San Antonio has been “big enough” for three Catholic universities for more than 100 years, and should be  for 100 more. What remains to be seen is whether or not the schools can stay true to their founding values.

Historically, each school was differentiated by the specific spiritual charisma of its sponsoring religious order. Later, those differences also came to embrace a business model approach to higher education, but as Robert Rivard wrote in last week’s article, “Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?” Catholic higher education isn’t about running a business.

Perhaps it’s time Our Lady of the Lake University’s (OLLU) administration started operating by faith-driven values instead of those imposed by the market. Unfortunately, that is just what we’ve been getting lately from our leadership at the Lake. During the last four months we have seen sweeping curriculum changes consisting of the elimination of 12 degree programs, which include Mexican-American Studies, History, Philosophy and Religious Studies-Theology Majors.

Quickly on the heels of those curricula cuts came news of the years in the makingStrategic Plan,” which seeks to tackle low enrollment, inadequate funding, and retention and graduation rates at OLLU.  Undergraduate enrollment has been declining steadily since Tessa Martinez Pollack came to the helm at the Lake in 2002. Now, after more than 10 years of the Pollack Presidency, I’m befuddled as to why fundamental issues such as enrollment, graduation, and retention are just now getting the full attention they deserve.

The inaugural meeting of “The 12” drew students, alumni, and faculty in response to the Pollack administration’s decision to remove 12 Liberal Arts Major programs at OLLU. (Photo courtesy of The Lake Front, OLLU’s student newspaper.)

Surprised by the administration’s blatant disregard for OLLU’s University bylaws concerning curriculum changes (specifically Article VI Section 1, and Article VII Section 4) our student movement known as “The 12,” has coalesced around the our school’s founding principles.

We aim to make OLLU the best university it can be. This includes making sure that all leaders follow the rules which govern the university, especially when it comes to curriculum and academic governance. This also means keeping the Liberal Arts curriculum at OLLU’s core and, more importantly, ensuring that the values of the school (and those of the Congregation of Divine Providence) are reflected in everything the school does.

We argue that OLLU cannot operate its faith-based higher education within a business model governed by “market driven values.” The market is volatile and cyclical. Putting all of your eggs in one “marketable” basket is unwise and illogical. We’ve already experienced friends and colleagues leaving OLLU for other schools because the administration has declared that their majors are not marketable.

What makes the Liberal Arts disciplines poignant in the debate is the fact that they rely on the proven virtues of learning from history, creatively applying what one has learned, adapting to new situations, and taking from many different disciplines in order to approach problem solving effectively. The University of the Incarnate Word values the Liberal Arts, and so does St. Mary’s University, but it seems that the current OLLU administration would rather dump these Major programs en masse in an effort to artificially “increase the margins.” One must ask, to what end?

Pollack’s response to the university’s lackluster performance under her watch, according to the Strategic Plan, has been to “grow enrollment,” “start high demand, high wage (STEM) programs,” “grow more diverse revenue streams,” and “build a campus infrastructure to support growth.” How they plan to increase enrollment while also decreasing degree programs offered by the Lake and thus removing the opportunity for students to declare into those Majors remains to be seen.

Mariachi perform at the Dia de los Muertos at OLLU, an event sponsored by the Lake’s Religious Studies-Theology department for more than a decade. This year, students and faculty mourned the ‘death’ of the Liberal Arts at OLLU. (Photo courtesy of The Lake Front, OLLU’s student newspaper.)

Perhaps we should look to the example of UIW, which has reached record numbers of students by increasing the amount of degrees they offer from 56 to 80. UIW also offers many STEM related programs such as Nursing, Pharmacy, Biology, Optometry, Psychology, and more. Evidently, OLLU seems to think they can increase enrollment by competing against UIW’s already successful and established STEM programs.

Entry-level jobs do not need a four-year higher-education degree.

As Harvard Professor James Engell offered in a reflection essay: “On examination, the benefits of particular majors to long-term job performance or security are hard to discover.”

It begs the question:  While job security is good, is that what OLLU should be preparing its students for? In other words, do potential students decide to spend $35,000 a year on an OLLU education so they can have job security? The Lake’s administration should take note if they truly think the answer to higher enrollment lies in competing against the STEM vocational paths offered at the Alamo Colleges at a much lower cost.

History has taught me that one gets to pick their battles, and doing so gives you a greater advantage in the melee. If OLLU wants to “compete” with other area schools, we should not play their game. We shouldn’t compete against them where they are already strong. We should find out where they are not fighting and build our forts there!

The “Market driven” question should be at the forefront of any faith-based organization: Are we called to live by the same priorities as everyone else, or are we called to something higher? 

Elementary educators  have faced similar problems over the years with K-12 curriculums being restructured according to market demands. What happens when every school is a STEM or trade school? Do we want a society that values one’s work by how much money they make? What happens to our communities when literature, the arts, history, and languages are squeezed out by the business model approach to education? Is the market the moral standard by which we should judge our Christian praxis?

Our faith tradition has taught us that we are all given gifts and talents, which are to be used for the benefit of everyone. Those with such talents have the responsibility to hone them, and those with the means have the responsibility to make those opportunities possible for others. If students have the freedom to pursue an education that sharpens their inherent talents and skills, then those students will find fulfillment regardless of how the market dips and dives. When a school limits the freedom of a student to pursue their life’s goal in the name of market demand, it places a higher priority on mammon than meaning.

Harvard University’s Task Force on General Education recently emphasized the importance of the Liberal Arts education:

“A liberal education is also a preparation for the rest of life… Some of our students will go on to become academics; many will become physicians, lawyers, and business people. All of them will be citizens, whether of the United States or another country, and as such will be helping to make decisions that may affect the lives of others. All of them will engage with ‘forces of change’ — cultural, religious, political, demographic, technological, planetary. All of them will have to assess empirical claims, interpret cultural expressions, and confront ethical dilemmas in their personal and professional lives. A liberal education gives students the tools to face these challenges in an informed and thoughtful way.”

We are experiencing a de-emphasis of the Liberal Arts on a national level, which creates an opportunity that OLLU can take advantage of.  OLLU established the first Social Work school/major in all of Texas. There is no reason why it cannot be the greatest. The Worden School of Social Work, in many ways, is the heart and soul of OLLU. If  the Worden School – their Theology discipline (which is both progressive and comprehensive), their Mexican American Studies program (which is one of two programs in the Alamo city), and other degree programs – are our niche, then we are marketable to a new demand that other Universities are not geared towards.

Ours is a progressive school, which was founded upon the virtues of service-oriented praxis: living out our faith with marginalized groups while always trusting in the Providence of God. Everything we do should stem from this philosophy and theology, beginning with our leadership. Our founding Congregation of Divine Providence also desired that we would become a Liberal Arts University. One that embodies the “forces of change.”

Tyler Tully is a Senior Theology Major at Our Lady of the Lake University. Graduating in the Spring of 2013 and pursuing graduate studies in Theology, Tully is interested in Christian ethics and writes frequently on faith in everyday life. He is an enthusiast of the Gaelic culture in San Antonio, and works with several Irish cultural organizations including the San Antonio Gaelic Athletic Club and the Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org