty positions, Fox believes he’ll probably be laid off. He’s been teaching on campus since 2004 and has tenure and a teaching award. But he was previously informed that he would not be eligible to teach the new seminarians, due to his use of profanity, he said.

Asked if he uses curse words in class, Fox said he exercises his academic freedom -- including occasional bad words. But no one pointed out that it was a problem prior to this decision, he said.

Most Roman Catholic colleges have many non-Catholic students and professors, and Newman is no exception. The Kansas college is sponsored by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a religious institute founded by nuns who now advocate for some social and environmental justice issues.

At their meeting last month, Newman’s trustees approved cutting four majors and realigning two departments -- philosophy and theology. The plan, proposed by a financial task force, is about cutting costs. Specifically, the task force recommended reorganizing theology and philosophy majors “to align strategically with the development and expansion of religious studies and Catholic studies.”

Newman has not formally announced which four majors will be cut.

Regarding philosophy, Newman spokesperson Clark Schafer said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the university “created a new degree program to meet the needs of the seminarians.” Over the past several years, he continued, the Diocese of Wichita “has continued to expand the education Newman provides for its undergraduate seminarians.”

Schafer did not provide additional details about the plan for the philosophy department when asked. He said he could not comment on other, “specific personnel matters.”

In general, Schafer said, “university leadership is aware of the changing landscape of higher education and proactively looking for ways to thrive in the challenging environment. In part that includes Newman’s board making a recommendation to globally examine cost-control measures in our degree programs.”

The president of the campus’s Faculty Senate referred questions to the university.

Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said Wednesday that he had no direct of knowledge of what was happening at Newman, but that Catholic universities “are no different than others in needing to keep costs affordable.” It’s common for institutions to take stock of all programs and staffing in that light.

That said, he added, it was Newman’s namesake, Cardinal John Henry Newman, just days ago made a saint, “who famously insisted that philosophy and theology must always be a part of any truly liberal education, while also arguing that the sciences have a place in a broader collegiate education.”

Meghan Sullivan, the Reverend John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, said that two major -- and distinct -- disciplines are the core of Catholic education, based on standing documents written by Pope John Paul II: theology and philosophy.

John Paul II’s "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," for instance, says that a Catholic university education is fundamentally about cultivating both faith and the ability to reason. “While each discipline is taught systematically and according to its own methods, interdisciplinary studies, assisted by a careful and thorough study of philosophy and theology, enable students to acquire an organic vision of reality and to develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress,” reads the document.

“In the communication of knowledge, emphasis is then placed on how human reason in its reflection opens to increasingly broader questions, and how the complete answer to them can only come from above through faith," it continues. Furthermore, "the moral implications that are present in each discipline are examined as an integral part of the teaching of that discipline so that the entire educative process be directed towards the whole development of the person.”

While Sullivan had no direct knowledge of what’s happening at Newman, either, she said that, in general, “Eliminating a philosophy department for budgetary reasons is very much not kosher in Catholic teaching. You cannot be a Catholic university without the robust, serious teaching of philosophy and theology … These departments need to be excellent.” And in the case of philosophy, she added, “It has to be real philosophy.” That means Aristotle, Confucius and other non-Catholic philosophers, in addition to, say, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In a counter example to what appears to be happening at Newman, St. Joseph’s College, a Roman Catholic institution in New York, just added a philosophy major this year.

Wendy Turgeon, chair of the department, said that she and her colleges are enthusiastic about going "against the tide" of institutions limiting their philosophy programs. The college is generally “committed to our mission and core values, and philosophy exemplifies that commitment,” she added.

Turgeon said that she’s encouraging students to consider philosophy as a “good choice as a second major,” in particular, as “our students are very career focused, and we know this.” Yet philosophy has a “long tradition of preparing students to be better thinkers, good communicators and more aware of the nuances and problematic nature of ideas, and these skills are needed in every profession.” Philosophy, she said, “is also about living one's life intentionally and reflectively, and that is something we all need to do.”


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