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Land O’Lakes: Legacy and Leverage


cover of land o'lakes statementIn early September, I was delighted to participate in a panel of Catholic college and university presidents convened at the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame to discuss the impact of a document known as Land O’Lakes fifty years after the statement was issued in 1967.  At that time, a group of renowned Catholic presidents and theologians gathered at the University of Notre Dame retreat center in the place known as Land O’Lakes to discuss the need for change in Catholic higher education’s form of organization, governance, curricula and relationship to the hierarchy.  What emerged was a statement that many considered to be a kind of “declaration of independence” for Catholic colleges and universities, leading to decades of change in everything from boards of trustees to theology requirements to relationships with local bishops.  The Land O’Lakes statement led to the Vatican document on Catholic higher education known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae.  Much scholarship and commentary has ensued about all of these documents.  Notre Dame President John Jenkins wrote an excellent article in America magazine setting forth the context for the Land O’Lakes discussion in early September at Notre Dame.

Among many artifacts of the historic moment that led to the creation of the Land O’Lakes statement, most Catholic colleges and universities were still governed by boards comprised primarily of members of their founding religious congregations.  Most of the institutions were still segregated by gender, men’s colleges and women’s colleges.  Most of the presidents were religious.  The world beyond these campuses was changing dynamically:  Vatican II led to modernization and extensive change in the Catholic Church; the Vietnam War protests, along with the rising tide of civil rights and women’s rights movements led to substantial social change.  But the Land O’Lakes convening included only men, mostly priests, and the document clearly has limitations rooted in time and culture.  One of the more obvious gaps, a product of those times, was the exclusion of women from the group who formulated the document, and I was asked to make some comments on that fact; I noted some other absent voices as well.

Below is the text of the talk I gave at the Notre Dame Panel on Land O’Lakes:

If ever there was a time for Catholic higher education to act on its deepest values, to stand in solidarity with the poor and disposed of this earth, the time is now.  Today we have heard the news of the recission of the DACA protection for undocumented young people.  The fate of our Dreamers is ours as well.  When the roll call comes to tally who stood up to the oppressive, hateful, scandalously inhumane policies and tactics of a government in this moment, will Catholic higher education be on the right side of history and social justice?

Tonight we reflect on a moment in the past in order to know how to move into the future with greater zeal than ever before.

Whose Catholic Church?  Whose experience of Catholicism?

The men gathered at the Lake in 1967 were brilliant academic and Church leaders devoted to the idea and ideal of the Catholic faith that had shaped their lives and work for decades.  His powerful faith animated the religious, academic and civic leadership of Father Hesburgh; he and his colleagues were icons, revered by so many of us, so it is hard to say the slightest critical word about them.  But I will…

Theirs was a rarified world of seminaries and Vatican consultations and learned discourses among similarly disposed powerful men.  A motivating force for their gathering was the problem of power — some powerful men, the hierarchs, wanted to tell them, the university presidents, how to run their schools in the name of religion, while the presidents wanted to tell the bishops to “back off” in the name of intellectual freedom.  Both sides staked their turfs with an ardent claim of responsibility for the stewardship of the magnificent institutions they led, the then-young-but-growing Catholic universities and the ancient magisterial Catholic Church.

But they were shaped by their own cultures and historic circumstances.  They could hardly have imagined a Catholic Church in which the traditional white, European dominant population became eclipsed by populations of Latin and African and Asian Catholics, a paradigm shift in demographics heralding new and different expressions of once-immutable faith traditions.

They could hardly have imagined an Argentinian pope making common cause with the poorest and most displaced souls of this earth, asking a simple question, “Who am I to judge?” with a reverberating force shaking the foundations of conventional Catholic wisdom.

The could not have imagined a Catholic university that looks more like a “field hospital” than a great library.

They could not have imagined our students at Trinity today, mostly black and Latina women, immigrants and many undocumented Dreamers now so at risk, students who are largely materially impoverished but spiritually robust albeit praying in the words and rituals of many different faith traditions.

They might not even recognize Trinity today as Catholic.

Heck, even back then, they barely recognized our legitimacy.  “No girls allowed” at the Lake!  No liberal arts colleges, either.  No Black, Latino or Asian voices or experiences to inform and perhaps mediate the deliberations.  In the preamble, they went to some length to explain why persons of other faiths were not present in their circle, while remaining silent on the exclusion of Catholics who were different from them.  In the worst case, we might say we were excluded because they did not think we were as worthy as they to wrestle with such profound issues of ecclesiology and institutional stewardship.  More charitably, perhaps they truly believed they could speak for all of us, that it was their gift that they could represent the interests of the entire academy and all of Catholicism on our behalf.

But what Catholicism? And for whom?

As I read the Lakes document, I had some insight about why the women were not there.  Religious women educated their students for lives of service and action for social justice in keeping with their congregational missions. Scholarship was important, but teaching was dominant. The sister presidents of 1967 also had their hands full coping with life-threatening changes undermining the women’s colleges — declining enrollment because of coeducation at the men’s colleges, the budget havoc arising from the loss of contributed services as the nuns left after Vatican II.  But the women who led the Catholic women’s colleges also understood and confronted the larger questions that the men at Land o’ Lakes pondered, the questions about autonomy of governance and quality of the faculty.

In 1966, a year before the Land o’ Lakes meeting, Sister Margaret Claydon – a Sister of Notre Dame who was Trinity’s great president from 1959 to 1975 – was also chair of the National Catholic Education Association and said this at one of their meetings:

“None of us can continue to operate under any sort of double-standard regulations in regard to faculty.  Religious and lay faculty members should be governed by the same policies regarding appointment, retirement, responsibilities…. Boards of Trustees should be so organized to secure the best possible educational leadership and planning.  The only criterion for appointment or election to the Board should be competence in a special area rather than holding of an office of authority in a religious community.” (Sr. Margaret Claydon, Address to NCEA, 1966)

She went on:

“As institutions in the era of post-Vatican II, each has the responsibility to become much involved with problems of the local community.  We should be identified with ‘the servant Church’ and work towards creating programs to help alleviate the misery of poverty and of the poor.” (ibid.)

In many other talks she gave on Catholic education in those years, Margaret’s voice was as prophetic as the men at the Lakes.  She emphasized the “signs of the times” and she spoke of the responsibilities inherent in “Inheriting a Revolution,” the title of another major address she gave in 1965.  Her framework was consistent with the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, and her call to mission echoed in Land o’ Lakes and Ex Corde.

While not invited to the Land o’ Lakes meeting, Sr. Margaret later was elected as one of the delegates to the 1972 Vatican congress on Catholic higher education — the only woman in the American delegation.  I spoke to Margaret just last week about the Vatican meetings and she recounted this story:  “I kept raising my hand and wanting to speak, but they wouldn’t call on me,” she said with a laugh that was pointed even decades later.  The men were ignoring her.  She confided her frustration to her friend Ted Hesburgh.  He came up with a plan:  “He invited me to lunch.  We walked out of the Vatican at the spot where all the men were getting into their big limousines, and he made a point of introducing me to each of them, and then we walked on together and they saw us talking.  After that, they called on me regularly.”

Sr. Margaret led the laicization of Trinity’s board in 1968, aligning Trinity with the movement to ensure the quality, competence and flexibility of leadership for the future.

That future came barreling at me in the 1990’s at Trinity.  The prior two decades had not been kind to this venerable Catholic women’s college, once called the “eighth sister” in the company of Wellesley and Bryn Mawr and the other Ivy League women’s colleges.  But coeducation at Georgetown and the other Catholic men’s schools eviscerated Trinity’s enrollment, driving our full-time enrollment to just about 300 students by 1989; the after-effects of Vatican II’s impact on religious life led many members of the founding order, the Sisters of Notre Dame, to leave Trinity for other ministries or leave religious life entirely, resulting in a loss of the “contributed services” that subsidized the budget.  [“Contributed services” meant that the SNDs at Trinity did not receive salaries, a huge contribution from the free labor of women, but it also meant that the College’s budget was unrealistic because it masked the real cost of operations at that time.  We ended the practice of contributed services entirely in 1990.]

With deeply depressed enrollment and the need to replace religious labor with lay faculty at much higher wages, Trinity was on the verge of complete collapse by the end of the 1980’s.  I was the sixth person (permanent and acting presidencies) in a short span of 8 years to inhabit the President’s Office.  When Sister Board Chair handed me the keys to the President’s Office on a fateful August day in 1989,  I asked her what I should do if the bishop called.  “Ignore him,” she said, “your job is to fix it or close it.”

During a strategic planning debate at a board meeting, where the alumnae were clamoring for yet another new admissions director to “restore” the old college, a Sister of Notre Dame stood up and posed the most provocative question: “Why are we trying so hard to “reclaim” a past population that is gone?  We founded Trinity to educate women who were excluded from college; there are thousands at our doorstep.”  The question moved us to action, turning our attention to the women in our city who had been marginalized economically and educationally.  More than 90% African American and Latina, very low income, most are believers in other faith traditions — while some are Catholic, many more are Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, Muslim, and other faiths.

Does this population make Trinity less of a Catholic university?  Heavens, no!  If anything in ways you may not understand if you have not lived at the center of this ministry, Trinity is more Catholic today than ever before.   We live our faith in service to those who need us.

But whose Catholicism?  How do we understand our mission and purpose at Trinity as a Catholic institution?  Certainly, we are quite different from Notre Dame or Georgetown or Fordham. Can we dare lay claim the same faith identity?  Yes, but perhaps not as the men gathered at the lake might have conceptualized our identity, but more likely in the way that Pope Francis described the Church in his 2013 interview in America:  the “field hospital” walking through the darkness with the people in need — He said, “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

There are two elements that stand out to me as truly prophetic in the Land o’ Lakes document.

One element, also threaded through Ex Corde, is the mission commitment to interdisciplinarity and the broad description of undergraduate education, creating the opportunity for faculty of many different backgrounds and beliefs to engage with our faith values and to feel a genuine sense of belonging, participation and even ownership.

For Trinity, the most prophetic element in Land o’ Lakes proved to be the articulation of institutional autonomy, but not in the way that has caused so much criticism over magisterial authority and academic rights.  In a very different sense, the articulation of autonomy decoupled our institutional fate from the material concerns of the religious congregation, broke away from an endless debate over “liquidate or live?” and forged a new partnership of religious and lay leaders, talented professionals, who were able to understand our faith obligations in new ways while also reading the “signs of the times” with more professional insight and some modern tools like data and forecasting.  Far from divorcing Trinity from our tradition, we came full circle to understand the modern imperatives of our Catholic mission and we developed the ability to choose directions boldly and wisely.

The men at Land o’ Lakes might not have imagined a Catholic university like Trinity today.  But surely they would take pride in the way their ideas made our mission today possible.

But there’s little time or place for self-congratulation here.  We Catholic educators were to “Inherit a Revolution” in Sr. Margaret’s words half a century ago in another time of war, nuclear fears, racial strife.  Land o’ Lakes proclaimed our freedom and obligation to lead the revolution with the moral clarity of the Catholic faith tradition to create a good society rooted in social justice.

50 years later, the revolution seems exhausted as our nation suffers through a paroxysm of hatred and fearmongering such as most of us have never known.  Sadly, some well-educated Catholic citizens and civic leaders have contributed to this state of affairs, a fact that should give Catholic higher education pause.

Let this moment of reflection on Land o’ Lakes be an urgent call for renewal of our obligation as Catholic leaders and Catholic universities —- standing together with our diversity as a great strength — to confront the signs of these times, particularly the evils of racial hatred and human oppression infecting our nation with so much sorrow, suffering and fear.  We must be fearless advocates for justice for our Dreamers and all immigrants, for our students and colleagues of color who still experience so much racial oppression every day, and for all those in our human communities who suffer discrimination and rejection and even violence because of who they are.

Let us not shrink from a charge that we are too vocal lest we betray our faith by standing by in self-protective silence.

Let us find ways to open our institutions even wider to the human community that needs us, including welcoming even more low income students of color, more dispossessed immigrants of this earth, and finding the means to support their educations.  If we can do this at Trinity, so can much wealthier institutions.  Let us recommit our great Catholic institutions of higher education to use our deep intellectual, spiritual and tangible resources for the advancement of the Gospel imperatives in social justice: to restore hope, to enlarge charity, to make justice and peace for all God’s children seem possible once more.

Whose Catholic Church? Ours. We are the Church.  Whose experience of Catholicism?  The whole human family’s.  Let’s stop worrying so much about ourselves; let’s be there in solidarity and service for our brothers and sisters who need us so very much.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: