Changes at Houston's University of St. Thomas leave some doubtful

u st thomas Chapel of St. Basil on the University of St. Thomas Campus, Houston TX. | Joe Wolf via Flickr CC BY 2.0

As a Catholic university in Texas says it is making necessary faculty cuts to survive, some alumni and faculty are questioning the future of the school's Catholic liberal arts identity.

The University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, recently announced that the contracts of 30 faculty members, including three tenured professors, would not be renewed for the 2020-21 academic year as part of the school's "restructuring."

Of the 30 contracts, 11 were those of faculty who were retiring or would be phased into retirement.

One dismissed tenured faculty member is philosophy professor Fr. Joseph Pilsner, CSB, the former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Basilian Fathers, the religious community that founded the university in 1947 and has served the school to this day.

Pilsner was originally a tenured theology professor but had been teaching in the philosophy department for several years, and was reportedly popular among students.

Some alumni and current and former faculty have voiced concern over the priest's contract status, saying that the departure of the university's last full-time Basilian faculty member is a sign that the college was moving away from its founding.

When alumnus Margaret Cronin, who graduated in December of 2009, attended the university, Fr. Pilsner was the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and chair of the theology department. He was "incredibly intelligent" and a great teacher, Cronin said, in the vein of the order's charism for teaching.

"I think that it's just an enormous mistake," she said of the university's decision. "Nothing that the university has said has been a sufficient explanation."

The Basilian Fathers built a residence on the edge of campus several years ago, still maintaining a presence near the school, but no Basilian now serves as a full-time faculty member or campus minister.

"The fact that there are a number of Basilians who could be teaching here but aren't teaching here does worry me a good deal. Fr. Pilsner is a tremendous loss," said Mary Catherine Sommers, a former philosophy professor and director of the Center for Thomistic Studies at the university, told CNA.

Concerns about the university run deeper than Fr. Pilsner. Sources that CNA spoke with said that the university's restructuring process, which resulted in the faculty cuts, is part of a rebranding process that will deemphasize the liberal arts and its Catholic identity to attract more students.

Both the supporters and the critics of the restructuring process agreed that the university is in serious financial trouble and needs to take action.

"The university's been sustaining an operational deficit for several consecutive years," Dr. Christopher Evans, the school's vice president for academic affairs and former chair of the theology department and dean of the school of arts and sciences, told CNA.

Evans told CNA that "the main issue at hand was really a fiscal reality." Faculty and staff had not received a raise in five years; and across the country, a 15% drop in the number of college-bound students is expected in the next several years.

According to the recent "Report to the University Community on Restructuring Plan," the restructuring is expected to save the university five to six million dollars per year.

Under the plan, already approved by the board, the School of Arts and Sciences will be reorganized into three divisions: "liberal studies," "mathematics, technology and life science," and "social & behavior sciences and global studies."

Departments, but not majors, will be eliminated and the school of theology at St. Mary's seminary, connected to the university, will become a separate division within the School of Arts and Sciences, "in consultation with the Archdiocese." The university's theology department will be part of the division of liberal studies within the school of Arts and Sciences.

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Evans said that the school's Catholic identity will still be a fundamental part of its future. Several Basilian Fathers remain on the school's board, he said, and the university has hired several Dominicans to teach philosophy and theology.

The absence of Basilians on the faculty is "more a reflection of the Basilians themselves," he said.

Professor Andrew Hayes, chair of the university's theology department who helped craft the proposal for academic restructuring, agreed that the Catholic identity remains a core part of the university.

"UST is blessed with a large number of faithful Catholic faculty: priests, religious, and lay, both men and women. I think we all take seriously that the University's Catholic identity is a shared responsibility," Hayes told CNA in a statement.

He added that "we, the faculty, have been faithfully living out the Catholic intellectual life under the inspiration of that [Basilian] charism for many years now. I certainly expect to carry that tradition forward."

Not all of those affiliated with the university feel that way.

"I love the university, I've taught there for over 30 years," Sommers said, adding that in her view the university has "a real genius" but has failed to recognize it.

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One professor, speaking with CNA on condition of anonymity, challenged claims that the vast majority of faculty at the school are Catholic. "The facts are not there," the professor said. "For 10 years, there's been no count."

Still, the restructuring process is necessary to preserve the university and its Catholic identity, those familiar with the process told CNA.

"In order to really distinguish ourselves from the state schools that are much cheaper than us, the crisis also brings a perfect opportunity in my opinion for Catholic higher ed," Evans said.

"In other words, this is the perfect time to double down on our Catholic identity."

The university's choices were to cut whole departments or make across-the-board cuts distributed among departments, Evans explained. The school opted for the latter.

With the new changes, by next year the university's operations are expected to be budget-neutral for first time in decade. "The cuts were an unfortunate part of the plan, but I think a necessary one," Evans said.

The changes will also reduce administrative costs and provide faculty more time for teaching, Evans said.

"The idea was that it's to free up the faculty time to do the teaching, spend the time with the students, rather than having to fill out paperwork all day," he told CNA.

Hayes agreed, and said that the reorganization would promote a more wholistic view of knowledge for students, rather than a compartmentalized one.

"We are actually freeing the liberal arts, those disciplines that perfect the human being as human, to be more true to themselves," he said.

The university's decision to start three new sports-seen as investing in the athletic department while making faculty cuts-is a concern to some, including Sommers.
"I think what boggles the faculty's mind is the embrace of athletic spending, and spending on things which are not central to academic life, in the face of a large structural deficit. I think that's probably what gets the faculty most," Sommers told CNA.

Evans disputed that notion, saying that the school no longer offers athletic scholarships and had to create the new sports out of necessity to comply with NCAA regulations. Money once spent on athletic scholarships will go back into the general scholarship fund, he said.

Alumni were also claiming that a prominent board member at the university-Cecilia Abbott, First Lady of Texas and wife of Governor Greg Abbott-resigned in the middle of the restructuring, in an apparent sign of protest.

The university confirmed to CNA last Friday that Abbott resigned her position on the board "earlier this fall." The university did not specify the exact date of Abbott's resignation.

"Although she is no longer on our Board of Directors, we look forward to continuing that strong relationship with her for many years to come," the university stated on Dec. 13.

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