Envisioning New Forms of Leadership in Catholic Higher Education: Recommendations for Success

Article excerpt

The impact of increases in lay leadership in Catholic higher education is an issue of considerable debate. Opponents of the change believe that the traditional identity and mission of Catholic institutions may be significantly altered if lay leaders fail to intentionally nurture Catholic values and practices. Others believe that lay leaders may strengthen and enact the institutional mission just as effectively as could vowed religious leaders. This article provides an overview of a recent study about the perceived impact of lay leadership at one Catholic university. A history of the issues at hand and the methodology of the study are included along with a review of the primary findings. The outcomes of this study can inform the work of institutional leaders in higher education by identifying factors that appear to be important to preserving institutional identity in the midst of significant change. The article concludes with recommendations for vowed religious and lay leaders seeking to preserve and share institutional mission.


At some point during their existence, nearly all institutions of higher education wrestle with the question of identity. "The focus of this debate is primarily ideological and involves 'lack of consensus as to the substantive content of the ensemble of religious beliefs, moral commitments and academic assumptions that supposedly constitute Catholic identity'" (Gleason as cited in Henkin, Dee, & Manzo, 2001, p. 4). Catholic institutions, in particular, often find it much easier to define what they are not, as opposed to what they are (Connelly & Dooley, 1972). This debate was further exacerbated by the issuance of the Ex Corde Ecclesiae by Pope John Paul II in 1990 (Henkin et al., 2001), as well as the increasing secularization of students, professors, and administrators who no longer affiliate predominantly with the Catholic faith (Danneels, 2001).

Of particular significance to the identity development of Catholic institutions of higher education is managing the transition in leadership from governance by religiously appointed individuals to lay leadership. In recent years, the dwindling number of qualified clergy has spurred many Catholic colleges and universities to change institutional charters and allow members of the laity to hold senior administrative leadership roles. According to Morey and Holtschneider (2003), at the beginning of the 21st century, more than half of the Catholic college and university presidents were laypersons. A number of questions concerning the future religious character of Catholic institutions of higher education throughout the United States resulted from such change.

Supporters of the transition from clergy to laity assert that lay people may, in fact, bring more credibility in the development of the religious identity of Catholic colleges and universities (Borrego, 2001). By the very nature of their profession, members of the clergy continually promote the religious identity of Catholic institutions in daily activities. Lay people, however, may be viewed as making more of a conscious choice about the way in which religious identity is personified on a daily basis, thereby making it a more purposeful activity (Borrego, 2001).

Opponents of such change, on the other hand, fear that the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities may be challenged if lay leaders fail to intentionally champion and nurture the development and growth of Catholic values and practices (McMurtrie, 1999). Hellwig, former executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, asserted,

   When you have a critical mass of a religious community involved
   with something like a college or a university, some things can be
   taken for granted.... These people have a common formation, a
   common memory, a lifelong commitment--in fact, a community
   commitment--to the project. (as cited in Borrego, 2001, p. …