Friday, November 18, 2005

One Member of the Marquette Community Sizes Up the University

We’ve gotten, via e-mail, the reactions of a member of the Marquette community who attended a University sponsored event the purpose of which was to discuss the current state of the institution. Marquette posted a puff piece about the event on the University web site. The somewhat more jaded (and we fear, realistic) assessment of our e-mail correspondent follows:
I attend a Jesuit university that went through the post-50s tumult rather badly to all appearances. The Jesuits lost control long ago and only a few oldsters are still in teaching positions. If you spot a young Jesuit, he probably pushes paper somewhere. Sad, sad, sad. Some departments may be opposed to hiring Jesuit faculty; I have been told by several faculty members that many were purged years ago by “progressives.”

At any rate, following larger trends abetted by internal feuding of many different kinds, a corporate managerial efficiency system now controls the place, and there really is no normative, public intellectual discourse where any kind of “we”/group identity comes forth, certainly not one expressed from an unapologetic position of religious faith and commitment to the church or even some sort of “mere Christianity.” This stuff is OK as long as it is kept as a private, personal affair—one’s choice of “spiritualities.” Anything along the lines of “unapologetic commitment” now is routinely derided as a conservative’s nostalgia and similar stock-phrases which evoke a sense of illiberality, if not crypto-fascism. Indeed, it is my experience as a graduate student at MU that such primitive sentiments have all the sense of unPC marginality that you find and expect at thoroughly “secular” institutions. Unfortunately there are a handful of truly reactionary conservative types still grumbling in the shadows here who are overrepresented in the fears of others, so perhaps that partly explains why any idea that connotes appreciation for the Catholic past (and in fact what is still officially considered orthodoxy) is likely to make even good folks run or raise cudgels.

That’s basically what I saw the other night at an event the university sponsored. To set the scene briefly, several hundred people with different relationships with the university from within and without got together for “cafe conversations” and then dinner and then more table talk. The longer unscripted parts were OK; the rest was more directly controlled by the presiding emcee, some sort of phoney-baloney talking head that companies hire when they are so at a loss to understand themselves, they need a stranger to come in and “facilitate” the process. To that end we were given questions to use to get to know one person over a 30-40 minute period after which we had dinner together with other pairs. This part was pretty good. But later we had childish exercises that involved answering questions like “what does the university produce at its best,” which led to a pile of predictable superlatives recorded on big pieces of paper. The numerous guy smiley alums helped make this part extra silly. Then we had to take these answers and make them into a “person” whom we had to describe in terms of what they would read, what friends they'd have and similar claptrap. The last question, “What should the university do to improve?” was a real, adult question. Among the responses, “diversity” was uttered a great deal, and unfortunately there was no opportunity for deeper discussion and definition. What do people mean by “diversity?” Most people I talked to seemed to operate on very simplistic, quasi-racist assumptions that it means “letting more blacks in,” which is “good,” but then they’d immediately talk about the danger of “lowering standards,” which is “bad.” I have totally different ideas about the matter, which involve long-term goals for improving the university’s troubled relationship to the city and breaking down the upper-crust bubble that exists around the campus. Not really something you can explain in a few minutes to people who (typically) know very little about the city’s economic and political life. It would have been striking if everyone in the room had been asked to stand if they lived within the city limits and then to sit down if they lived on campus…

But the really interesting stuff came right at the end. Two Jesuits questioned the diversity emphasis because their main concerns related to the need for a strong particularist religious identity so as not to end up bland and the same as everyone else. One Jesuit also mentioned—and I was waiting for this to come up—that there was absolutely no religious aspect to the whole event, just a lot of corporate group therapy-speak. It was definitely significant that no prayer had been said over dinner or at any other time during the evening.

Pitting religious identity against diversity was a bad rhetorical move for the Jesuit who did that, however. When his religious identity sentiment was expressed during the public pass-the-mic time, it was not an occasion for discussion where intentions and meanings could be clarified. So around my table there were just a lot of sarcastic responses that matched what I heard earlier at a table when similar points had been raised. This was a defensive, hostile reaction that assumed a radically regressive call was being made for “more religion” and therefore “less diversity;” more exclusion and oppression, etc. Many old canards about “religion” came tumbling out, even from people who consider themselves religious and even Catholic. Trying to interject a bit of reason unleashed a tirade about people who want to reinstate the Tridentine mass, something about kneeling being mandated, the return of the repressed rogation days, and something about a (no doubt crazy) professor who recently left his faculty post at Boston College to go to Ave Maria. Yipes! This adds a lot to my old theory that the prevailing “Catholic” sentiment at MU is that Catholics should become really liberal Episcopalians.


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