Sed Contra: The Death of a Great College Program

Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 2001

The new president of the University of San Francisco (USF), Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., recently announced the reorganization— the effective dismantling—of the St. Ignatius Institute, which for the past 25 years has offered the university’s undergraduates the option of a Catholic great-books program in addition to their other courses.

Founded in 1976 by Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., a rare conservative Jesuit in a famously liberal order, the institute had quietly established itself as a blue- chip example of what happens when a Catholic college takes the Catholic intellectual and humanistic tradition seriously. Imagine a general-education curriculum that includes courses on the early Church fathers, the “medieval synthesis” of classical and Christian learning, and, for a full academic year, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Father Privett’s stated reason for his decision is predictably bureaucratic: USF can save money by eliminating courses that duplicate its regular curriculum. That avoids the real issue: Father Fessio’s creation has always been a thorn in the side of most of the university’s other Jesuits, who have been biding their time for an opportune moment to pull the plug on what they consider a reactionary operation. The institute bans its faculty from openly dissenting to Church teaching—how shocking!

Any chance for reconsideration of Father Privett’s action lies in the hands of USF’s 40 trustees, one-third of whom are Jesuits with little affection for Father Fessio. The other two-thirds are unlikely to be swayed by the negative press that the pending shutdown has received in conservative Catholic newspapers and the Wall Street Journal. University trustees often base their actions only on what dissembling administrators tell them. They believe what they hear in order to keep their sentimental memories of their own college days intact.

I have talked to many trustees of Catholic colleges who are frustrated by their institutions’ flagrant disregard of Catholic tradition and the Church’s magisterium. But they are reluctant to follow my suggestion that they protest with their checkbooks, arguing that they can have more influence by remaining at the board table. Continuing to financially support dissenting institutions only deepens the problem, however.

In the early 1980s, just before I converted to Catholicism, I visited the Institute for a weekend at the invitation of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, one of several outstanding scholars who has devoted most of their adult lives to serving its mission. That weekend changed my life. I remember jogging with Father Fessio, giving a guest lecture in his theology class, and then sharing a sandwich on the waterside at Sausalito with the great French theologian Louis Bouyer. Leiva-Merikakis arranged for me to visit the Carmelite monastery adjacent to the campus, a sojourn that pushed this hesitant Baptist into the arms of Mother Church.

I have no doubt that USF students and visitors alike have been similarly exposed to the converting spirit of the St. Ignatius Institute during the 20 years since I made my pilgrimage there. Given the turbine-like power of the Catholic intelligence produced by its great-books program, I suppose we should be surprised that the attack from the Catholic left did not come sooner. It hates—and I use this word purposely—successful efforts to sustain Catholic tradition, which refute its assumptions about the irrelevance of that tradition.

Two years ago, Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan was criticized for putting his money into the creation of a new Catholic law school instead of, say, the Catholic University of America, which needed the funds. Monaghan defended his decision by saying that there were too many variables at existing Catholic colleges that made him doubtful about the future of his investment. Monaghan’s fearful scenario is being played out at USF.

We are witnessing the efforts of many good, talented, even heroic people at the St. Ignatius Institute being overthrown by Father Privett after only a few months in office. The institute’s teaching staff and alumni never had a chance to make their case.

Knowing how good a case this is, and how eloquently it could be delivered by the likes of Leiva-Merikakis, Father Privett took the Machiavellian option: Strike quickly and without apology. Those who had the privilege of studying at the institute will understand this strategy because unlike most college students nowadays, they will have read Machiavelli.

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