On October 11, many prominent figures in Catholic higher education met to discuss the legacy, effects, and future of the fifty-year-old Land O’ Lakes Statement.
On the panels were the presidents of seven Catholic universities, along with several prominent authors and professors. They gathered to discuss the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which a short study document issued in 1967 by representatives of many large Catholic universities. The statement has often been blamed for the decline of Catholic identity in Catholic universities, and some claim that it is responsible for allowing Catholic universities to compete with the secular land-grant universities.
The first prompt the conference addressed was “The Legacy of Land O’ Lakes in Catholic Higher Education Today.” Immediately, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame, dismissed the narrative of a steady decline of Catholic identity due to Land O’ Lakes. The statement encouraged boards of trustees to staff themselves with lay members. These lay trustees brought valuable knowledge about finances and fundraising that clerical administrations did not necessarily have. Fr. Jenkins argued that the Land O’ Lakes statement was necessary for the survival of Catholic institutions of higher education.
Another fruit of Land O’ Lakes, according to Linda LeMura, Ph.D., president of Le Moyne College, was a deep, searching discussion about the role of theology and philosophy in the university. The general consensus was the importance of emphasising the Catholic intellectual tradition. Many universities sized down their theology and philosophy requirements during the period after Land O’ Lakes. Peter Steinfels said, “There’s a lot less theology taught now, but it's much better.” The role of Catholic universities as centers of theological research and reflection was reaffirmed later in the conference in the context of Catholic universities functioning as the “critical reflective intelligence” for the Church and for society. “If Catholic universities don’t do theology, someone else will,” warned Margaret Steinfels.
The next topic addressed was institutional identity. All of the universities represented are associated with a specific Catholic order: Jesuits, Benedictines, Holy Cross Fathers, and Franciscans. For many of these universities, there has been the temptation to lead with their specific charism rather than with Catholic. LeMura mentioned that at Le Moyne, the administration went back and forth on describing themselves as “Catholic and Jesuit” and “Jesuit and Catholic.” Peter Steinfels identified the baggage associated with the word “Catholic” as a reason for this tension and the rising percentage of students at Catholic universities who do not identify as Catholic. The fact that identifying with a specific charism allows a university to stand out from other Catholic universities was also mentioned. In a contrast to most universities represented, Fr. Sean Sheridan, TOR, president of Franciscan University, said that his institution was not guided much by Land O’ Lakes because it was founded after 1967 and has instead drawn mainly from Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Because of this choice, Franciscan university has not had the identity crisis some other universities had in the wake of Land O’ Lakes.
In addition to discussing the descriptors used when identifying universities, the panelist spoke on the topic of how Catholic identity is expressed in curriculum and on campus. A common theme among the different institutions was an increased intentionality in respect to Catholic identity. What had once just “been in the air,” now constituted a focus for administrations. Fr. Jenkins made the point that the faculty is an extremely important component of university culture because “if you faculty doesn’t reflect the vision, it doesn’t exist.” However, this does not preclude non-Catholics from being professors. Many presidents spoke of how their non-Catholic professors were some of the most committed to the vision. Some panelists raised the issue that often hiring for mission is difficult when running an R1 research university, and there was an acknowledgement that the condition that small liberal arts colleges operate in are different than those of R1 universities.
The final speech was given by Fr. William Leahy, S.J., president of Boston College. He clearly outlined what drafters of Land O’ Lakes did and did not do. He emphasised the incompleteness of their work and fact that Land O’ Lakes was not as watershed as it is sometimes given credit for. Fr. Leahy ended with a call for a vision for Catholic education today.