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.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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