The great Catholic leadership search

  • October 17, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - There’s a job opening at the University of St. Michael’s College. The college’s board of governors has tried to replace retired president Richard Alway before, but this time he’s really gone and the governors don’t have the option of extending Alway one more time.

There’s a similar story brewing at Ottawa’s bilingual Saint Paul University, where attempts to replace rector Fr. Dale Schlitt have foundered, again.
Catholic higher education needs leaders and Canadian Catholic universities are having trouble finding them.

“If you don’t have the kind of leadership you need you get stasis. Institutions tread water. You get issues of morale. People leave,” said St. Joseph’s College president Fr. Tim Scott.

In Edmonton, where St. Joseph’s is a Catholic college affiliated with the University of Alberta, all is well. They’ve got a youthful Basilian priest in Scott who is both a legitimate academic and a man trained for Catholic leadership. But Scott knows his institution is just one or two vacancies away from the kind of desperate search now on at St. Michael’s and Saint Paul.

“The pool for Catholic leadership, Catholic academic leadership, is not as deep as it is for secular leadership,” Scott said.

That’s because the job requirements are a long list of “must-haves.”

“You have all the normal requirements of the academy in terms of the academic performance of your institution and providing internal institutional leadership,” said Scott. “Plus you also have to deal with relations with the local Catholic Church, and indeed with the national council of bishops and the Holy See through the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesia.  It’s a double requirement. You’ve got to keep your eye on both.”

Having a priest whose basic formation is spiritual and theological makes the job easier, and that used to be the norm. Corpus Christi College principal Dave Sylvester knows those days are mostly gone.

“When they were walking around with collars or habits then you didn’t have to worry about mission, because it was embodied in the person walking the halls,” said Sylvester. “And they came not only with an academic formation, but they came with a theological and spiritual formation.”

As he works toward opening the first Catholic university in Vancouver — through a merger of the old Basilian graduate theological college of St. Mark’s and his own tiny liberal arts college with 200 undergraduates — Sylvester has had to think a lot about what it takes to live up to the Catholic name of a Catholic university.

“It requires, frankly, a commitment to what it’s all about. But it’s not impossible,” Sylvester said.

One thing Sylvester is convinced of is that Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Vatican’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher learning, is not a barrier to doing the job right. The 18-year-old document remains controversial at many American Catholic colleges, where scholars have accused the Vatican of failing to understand both the importance and the nature of academic freedom. Sylvester sees Ex Corde as a strong endorsement of academic freedom.

“If you read Ex Corde, it is incredibly rich and incredibly affirming of what Catholic education should be about,” he said.

Pressure on Catholic college presidents and rectors to get Ex Corde right is not the end of the long list of requirements.

“Presidents and increasingly deans are spending more and more of their time fund-raising. It just goes with the job right now,” said Scott. “It adds a further wrinkle to the job description.”

Sylvester calls it the art of “losing at golf.”

Sylvester and Scott agree that the problem is not finding the money to pay highly qualified individuals to do a very demanding job.

“You can generally find the money. What you can’t find is the staff,” said Scott. “To find the right person for any job — to do anything — is difficult,” Scott said.

Though it can be made to sound like an impossible task, the good news is that it’s a great job, said Sylvester. While people at secular institutions may find themselves checking their most basic beliefs and values at the office door, Catholic colleges demand the passions that flow from an intellectual life grounded in a spiritual life.

“I would hope that Catholic educational communities can be places where people don’t live a bifurcated life,” he said. “That they can marry the academic and intellectual side with their faith side, and actually build community. That isn’t registered on a pay cheque.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.