'Absolutely excellent times' for Catholic education

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • November 20, 2006
The Catholic presence on university campuses across Canada has often been reported as a tale of woe. Many Catholics have gotten used to the idea of their colleges as second-class citizens of the academy — intellectually suspect and financially under capitalized.

Fr. Timothy ScottThe Catholic Register spoke recently with St. Joseph's College president Fr. Timothy Scott. From the perspective of this Basilian priest running a small college on the campus of the Edmonton-based University of Alberta, Catholic higher education has entered a golden age.

Here is what he had to say.

On the golden age of Catholic post secondary education in Canada:

"These are excellent times. These are absolutely excellent times to be engaged in Catholic education. There's a sense of immense possibility.

"What's happening in Canadian universities in general is that, on the one hand there's a push amongst the major universities in Canada towards world-class leadership at the research level. Simultaneously, there's a concern that particularly undergraduates in this push toward excellence could be shortchanged.

"Major universities are saying, 'What can we do to enhance the undergraduate experience; how can we break down very, very large university campuses into environments that are much more student-friendly?'

"Most students in Alberta come from smaller high schools where communities are not that large, and all of a sudden they're thrown into this gigantic university campus with 35,000 students, where they don't know anybody or they just know very few people. How do they deal with all of the stresses and strains of a very complicated environment very, very quickly in their first time away from home? To have communities on that university campus that are ready-made and welcoming is extremely important.

"It helps students make that adjustment to university life. Public universities are trying to create these kinds of cohort environments. That's one of the big pushes. How do you break down a very large university campus into manageable units to make students feel they belong? Religious denomination colleges wind up having that in spades.

"As a starting place, Catholic colleges already have a kind of cohort environment. They're smaller. There's a better opportunity of knowing administrators, knowing professors, knowing fellow students.

"In fact, there's a lot of people who wind up choosing to go to smaller, denominational colleges mostly because there's kind of a fear of these gigantic universities.

"If you're sitting in a lecture with 400 students in first-year biology, it's hard to have an experience that's personal at university. Where, if you're attending a Catholic college there's a sense of belonging, which I think at the first level is very important."

On student life in the 21st century:

"This generation of students has a greater interest in organized religion than say students of 10, 15, 20 years ago. Reginald Bibby, the sociologist from Lethbridge, his statistics are pretty good on this. There's a measurable interest in faith.

"Catholicism remains, obviously in terms of the broader culture, the single most visible Christian religious reality, and that draws people. There's no other religious denomination that has this kind of presence at the university.

"We're seeing students who are more career focussed. We're seeing students for whom university life is a huge financial thing. We're seeing students who are working, that is to say holding jobs while they're students, in a way that's different than when I was an undergraduate.

"Good heavens, I mean tuition. I started university in '74 as an undergraduate. My clearest recollection of tuition is $525 for the year. It has increased 12-fold since then. That's 12 times the tuition. Even with inflation and everything else, you can't justify a 12-fold increase in costs. The debt load students are graduating with — the fact is they have to work.

"There was a sense of freedom when we were undergraduates. You could try different courses. You could try different things. There was at least the sense of a liberal education that allows you to try different possibilities. Now it's, 'I've got to get these courses; I've got to get this degree done as quickly as possible and get a job.'

"I think it's turned universities, sadly, into pre-employment places rather than an educative environment. It has driven university life in a direction we wish it wasn't going.

On helping students access the university:

"Colleges across the country are spending a lot of time trying to recruit dollars for student bursaries. The Catholic donor pool isn't very deep. There aren't that many people. Alberta is a very wealthy province right now. But still, places like St. Mary's in Calgary, which is freestanding, have significant challenges just to come up with the dollars to keep in operation."

On Catholic identity:

"I always talk about a three-legged stool. There's a campus ministry which serves the entire university population of 35,000 students. We've got a residence that has 80 to 85 rooms in it for both men and women. We've got courses that are attracting 100 students each.

"Each in their own way contributes to that experience of life on campus — whether you're living in residence, whether you're involved in campus ministry or the Newman Club, or whether you're a student in courses within the college's ambit. Each of these things shapes somebody's university experience in some way.

"Students aren't exclusively in the Catholic college. They're all students, one way or the other, in the larger provincial university to which the place is attached.

"Do they come out with a very specific experience? I would say it depends. It depends on how much they choose to participate in different components. You look at those very involved in it, who very much buy into it. There are others who take as much of it as they choose. The potential is certainly there, but it varies a great deal.

On the funding challenge:

"Obviously Catholic colleges tend to favour the humanities and social sciences. These are not the big research areas at most universities. So, there's a general problem at most universities, as they become more research intensive. They tend to favour hard sciences, engineering, etc.

"Arts can be the kind of poor sister in that arrangement. And that's what we do.

"Catholic colleges have to work extra hard to attract research dollars and to attract the funding. It's much, much easier for major corporations to fund engineering, because the results are more tangible to them.

"You always make the distinction between hard money and soft money in university funding. Hard money is the basic dollars the province guarantees for postsecondary institutions. Soft dollars are all the other money that floats around it. Things like grants, research money from foundations, etc. Colleges that specialize in the humanities have more difficulty accessing those dollars. That's the reality.

"Are colleges underfunded? The reality is there's limitations on the funding you can get. That affects the experience absolutely.

"Are we in danger of closing our doors? I don't think so.

"Stable, ongoing funding is always the goal. There's a constant need to negotiate those numbers.

On church versus state:

"Ex Corde Ecclesia is in force. That is the constitution on Catholic universities. The direct effect of the church legislation is to give increased importance to the role of the local bishop in the life of the Catholic college.

"That kind of reality pushes up against things like faculty unions, negotiated contracts affecting employment, etc. I think the bishops are sensitive to the fact that the church exists in a civil society that has all kinds of labour laws, etc. that affect what can or cannot be done in the work place when the work place is a Catholic university or college.

"That has to be worked out.

"Already there are concerns in some quarters that the church legislation could affect collective agreements, for example pertaining to professors.

"On the one hand, the (church) legislation calls for a vigilance in terms of the Catholicity of professors, and a concern for that in terms of hiring. So you hire people who are demonstrably Catholic in their faith. And on the other side you've got civil legislation that indicates that you cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

"You've got to figure out how you balance these two realities.

"Religious freedom is also a key element in Canadian constitutional life. Religious freedom includes the possibility of preference in hiring for Catholic colleges to maintain their identity.

"Honesty in advertising seems to me to be the thing. You can't claim to be a Catholic college and in the practical order not have anything there that's Catholic. Somehow it's more than a name. It's a reality that is expressed in a whole variety of ways, including the faith dimension of the college and what it represents.

"It seems to me you've got to be able to sustain that in a visible way. You've got to be able to say to potential professors, 'Here's our mission; how do you see your research, how do you see your teaching, consonant with the fundamental mission of the college?' That's a fundamental question when you're hiring somebody.

On what Catholic colleges contribute to the university:

"There are important challenges to maintaining this kind of presence at the university. There are challenges both from the university side of things, and there's challenges from the church side of things.

"If you look at the university side of things, there are kind of vestigial elements that are antireligious within university administrations. It's not by any means across the board, but you do still run into people who harbour a kind of sense that religious faith really is incompatible with the academy. It comes out in various ways, but I don't think it's general. You do bump into it, and you're kind of in a situation where you have to respond.

"Aside from the faith dimension, there's the reality of helping the students have an experience that's positive, that's personal. I talk to people who have no religious faith who tell me how important St. Joseph's is on campus, simply because it does create an environment that creates a positive experience for students."

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