Remarks of Greg Weiner, Ph.D.
President, Assumption University
General Chapter of the Augustinians of the Assumption
June 2, 2023
Fr. Benoit, members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, the laity of the Alliance, and friends of the religious community of the Assumption: It is a privilege to address the General Chapter of the Augustinians of the Assumption.
In its preparatory documents, the 2023 General Chapter Preparatory Commission calls on the Assumptionist community to “fire up the imagination” of its members. Assumption University exists precisely for that purpose—to to fire the imagination of our students.
Those documents also identify a crisis of the family, school Church and other institutions of transmission. Assumption University is just such an institution of transmission. We stand at a moment of renewal and growth—and we are ready to answer your call.
On behalf of Assumption University, I am deeply grateful for the Commission’s call to action and for the myriad ways in which the Augustinians of the Assumption lend support to the University. None is greater than the gift of your charism, which inspires the education we seek to provide.
In the evaluation of the University’s work that Fr. Dennis Gallagher submitted for this General Chapter, he raised two pragmatic questions. One was whether the University would remain Catholic. The second was whether it would remain Assumptionist. My position—and I know that of Fr. Dennis and other trustees—is this: The University will neither endure nor deserve to endure unless we answer both questions with a resounding “yes.”
My complete confidence that the University will thrive between now and the next General Chapter—which will convene in the institution’s 125th year—is rooted in both the intrinsic value of the education we provide and the economic case for providing it. In these remarks, I want to give you a sense of how the University sees both: What is Catholic liberal education informed by the Assumptionist charism? And how can we position that kind of education for the financial success that will be important in our ability to deliver it?
When I interview candidates for faculty or administrative positions at the University, I ask them to define Catholic liberal education with particular emphasis on how each of those words modifies the others: How is liberal education different from education more generally, and what does “Catholic” add to liberal education?
So it’s fair to ask: How do I answer, and how does the University?
Liberal education differs from the dominant mode of higher learning around the world today—even, perhaps especially, here, on the continent where liberal education was invented and where the Catholic Church gave it purpose and life. As I shall discuss in a few moments, the conversion of the European university from liberal to specialized education—and the importation of that idea into the United States—presents a serious threat to institutions like Assumption, but an even more powerful opportunity.
We can understand liberal education in two senses. Each must balance the other.
In one sense, a liberal education liberates us from ignorance and prejudice by challenging us to examine our own ideas in conversation with both our contemporaries and our forebears. The Church’s embrace of liberal education understood in this sense is a sign of its courage. The Church’s dialogue with the pagan philosophers and its welcoming of those who wish to ask questions about its precepts—indeed, to say, as Pope St. John Paul II does, that this education springs “ex corde ecclesiae,” from the very heart of the Church—reflects an extraordinary confidence and an equally powerful humility.
The second sense in which we describe education as liberal descends to us from the classical world. In antiquity, the liberal arts were liberal in that they characterized free people who had the leisure to pursue truth, goodness and beauty for their own sake. By contrast, the servile arts were studied for their utility. The word “servile” sounds demeaning to contemporary ears, but as Cardinal John Henry Newman notes in his Idea of a University, it was not so in antiquity. Servile arts like medicine required refined intellect. But they were pursued because they were useful for something else, not good in themselves.
If a liberal education consists in liberation from ignorance as well as in the pursuit of truth for its own sake, what makes such an education Catholic? That begins, quite literally, at the beginning. John’s Gospel boldly declares: “In the beginning was the logos. And the logos was with God. And the logos was God.”
These foundational words of Christianity fuse three central ideas of Catholic liberal education: First, we are all made in the image of God. Second, precisely because we are made in the image of God, we are oriented toward using reason and speech to pursue truth. And third, because we seek truth in all its dimensions, we believe it constitutes an intelligible whole and that faith and reason are in principle reconcilable with one another.
Our privilege to utilize logos also entails participation in a reality that transcends our full understanding. Thus the importance of mystery. “Mystery” is one of the most profound words in Catholic liturgy, especially insofar as the liturgy expresses no frustration at the limits of our understanding. Rather, the reaction to them—as ours should be—is joy: The joy of discovery. The joy of our dependence. And the joy sparked precisely by those limits and, consequently, by the awe of all that transcends us.
In turn, a Catholic liberal education is Augustinian when it draws force from the indispensable place of learning in the development of faith. It is Asssumptionist when it is animated by Fr. d’Alzon’s abiding belief of what he called “the truth that the world, even in a decadent state, is governed by ideas.”
Liberal education is no longer the dominant mode of higher learning in America. It may be even less so in Europe, where the medieval Church founded the modern University. For the Church, the study of the trivium and quadrivium were avenues to the divine as reflected in Creation. Importantly, the medieval university’s purpose was to unify rather than divide knowledge—hence the root of “university.”
That changed in the 19th century, when educational reformers like Wilhelm von Humboldt created what became the German research university. Its primary vocation was discovery rather than teaching: the generation of new knowledge rather than the transmission of enduring truths. Its aim was the conquest of the mysterious by the rational. One result, Max Weber noted with palpable regret, was “the disenchantment of the world.”
A generation of American academics—Woodrow Wilson, later president of the United States, among them—imported this model to the United States. They saw universities as agents of progress and democratization—generators of useful knowledge that prepared a wider array of students with technical skills.
The result was the modern American research university, which has forsaken the universal to venerate the specialized. One president of a large public university is said to have described the contemporary institution of higher education as several academic departments connected by a central air conditioning system.
That is a general arc of the history that produced today’s higher education sector in the United States. There was, however, an exception. Catholic universities in America were founded in no small part because bigotry excluded Catholics from other institutions. They were sanctuaries, and while we rightly condemn the bigotry that necessitated them, we also know sanctuaries foster solidarity and common purpose.
Over time, however, many Catholic universities in the United States have sought to become more like their secular counterparts.
One reason for this assimilation is that all universities, and especially Catholic ones, in the United States face serious and even existential challenges.
First, the market for undergraduate education in America is both saturated and shrinking. In the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, birth rates, especially in New England, declined. Eighteen years later, beginning around 2026, we must confront a sharp decline in the population of incoming undergraduate students. We must therefore compete harder for fewer students.
Second, the cost of private higher education is rising to unsustainable levels. The peculiar business model in the United States is to charge high tuition and then offer scholarships and other financial aid so that no one actually pays full price.
Yet if institutions like ours choose to assimilate and become more like secular research institutions, the only basis for distinguishing ourselves will be to lower our prices, increase our discounting, or both. And that would be financially catastrophic.
Third, precisely because its price is soaring, the social and political conversation around higher education in the United States has emphasized its value for career preparation at the expense of humanizing formation. We have lost sight of the importance of educating human beings as human beings, whose lives will encompass more than just a career.
At its worst, this has entailed an explicit political attack on liberal education on the false belief that it is not useful in the workplace. Our political leaders speak of—and actually calculate—“return on investment” for college degrees while measuring it in short-sighted terms. For example, what is the average income of a graduate with a particular degree from a particular institution three years after graduation?
Aristotle teaches that a man’s happiness can only be assessed on the day he dies. I do not suggest we wait for that day to assess the value of liberal education. But surely there is a middle point. Indeed, we know there is: Technically trained people generally earn more immediately upon graduating. But liberal arts graduates, who are the innovators and the leaders, outstrip the earnings of the technically trained at roughly mid-career.
Similarly, U.S. government policy has encouraged enrollment at state universities over institutions like ours. The Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter called this the conquest of the private by the public. To be sure, public universities are indispensable. I attended one myself. But private universities, especially Catholic ones, provide variety and promote subsidiarity. We are the institutions of transmission. This diversity of perspectives might be seen as an educational variant of synodality.
Fourth, the nature of graduate education in the United States—built on the German model—is specialization. It is unconcerned with the unity of truth. As a result, a newly credentialed Ph.D. applying for a faculty position at Assumption tends to know his or her narrow segment of a single discipline with profound depth but has not considered how it relates to a cohesive whole. Put another way, very few of our faculty members—including me—have had the kind of education we aspire to provide.
Finally, as Fr. Dennis noted, we live in a secularized society. That is a trend in the Western world more generally. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, when Americans decide to do something, we proceed with particular enthusiasm. Consequently, American secularization has assumed a zealous—one might even say religious—character. Americans will often say we are secular because we do not want an organized religion telling us what to do, but we have less compunction about urging others to be secular.
On college campuses especially, the result has often been a conformity of thought that is at best out of step with, and often openly hostile to, Church teachings. This is also tinged with a narrow-minded condescension that opposes faith to reason. It maintains, in other words, that faith is intrinsically unreasonable. Those who hold this view reject the Catholic belief that faith and reason exist in fruitful tension and ultimate harmony—correcting, as Benedict XVI said, one another’s aberrations.
In a recent survey, 40 percent of Assumption students identified themselves as Catholic. Nearly twice that number were probably baptized Catholic. The fastest growing religious identification in the United States is not agnosticism. Nor is it atheism. It is those who call themselves personally spiritual but religiously unaffiliated. The challenge, then, is how to make Catholic liberal education attractive to these youth.
Taken together, all these challenges are sobering. They are serious. And they are almost exactly suited to the unique strengths of an Assumption education. So let me be clear: In the face of these challenges, we do not aspire merely to survive. Assumption University will thrive. We will grow. We will reach more students and live out the mission of this institution on a greater scale.
This is as much an imperative for our finances as it is for our mission. In a crowded market, those who do not want to compete simply by undercutting one another on price—and especially ones like Assumption that aspire not only to compete but to grow—must differentiate themselves from the crowd. Assumption can. Many universities, including many Catholic universities, are choosing not to.
American universities have tended to respond to market pressures either by offering primarily technical education—that is, they train people for careers—or by spurning the worldly in favor of the contemplative alone. They therefore force students to choose between success in their careers and meaning in their lives.
This dichotomy is false, and Assumption rejects it. We hold that truth pursued for its own sake is intrinsically good—and that when it is pursued for its intrinsic goodness, it is also immensely useful. Technical skills are transient. Students who are merely technically trained will watch their training become obsolete they day after they receive their degrees.
But ideas endure. They are not only practical, they are all that is practical. Assumption graduates therefore stand at the intersection of the immediately rewarding and the enduringly relevant. They are ready for their first jobs but also their second, third and fourth careers. They are educated in the permanent questions of the human condition. Because they appreciate mystery, they are comfortable with complexity. They can adapt, think and communicate.
At Assumption, we believe there is no conflict between the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty on the one hand and preparation for meaningful lives and rewarding careers on the other. On the contrary, they are one and the same work. We believe an economy cannot be sustained with workers who are well trained but without human beings who are well educated. It demands both. We believe a regime cannot be sustained with individuals who seek their own goods but without citizens who contemplate the common good. It demands both.
That is why Assumption builds every program of study atop a humanizing curriculum in which philosophy and theology are prominent and in which students are encouraged to see truth as a whole. We call this curriculum, which we have just revised, the Foundations Program. It ensures that a student educated at Assumption will be a different kind of professional because he or she will be a different kind of person.
Many Catholic universities have reacted to the pressures in the higher education market differently. They have chosen to be either Catholic or universities, but rarely both.
Those that emphasize their Catholic identity often interpret it in evangelical or political terms that inherently encourage indoctrination rather than education. Others emphasize their status as universities while abandoning, or at least understating, their Catholicity. There are fewer and fewer Catholic universities in the United States that see themselves as both Catholic and universities. These institutions, and Assumption is one, express their Catholic identities in educational terms.
There are not many, and that positions Assumption University for success even—indeed, especially—in the face of the challenges I have explained. In economic terms, the supply of our kind of education is diminishing. But in an economy that requires habits of inquiry more than technical skills, demand for it is growing. That will enable Assumption to compete for a larger supply of fewer students and to do so on the basis of the value we provide rather than price we charge.
Fr. Richard Lamoureux has recently helped us express our market position more clearly. He led a revision of the University’s mission statement, which now calls us to “the pursuit of truth in the company of friends.” Our forthcoming marketing campaign will be rooted in that call. It speaks deeply and viscerally to young people whose natural human yearning for meaning, truth and friendship has not yet been dulled by the responsibilities of adult life. We offer a humanizing education, and our students are first and foremost human beings. They may not know what exactly they seek. But their imaginations are on fire. A recent graduate put it this way: “Assumption gave me the education I didn’t know I needed.”
This will always be our central promise. There are other keys to Assumption’s success as well. We are developing new programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We hope our new Physician Assistant program will soon be approved to begin accepting students. We also know that while the overall population of new students is shrinking, there are demographic segments—such as Latin American families—that are growing. These populations are uniquely interested in Catholic education and in educational excellence. Having been founded for immigrants, Assumption is a natural home for them.
The ironic but indisputable fact is this: The very questions that secularization seeks to answer can only be fully asked in a religious institution. A Catholic University encourages students to ask exactly those questions that secularization claims for itself the exclusive right to answer. A secular university questions everything but secularization itself. Its narrow view of rationality is its only permissible mode of inquiry. In the name of open inquiry, therefore, it closes inquiry into a substantial—perhaps the most substantial—aspect of human existence.
The secular dogma is far more dogmatic than anything taught at Catholic universities. We do not exist for purposes of dogmatic instruction. Catholic students have a special place on our campus, but this education is not for them alone. The Catholic university exists to wrestle with the hard and perennial questions at the heart of the human experience. As such, it speaks to the souls of anyone who wishes to pursue truth in the company of friends. We do not demand conformity or assent. Instead, we seek to demonstrate and inculcate the two most important virtues of education: the courage to state our views and the humility to acknowledge our dependence on the perspectives of others.
Some students will experience this education and become more faithful during their time at Assumption. For others, following Augustine, education will blossom later into awakening to faith. Surely there will be those who do not practice a faith as well. But they will have been challenged to grapple with transcendence. And the great divide in American society today is not between religions. It is between secularism and faith.
Because Assumption University expresses our Catholic identity educationally, we emulate Socrates’ pursuit of truth through questions rather than dictation. We teach theology without telling students what to believe and philosophy without dictating what they think. As a result, they believe and think deeply and authentically. Similarly, we believe in social justice—but our role in its pursuit lies not in political activism but rather in providing a place for asking what is just.
Is a university that provides such an education financially viable in a society obsessed with career preparation? If it is not, we must make it so. Otherwise, we will have technicians but not entrepreneurs. We will have functionaries but not leaders. We will have professionals but not citizens.
But we also already know this kind of Universty is viable. For the last year, Assumption has emphasized these themes, and our incoming freshman class this fall will be 35 percent larger than it was last fall. That is not due entirely to educational or rhetorical emphasis. We have begun to fix management and operational problems. Our faculty and staff were beleaguered and discouraged by years of crisis. We are turning their attention to the exciting possibilities of growth. Our students were demoralized. We have engaged them.
Let me close on this note: A great issue of equity is emerging in American education. On both the left and right of our political spectrum, leaders speak of higher learning in terms that assume true education is a luxury, while the pragmatic necessity is technical skills. As I have already asserted, this dichotomy between true education and career preparation is false. What is worse, this rhetoric reserves education for the economically privileged and relegates the economically marginalized to training alone.
If the curriculum of a university like Assumption is properly described as humane, then this rhetoric is, strictly speaking, dehumanizing. It fails to recognize the essential human difference that consists in our use of logos. More precisely, it stratifies the cultivation of our human faculties along socioeconomic lines. In an effort to lift those with the least, it demeans them instead.
Of course, not everyone seeks the education we offer. There are children of poverty who will thrive as plumbers, just as there are children of privilege who would do best as electricians. But an Assumption education should be accessible for all those who want it.
I am convinced that many do—many more than we currently reach. That is why I am so confident in the University’s growth. At this meeting of the General Chapter, I am pleased to report that Assumption University is rebuilding. At the next General Chapter, God willing, I hope to join you again with a message I have every confidence is possible: Assumption University is thriving.