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Group claims Gonzaga University losing focus on Catholic identity

While alumni revel in Gonzaga University’s basketball success and the growth of its campus and student body, a small, independent group called the 1887 Trust worries the Jesuit university is losing its Catholic identity.

The trust wants Gonzaga to adhere to a more rigid ideology and Catholic tradition.

“We love Gonzaga University. In many ways, it’s a wonderful school. Money is good. Buildings are good. A new student center is good. The basketball team is terrific,” said Jim Infantine, president of the 1887 Trust. “But having those buildings and a good basketball team doesn’t preclude having those discussions at the board of trustees about (the Catholic) mission.”

Wrapped in a beige raincoat and sipping takeout coffee in the Crosby Center, junior Kelsey Henderson considered why she chose the university.

Although raised Catholic, religion wasn’t the reason she wanted to attend.

“Educating the whole person concept was attractive,” she said. Without that approach, “I never would have taken religion classes or philosophy.”

About 50 percent of Gonzaga students are Catholic, the school reports.

Marissa Morrison, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, believes she’s getting a superior education at Gonzaga. She acknowledges the university is in a time of “transitioning identity.”

But Morrison calls criticism of Gonzaga’s culture out-of-touch.

“I feel like it’s disrespectful for them to say Gonzaga is straying from its Catholic identity because they don’t have a pulse on the student population,” she said.

The 1887 Trust said the change is trickling down from Gonzaga’s leader.

President Thayne McCulloh’s hiring followed the 2009 departure of the Rev. Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest.

“Since his departure, there has been some backsliding,” Infantine said.

Shortly after his appointment, McCulloh allowed a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” overturning Spitzer’s decision to ban the play about female sexuality and sexual violence.

The Knights of Columbus club, an all-male, all-Catholic group, was almost prevented from becoming a student club.

And controversy raged over an invite to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the 2012 commencement speaker due to his support of gay marriage and abortion rights.

But Don Herak, a trustee emeritus and major donor to the school, stands by McCulloh.

“Thayne was a bit of a diversion from the Jesuits,” Herak said. “He graduated from GU and Oxford University. He came back here and worked in nearly every position until president. He really understood the university. He’s done a great job.”

Infantine said trustees do many big and admirable things for the community, but “many of them may not be steeped in the issues of Catholic identity and really understand what’s at stake.”

“They have a natural tendency to put their emphasis toward buildings and fundraising and the economics of the university,” Infantine said. “They may just have less of a natural interest in areas of academia and Catholic identity.”

Regulating the percentage of faculty who are Catholic is one example, Infantine said.

The school doesn’t require job applicants for faculty or staff jobs to disclose their religious affiliation. About half of Gonzaga’s 417 faculty members are Catholic.

Students are required to take nine credits of religious study, which the 1887 Trust would like to see raised. “Core curriculum and the percentage of Catholic faculty are key,” Infantine said. “And we think it would be helpful if more of the board of trustees were Catholic.”

Phil McCarthey, a longtime regent and current trustee, called the 1887 Trust a small, vocal group. “People have the right to their opinions,” he said.

Of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, eight are led by lay presidents. All the schools’ board chairs are laypeople. Some are women, and a great majority of the board members are laypeople, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

“What we’ve discovered is that laypeople do a good job of making entities that are explicitly Catholic more effective,” said the Rev. Michael Sheeran, association president.

Fewer Jesuit administrators has more to do with a shrinking religious order than a change in philosophy; the number of Jesuits in the U.S. has decreased from 6,616 to 2,547 during the past four decades, according to the superior general of the Society of Jesus.

“Universities were identified early on as places where lay professionals could increasingly assume leadership positions and become their guardians in a number of ways,” the Very Rev. Adolfo Nicolás said during a recent gathering of Jesuit higher-education leaders.

Sheeran said what’s important isn’t a person’s religious affiliation, it’s their contribution to the university.

“If a person says, ‘Look, I’m a practicing Jew, and I believe in the importance of looking for the meaning in life, that kind of person belongs in a Catholic school,” Sheeran said. “If a person says, ‘I’m an atheist, but at the same time I have to ask what makes life worthwhile,’ that kind of person belongs in a Catholic school as well.”

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