Well I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something—the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be…have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean…don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University: be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! “…There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!
– Mario Savio, December 2, 1964, University of California at Berkeley The current controversy at
Mount Saint Mary’s University has been, at least in the circles in which I run, covered to death. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a classic[ally-modern] story: a businessman is hired as the president of a Catholic university. He attempts to run the school like a business—firing (with refunded tuition) freshmen the college believes likely to underperform. His rhetoric is just as cutthroat, a likely holdover from the corporate world: drowning bunnies and glocks to heads. But, he remains, in an e-mail to parents, anyway, “[y]ours in Christ.”
So far, I’ve said nothing new. And that’s because there is nothing new about the Mount situation; Qoheleth has been proven correct once again: “nihil sub sole novum nec valet quisquam dicere.” I know this because I went to Catholic college as an undergraduate; in fact, I just graduated in 2015. Junior year I studied abroad and came home to a new logo, a new marketing slogan, and new plans in general, all the result of a change in “management.” Our motto, “In hoc signo vinces,” was hidden behind the “more marketable” “Ask More”; our seal was replaced with a cross (no, not the holy rood) between a Crusader’s shield and an emblem of Sol Invictus. Recent reports about increased funding for athletics at the expense of our languishing visual arts department leave me with little hope: “The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!”
And yet, that’s all anyone seems to want to do: note that this process is ongoing, lament it, and pray that somehow the Mammon of STEM will meet his demise at the hands of a new prophet, a Zarathustra. But that seems unlikely when the best the religious press has produced has been pointed, but misdirected, criticism. Commonweal provides a useful summary of events, but mostly uses the opportunity to undermine their ideological foe, the Cardinal Newman Society. First Things offers a lament, but limited historical perspective: “Thus donors and trustees do not ‘own’ the university, nor do administrators ‘run’ it, any more than the blessing of King, Pope, Prince, or Prelate was the measure of the communal activity of the scholastic guilds in medieval Paris or Bologna.”That might sound historically oriented, but it historicizes on the one hand, but not on the other. We live in the 2010s, the age of Silicon Valley. Simon Newman, President of MSMU, is, what some vulgar 30s or 40s Communist probably would’ve called a “capitalist stooge.” But he’s just that and nothing more: not the problem itself, but a product of a problematic social paradigm. Call it Das Kapital or the “Throwaway Culture.” Mr. Newman is just applying the skills taught to him in the world of business that we, all too often, so heartily affirm and praise; efficiency, productivity, and technical know-how must define the world. But, you see, we must choose. Pope Paul VI wrote “if you want Peace, work for Justice.” In this day and age, we might say, if you want “authentically” Catholic education, stop praising the qualities valued by the business community. They represent what Weber termed the “Protestant work ethic,” not the Catholic one. Aquinas was a portly Italian aristocrat, not an 18th-century Congregationalist.
This brings us to my epigraph. In 1964, Mario Savio stood before a crowd at the University of California at Berkeley and delivered his now famous “Machine Speech” (watch part of it here, with a full transcript here). In it, he took on what he saw as a wholly-bureaucratized University system. Mr. Savio understood that he was being treated like “raw material” and the professors were being treated like “employees” because that is the model contemporary society values. There is no saving Mount Saint Mary’s without working to save the society behind it: sign the petition, write your bishop, and (for current students and alumni) start protesting. Take back what is yours, what is ours.
It is true that Simon Newman has allegedly badmouthed Catholics. It is true that the new landing page for the school makes no mention of Catholic identity. It is also true that something must be done. But change can only come if we pay heed to the words of Simone Weil: “Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men—oppressed and oppressors alike—the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels.”
Only heartfelt prayers and the work of human hands can reaffirm and reinstitute “authentic” Catholic education. Until we are ready, we might as well hang our heads and leave Mount Saint Mary’s alone.