Reagan R. Seidler

Campus Catholic identity

By  Reagan Reese Seidler, Youth Speak News
  • November 2, 2012

Liberal arts students, when asked to describe what university life promises, would generally respond with a similar romantic concept: days spent learning new and radical ideas, afternoons debating conspiracy theories, nights at a postmodern art show.

Engineering students are less likely to identify with postmodern art shows, but are more likely to be proud of stories which make their workload seem i mp o s s i b l e . Students have their own sense of what it means to be part of their department. Whatever the particular narrative happens to be, students know it, are influenced by it and make it a part of their campus identity.

Even the reputation of a university, as a serious institute of research or as a party school, is developed on the ground and it can have a profound effect on a student’s university career.

So what kind of reputation, true or false, surrounds our nation’s Catholic colleges and universities?

Canada has at least 20 Catholic post-secondary institutions, many of which operate in close association with secular partners, such as St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta and St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo. Without a purposeful effort to develop a unique identity, we are likely to revert to Catholic clichés of piousness or orthodoxy.

It is for this reason that my alma mater, St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, set out over the last number of years to explore the meaning of its Catholic identity. Following extensive consultations with its students’ union and other stakeholders, STM has successfully integrated its legacy as a Basilian-founded college with the dynamic needs of a growing province. The Basilian belief that education is a means to achieve good, rather than an end in itself, grounds the educational philosophy of the college.

And in this world of financial austerity, the ability of Catholic colleges to differentiate themselves from secular institutions is necessary for their existence. Without providing something that their non-religious counterparts do not, it is hard to justify public funding for Catholic post-secondary institutions. But this has lead to a misguided strategy.

Rather than trying only to answer “what they do,” the focus of Catholic institutions must also be on “who they are.”

Generally, each has the ability to invoke the Church’s academic history as a source of its character, calling upon a tradition which views faith and reason as complementary components in scholarship. Then, incorporating the local oddities and traditions of every school, our colleges should be able to say definitively this is who we are.

The foremost goal of Catholic post-secondary institutions should include developing robust, local identities. It is also essential to their ongoing success to ask identity questions from a student-centric point of view. “What is unique about a person who studies here? What do they value?” With these thoughts in mind, our colleges can develop constructive and meaningful campus cultures, a process which goes a long way in meaningfully connecting students to their campus and community.

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