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‘Ignorance imperils our democracy’: College presidents on the mission of education

Fr Pivonka: ‘dynamic orthodoxy’

As students get settled in during these first few weeks on campus, new Catholic college presidents are adjusting too. I recently spoke to three who stand out in their commitment to faithful Catholic education.

Franciscan University of Steubenville – Fr David Pivonka

“My desire is to be faithful to the Church,” says Fr David Pivonka, the new president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, who is a popular evangelist and author of several books, including Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus, and Breath of God. On campus, he wants to help “create saints who know, love and serve the Lord”.

Fr Pivonka has deep roots on campus. He is an alumnus of Franciscan University and has worked in several roles, including director of the university’s popular “household” system. He cares deeply about the university and its Catholic identity. “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life,” Fr Pivonka says. “When you translate this for a Catholic university, the university shows the Way, teaches the Truth, and students are formed to live the Life.”

Franciscan University is all about “dynamic orthodoxy”, he says. What makes orthodoxy dynamic is that it is “alive and vibrant”, and he shares glimpses of that through his new Instagram account (@wildgooseministry).

Fr Pivonka has reaffirmed the university’s commitment to fidelity and spent time in these first weeks on campus getting to know faculty, staff and students. He says that everyone needs to have a “desire for conversion” and “pray for that desire” to further unite the university.

And prayer is happening. Many students on campus have signed up to spend time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, filling the schedule for Perpetual Adoration on campus in record time.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College – Dr Ryan Williams

Eucharistic Adoration is also an important part of campus life for students at another faithful Catholic college: Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ontario.

With its rural campus, the College is a hidden gem that offers a faithful Catholic education in an intimate setting at an affordable price. Tuition, room and board for US students is around $10,000 a year.

Dr Ryan Williams, the college’s new president, is on a mission to help more students benefit from everything the College provides. He is a philosopher who has served as professor and dean at seminaries in the US. He has also worked in artificial intelligence, which has only bolstered his passion for an authentically Catholic liberal arts education.

“It’s easier to train a philosopher how to do AI than to train a data analyst how to think,” Dr Williams says. “Many college graduates today are well trained, but not educated; they have certification but none of the ability.”

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College provides students with a strong liberal arts curriculum, which he describes as an “integrated education” which is “real Catholic education”.

Dr Williams points out that students used to go to college to be educated, while also receiving some career training. Now students go to college for a specific major, which may only take up 30 out of the 120 credits to graduate. Rather than thinking of the core curriculum as something to “get out of the way”, it’s extremely important in “contextualising” everything, Dr Williams says.

By forming students in mind, body and spirit and involving them in service to the wider community, Dr Williams says the college is preparing students to be “salt of the world” and “missionaries in every realm of life”.

University of Dallas – Dr Thomas Hibbs

Another new college president who has a passion for liberal arts education is Dr Thomas Hibbs of the University of Dallas (UD) in Irving, Texas. He is a UD alumnus and formerly served as professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University.

The core curriculum experience at UD provides students with a “basis for a lifetime appreciation of the good, the true and the beautiful”, says Dr Hibbs. It also offers a “common ground for ongoing conversation and friendship” among UD students, even as they move into higher level courses that are specific to their majors.

“The core curriculum at UD immerses students in the images, texts, stories and modes of rational inquiry characteristic of the best of Western and Catholic civilisation,” says Dr Hibbs. He’s proud of the university’s Rome semester programme, which nearly 80 per cent of undergraduates take part in.

Not only is the education provided by UD valuable for its students, but Dr Hibbs believes it’s also crucial for our world today. “Most Americans, even most Catholics, are deeply ignorant of the Western and Catholic heritage; such ignorance imperils our democracy and our Church,” he explains.

He plans to increase the university’s role in debates regarding religious freedom. Students will receive a strong Catholic intellectual formation at UD, but they will also have spiritual and service opportunities.

“We are encouraging student participation in the daily liturgy in our residence halls through morning and evening prayer,” Dr Hibbs explains. “We are also increasing opportunities for service, for example, through a programme in which students read St Augustine (in English and Spanish) with local students.”

These are exciting changes, but Dr Hibbs exudes confidence in what has been done before. He assures families and faculty: “The Catholic identity of UD remains strong.”

Kelly Salomon is the director of education and advocacy for The Cardinal Newman Society