The Administrative Challenges Catholic Universities Face During the Pandemic and Beyond

After twenty years of working in various capacities in higher education environments, both Catholic and secular, I have been reading with interest reports of how colleges and universities are struggling to adapt to the conditions brought about by the current pandemic. Schools quickly adopted forms of remote learning in the spring. Throughout the summer, administrators considered in-person, online, and hybrid models of instruction for the fall semester, mindful of experts’ warnings about possible new waves of infections before the end of the year. As the fall semester began, models shifted in response to new information. Financial, academic, and personnel decisions continue to weigh on institutional leadership; while concerns about safety and the loss of communal aspects of learning occupy those who deal directly with students.

There is a unique challenge to educational institutions proclaiming their Catholic identity amid social and economic dynamics like these. Commentators from across the spectrum have addressed the issue of how Catholic universities can best preserve their distinctiveness in terms of academic life or student culture. That challenge extends to the school’s corporate identity as well. It will involve a willingness to struggle with questions such as: How do we answer the obvious need for corporate accountability and excellence, while not devolving into something bureaucratic or impersonal? How does our corporate culture maintain a spirit of mission and the common good? How do we address the unavoidable stresses involved in institutional growth or decline? How are we as an institution advancing the goals of Catholic education and the search for truth? How are we doing God’s work in all of this?

My musings here were not occasioned by, nor do they offer specific responses to, the present crisis. They do indicate some of the perennial tensions that appear in faith-based organizations, and some of the institutional and communal resources that Catholic colleges and universities draw upon regardless of the challenges they face. Administrators who have worked in a variety of higher education settings have told me that the communal nature of faith-based schools is tangible to them and affects the way they approach student outreach. The strains Catholic institutions are experiencing now are real, but the joint efforts of faculty, staff, administrators, and campus ministers can make those tensions creative ones.

Catholic and Corporate

Having served as a campus minister, teacher, and administrator at private and state Universities, both large and small, I have certainly witnessed that familiar tension between the professional and the personal, the corporate and the communal. Catholic institutions experience unique challenges in this regard, as I discovered the first time I took a position in Catholic higher education. After years of working at secular schools, it was an adjustment to minister, not from the edge of campus, but as an agent of the University itself, attempting to serve all its members, Catholic or not. This required a significant re-imaging of campus ministry as extending both from and to the university system. A question kept occurring to me: how does one minister to a corporation?

I remember the institutional “growing pains” experienced at one Catholic school where I served. Enrollment and applications were up, new building projects were in the works, and optimistic strategic plans were in play. Institutional recognition from such assessors as U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review was a source of pride. Such success certainly enhanced morale overall, and none of that would have been possible without the hard work of numerous professionals and their tireless dedication to the university’s mission and success.

Yet, I noted how reviews of the University’s growth from many long-time employees were not all cheery. Some identified the “corporate professionals” who were responsible for creating and managing the school’s growth as somehow less in tune with the school’s communal values. They lamented a loss of relational structures and routines on campus. They missed a sense of family identity and a personal way of handling disputes and transitions. For some, these subtle shifts affected not only dealings with other staff, but relationships with students as well. Was the “mission” of the university suffering?

Other scenarios may be more likely at this time, considering our current crisis. Before campus life was disrupted this year, smaller educational institutions were already contending with declining enrollment and applications. The impact of the pandemic is uncertain for those schools with little or no endowment, which may need to slash operations while striving to maintain commitments to students. Communal structures and good intentions alone will not suffice to meet the tasks ahead. To borrow from the Catholic tradition of moral decision-making, intentionality must be wedded to objectivity as well as to an analysis of circumstances.

Those pesky professionals will need to bring objective data collection, institutional research, and financial acumen to the table. Having been at that table with senior staff and trustees, I can imagine what went into the bold decision by Franciscan University of Steubenville to cover all tuition costs for incoming freshmen this fall 2020 semester. Other schools in different circumstances will not have the capacity to respond similarly, but they will need to brainstorm actions they can take to address an unprecedented situation, in hopes of the best outcome.

What kind of guidance might the Catholic identity of an institution offer in situations that call for critical administrative decision-making and action? Some have used the term “mindful markets” to describe how an application of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching can influence corporate activity in a commercial context.[1] The familiar concepts of “subsidiarity,” “solidarity,” “stewardship,” “human dignity,” or “common good,” when reflected upon in the process of decision-making, can have broad implications in the business world. They can help to correct distortions that distant and impersonal corporate structures can introduce into the economy when they fail to consider ethics, culture, or quality of life issues.

Those same principles certainly can be brought to bear in higher education boardrooms, assuming those boards have some formation in Catholic Social Teaching. Let us call it a model of “contemplative commerce,” one that doesn’t deny economic and financial realities, but that takes account of the founding ideals of the institution as well. It is a model that would seek to adhere to technical and ethical standards, while prizing the personalism that is at the heart of Christian community life. It would invite the meaningful participation of various institutional stakeholders in the governing process. It would incorporate group reflection and opportunities for prayer. It would support professional development, and promote personal stewardship, especially during periods of goal assessment and performance review. Primarily, it would examine decisions and take risks in light of the school’s identity, mission, vision, and core values.

Mission and Identity

“Mission and identity” concerns need to move beyond the purview of the annual “Founder’s Day” committee and be recognized as a chief institutional resource. At a gathering I attended of Catholic faculty and staff, one presenter, James Keenan, S.J., moral theologian at Boston College, remarked on how, at many universities, the subject of “Catholic Identity” arrives in campus discourse like a “stealth bomber.” It appears suddenly when a controversial speaker is invited to campus or a student event gets out of hand . . . and then disappears just as quickly. Can we find more fruitful and ongoing opportunities to discuss the implications of the school’s Catholic character and mission? Can we find ways to remind individuals of our faith’s compelling worldview and thus foster a sense of shared identity and personal vocation within the institution?

At any Catholic university, grappling with the school’s grounding identity and sense of mission is essential work. Here is a place where the “corporate” and the “communal” come together. Successful leaders in any business, including non-profit ventures, must convey that sense of corporate identity and purpose, so that all members of the operation, at whatever level, are able to see themselves as vital participants in the mission. This is not a simple task considering the diverse histories and cultures found on many Catholic campuses. As a former University Chaplain and Mission Director, I know that faculty and staff may display support, apathy, or antipathy when invited to engage the institution’s Catholic identity and mission. In presentations to new employees, I often made the analogy between “mission” in human enterprise and “theme” in literature. When faced with difficulty in composition, an author must return to the theme for solutions, direction, and inspiration. The question then becomes: Where and how does one discern the Catholic “theme” in the rich and diverse interplay of University life?

Once, while I was visiting a large university, a staff member expressed the opinion to me that the school should no longer be considered “Catholic” since a large and growing percentage of the student population did not identify as such. I was reminded of what Dr. Anthony J. Cernera, former President of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, had once told me: that during the Federation’s annual meeting on the campus of Assumption University in Bangkok, a school with a very small Catholic population, there was no doubt that one was experiencing a Catholic campus. This had less to do with the percentage of Catholic students, or choice of artwork, than with the school’s educational and cultural milieu, the ground of which was the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Numerous academics and commentators have explored thematic streams within the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition.”[2] That tradition includes such components as: the continuity of faith and reason; an inclusive and communitarian outlook; the importance of philosophy, theology, and the integration of knowledge; the education of the “whole person”; concern for human dignity; and the relevance of virtue, ethics, service, and justice to every profession and field of study. It includes, too, the unique contributions to human progress that Christian humanism, an incarnational worldview, and a sacramental imagination have brought to the world. These are elements of the Catholic “theme,” and when such principles are shared, faculty and staff from various religious traditions can better appreciate the school’s founding identity and mission. They also find fertile ground for exploring their own educational and professional journeys.

Mission will be enhanced when there is a significant core community within the organization that shares a commitment to, and enthusiasm for, advancing the Catholic intellectual tradition in the university and the wider culture. Building and expanding that core is the focus of an institutional mission office.

At one school, I sponsored a program that gathered new faculty and staff for monthly guided “conversations” around various topics related to the institution’s heritage and the Catholic intellectual tradition. This continued for their entire first year of employment. Each year, that small group joined a growing cohort of others who had been through the program. The program allowed people to step out of their professional silos and to share a common vocabulary around mission issues. I believe most participants came to see the Catholic identity of the school not as something irrelevant or threatening, but as something that adds value to their teaching, research, and work life.

In the university setting, who are the “authors” who must call us back to the “theme”? Who are the human agents who must seek to infuse all layers of a corporate structure with passion for Catholic higher education and energy to resist the inertia of impersonalism? The president and other key leaders, of course, have unparalleled ability to foster understanding of the school’s identity and to set the organizational tone.

Yet, “authorship” goes beyond them or the few staff of the “Mission” office. It must include a wide network of persons throughout the organization who make routine decisions about how they will interact and how they will teach within this structure: the manager who takes time coaching an employee, the director who decides which proposal to fund, the professor who makes an extra effort to reach out to a student, the intern who includes faith perspectives in student programming. All employees, from the Provost to the cafeteria worker, are modeling something to students about what dignified work and human relations look like. Everyone in the organization can strive to enact the mission day in and day out.

It is within this perspective that “corporate professionals” perform their work and must take account of the costs and benefits of institutional expansion, maintenance, or contraction. Realism is necessary in discerning the organizational and social pressures such structural movement entails. When appropriate, progress will be measured in relation to secular counterparts in higher education, and for good reason.

Larger Catholic Universities must interact at the crossroads (and, perhaps, crosshairs) of global intellectual and cultural exchange. This offers a tremendous asset for learning and a great potential for mission. Smaller institutions will have to face difficult decisions, like those presented by the current crisis, with a steadiness and hope that comes from seeing the difference their personal approach makes in individual lives. In both cases, it is a matter of returning to the “theme.”

Campus Ministry

A vibrant Campus Ministry office, as one expression of the university’s Catholic identity, is also in the position to assist in dealing with the questions and tensions involved in being both a “Catholic” and “corporate” community. Campus ministry’s primary role of student outreach does not erase its wider institutional access, and thus the possibility of facilitating communal and spiritual growth among administrators, faculty, and staff. In collaboration with other departments of the university that promote “Mission” or “Identity,” campus ministry can actively support the institution’s Catholic ethos programmatically, pastorally, and liturgically.

Upon entering the world of Catholic higher education, I was impressed with the genuine openness of administrators and faculty to partnering with campus ministry programmatically. I was immediately welcomed into the inner workings of the school. The Dean of Student Life, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the Director of Residential Life, the Athletic Director, the Director of Human Resources, the President—all took my calls, listened to ideas, and shared suggestions. Faculty members welcomed opportunities to collaborate in the classroom. Student Life leaders saw campus ministry as a resource in planning their events. Evidently, the growth in layers of corporate and professional interaction at the school did not diminish openness to spiritual issues or the ability to bond around common interests and goals.

Consider one program initiated at the school, a collaboration between the President’s Office and campus ministry: Twice a semester, key administrators and trustees of the university came together for evening prayer, social time, and then discussion based on an article they had read. Topics were related to Catholic faith, student needs, workplace spirituality, vocation, etc. Similar to the faculty and staff “conversations” discussed earlier, this meeting of senior administrators provided a place for reflection, personal sharing, and bridge-building. Members of different religious traditions who participated gained a greater appreciation for the school’s spiritual roots. Others were able to situate their own professional journey within a wider tradition of faith and service.

Pastoral ministry, too, serves to bring people together in the face of corporate distancing. It is, at times, a healing ointment filling the spaces left by a managerial misstep or a difficult executive decision. The need can be felt at every level: A high level administrator may need to be reminded of a worker whose contributions are being overlooked. A frustrated employee may need to realize that some of the pressures of institutional growth are inevitable, and that such difficulties can offer opportunities for personal growth as well. A listening ear or understanding word can often be the bridge between organizational divides. On the other hand, the pastoral instinct is always willing to swing towards the prophetic when necessary. Advocacy becomes the fitting response for campus ministers who notice a workplace injustice or an ethical breach. Destructive cynicism must also be challenged for the negativity and distortions it fosters in the organization.

There is no better place to see the unifying role of campus ministry than when it acts as a convener of prayer. Liturgy becomes part of the fabric of university life, from the Mass of the Holy Spirit that inaugurates the academic year to the Baccalaureate liturgy that summarizes it. Daily or special liturgies can be offered for the intentions of student groups, academic departments, and administrative offices. The Sunday liturgy especially enacts our corporate/communal identity. The assembled community may see a Graduate Assistant delivering God’s word, or a student Eucharistic Minister offering the sacred cup to her academic advisor. Institutional boundaries disappear as freshman student and University President alike are gathered, fed at the same table, and sent as disciples into the world.

Ecumenical and interfaith services extend this pastoral reach and also help to build connections across corporate barriers. Campus ministry may organize an annual 9/11 observance with the University’s Department of Public Safety, an Ecumenical Thanksgiving Prayer Service, or a Yom HaShoah Remembrance event. At one university, a long-standing tradition occurs on May 1, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, when the entire community gathers to honor its food service workers and building and grounds crews. Administrators give reflections on the workers’ roles. Students sing or perform. Gratitude is shared, prayers are offered, gifts are given. The President greets each worker and hosts a reception following the service. A unity is felt among those who strategize in offices and those who clean their offices. It is a small gesture, but a meaningful one in the continual effort to humanize a workplace and unite a diverse community.

In the coming months, a number of Catholic colleges and universities may be seeking that balm that campus ministry offers. Having served at a small university during a time of severe layoffs, I found that pastoral and liturgical outreach did indeed help members of the community pass through their pain. Those who lost jobs, as well as their coworkers who stayed, needed a place to work through their feelings and remember where their hope was rooted. However, the administrators who had to make hard choices and who felt burdened by their role also needed assurance and communal understanding.

As in so much of life, experiences of setbacks and loss create conditions for affirming one’s strengths and expressing resilience. How we deal with times like these, and how we model the faith we proclaim, becomes part of the educational environment we create for the students we serve.


University administrators cannot be spared the questions and struggles involved in institutional growth or decline. In this transitional time, some Catholic universities will continue to celebrate the organizational efficiency and effectiveness that allow them to extend their mission.  Other institutions will find themselves struggling in a way they never anticipated and facing uniquely difficult decisions involving reduction or cessation of services. In either case, corporate administrators, staff, faculty members, and campus ministers together must perform a juggling act between the professional and the personal, between task and relationship. How can these institutions negotiate immediate needs while staying on course with their mission of sharing the Gospel through education? How can they manage educational and professional excellence along with communal and spiritual strength?

“Juggling” may be a more apt metaphor than it seems, given that it can suggest both consternation and play. Those who must continually engage the complexities of higher education administration might appreciate a final word from Winston J. Churchill, a trustee fellow of Fordham University, who at a conference on Catholic identity reflected on ten questions he felt needed to be raised to leaders of Catholic educational institutions. His top question, one that is applicable to everyone, was: “Are we finding our joy?”

I am quite sincere in ranking this question No. 1. Having fun is serious business. Our schools, colleges, and universities will not survive if those who are leading us do not find pleasure, indeed joy, in our work together. The Catholic education enterprise is not about the rat race of college rankings, it’s not about prestige as others define it. It’s about shaping lives and shaping futures . . .

. . . Everybody is part of the solution. There can be no “us and them” mentality. We know we’ll never be as financially secure as the private and state-funded institutions with whom we must compete. So we have to be smarter, more strategic, more committed, and clearer about our mission.

That mission has to do with the formation of the person for whom service is the “technique” by which we all develop and deepen over our lifetimes. That is the great paradox whereby our lives are richer the more we are able to give away. So we can compete . . . But no doubt about it, we must do that by being different, not by becoming identical.[3]

[1] “Catholic Social Teaching and ‘Mindful Markets’: The Case for Corporate Accountability,” Peter Discoll, America, Vol.186, No.1, Jan. 7, 2002.

[2] See: “On the Meaning of ‘The Catholic Intellectual Tradition’” Bernard V. Brady, Journal of Catholic Higher Education, Vol. 32, No.2, Summer, 2013; “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition: What is it? Why Should I Care?” William J. Cahoy, Barry Univ., Miami; Nov. 14, 2008; “A Delicate Balance: The Catholic College in America,” Stephen L. Trainor, Change, Vol.38, March/April, 2006; “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Catholic University,” Monica K. Hellwig, Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (Fairfield: Sacred Heart, 2000).

[3] “A Trustee Reflects on Catholic Identity,” Winston J. Churchill, Mission and Identity, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, ACCU, AJCU, Washington, D.C., 2004.



Featured Image: Unknown artists, Lessons in a Medieval University, 14th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Rev. Mark Villano

Rev. Mark A. Villano is a campus minister at the University Catholic Center at UCLA. He currently teaches courses in “Religion and American Popular Culture,” and the “Philosophy of Film.”

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