WASHINGTON, D.C. — Presidents and school officials from Catholic colleges and universities around the country kicked off their four-day meeting in Washington by looking squarely at the challenges they face.

The Feb. 1 plenary session for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities wasted no time in getting right to what’s at stake for these schools, including their role in the modern secular world, looming financial challenges and recovering from the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

“We can adapt and make our institutions thrive in spite of how exhausting it is,” said the session’s moderator, David Livingston, president of Lewis University, a Lasallian school in Romeoville, Illinois. He urged the group of about 400 college leaders to “hold onto the love you have for your institutions” while facing the work ahead.

Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, president of Fordham University in New York, started the discussion by urging the group to recognize that their colleges and universities are “in mission country right now,” stressing that they are no longer in a Christian world and need to “find new words and languages for a culture that finds the Gospel unacceptable.”

There is an “urgency to our moment now,” he said, noting that the American Church is once again in mission territory facing the impact of the sexual abuse scandal, a skeptical culture, an overall lack of community in an Internet-consumed society and large numbers of young people, Catholics included, rejecting organized religion.

The college president likened the current moment Catholic colleges are facing to St. Paul’s experience of bringing the Gospel message to a world that was unfamiliar with it. And just as Paul’s conversion drove everything that he did, the work of today’s church — particularly in higher education — should similarly be a “prophetic voice moved by an encounter with God.”

McShane said he couldn’t say enough about college leaders listening to their students about their issues and their indifference to the Church at large, but then offering them — from the Church’s teaching on the works of mercy and social action — a way forward and answers to what they are ultimately seeking.

“We have a message the world doesn’t understand,” he added, urging leaders to find ways to communicate it.

The priest acknowledged that one obstacle before them is the continued fallout from the Church’s sexual abuse scandal which he said has “lessened the impact of the Church in every way imaginable.”

Kim Smolik, CEO of Leadership Roundtable, a Washington-based organization of laity, religious and clergy working together to promote best practices in the management of the Catholic Church, addressed this very issue with the group, stressing that they could offer new direction.

She urged them to provide space for dialogue on this issue on their campuses, as many already have, and to lend their resources and experts to examining root causes of leadership abuse in the Church.

“You are the change makers,” she told them, noting that they not only provide a way to examine what happened, but they also play a key role in forming future church leaders.

The session closed with a look at the bottom line.

Arvid Johnson, president of the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, pointed out the more recent challenges before this group: an overall decline in college enrollment, presidential candidates’ campaign pledges of free college for all and community colleges offering four-year degrees.

He also mentioned a Forbes article from last fall that highlighted current trials private colleges are facing and said many would likely merge or perish.

But amid these new challenges, Johnson said Catholic colleges should not just accept that some of their schools will have to close, nor should they see mergers as a solution because they would be complicated.

He said most college leaders have already been cutting costs. What they need now are new approaches to growing revenue and innovative ways to increase enrollment such as adult education.

He also said Catholic higher education needs to follow different models that enable schools to work together while still keeping their own charisms. He suggested that they consider sharing resources such as legal counsel, human resources and information technology as Catholic health care groups and other businesses do.

“What we do is important and worth fighting for,” he told his colleagues, stressing that their work is about giving “soul to the global world.”

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