UST Class Action

A letter similar to this was sent to the UST Board of Trustees in late 2008.

The University of St. Thomas: A Parent’s Perspective

In the summer of 2007, I purchased a book titled The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature.  The book’s thesis is that the English departments at many universities are staffed by professors that suppress English and American literature in favor of lesser works that conform to their own political and personal beliefs.  It specifically mentioned a book called The Handmaid’s Tale:

“Among the many third rate books that English professors waste their students’ time on (when they could have been teaching truly great English literature) is… The Handmaid’s Tale.  The Handmaid’s Tale is the quintessential expression of our intellectuals’ fears about what a truly Christian culture would look like.”

My wife and I soon discovered that the UST English Department was requiring all incoming freshmen to read The Handmaid’s Tale.  I read the book, and listed my objections to the head of the UST English Department. (See Letter of Complaint)  I listed three objections:

1. Its vulgarity and sexually sadistic imagery.

2. The book’s bigoted and anti-Christian plot.

3. Far better books could have been chosen.

What struck me most though, was the animus expressed toward Christianity and Catholicism in the book’s plot.  In the book, the United States is taken over by Nazi-like Christian males who enslave women and ceremonially rape them.  No way, I thought, if the book was about the U.S. being taken over by homosexuals who imprisoned and sodomized young males, would the English Department have used this book.  “What is going on with the English Department?” I wondered.

I discovered that in 1990 the English Department had added a criterion for choosing the “Common text.”: “…the ability of the book to deepen our students’ understanding of diversity.”  I discovered that many of the books used in the English Department were of recent origin (102 books from 1950-2007 versus 17 books from 700 BC to 1900).  They appeared chosen for ideological reasons. (See Sample Class)   I discovered that over 2/3 of the English Department faculty had signed a letter protesting St. Thomas’ “unmarried partners” travel policy.  In the letter, they complained that it was impossible for homosexuals to marry under current Minnesota law.  Of course changing this policy would be ridiculous, because hypothetically it would permit an adulterous couple or homosexual “partners” to accompany students on a “Sanctity of Marriage” conference.

English teachers signing this letter violated the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States which says “All professors are expected to be aware of and committed to the Catholic identity and mission of their institutions.  All professors are expected to exhibit… respect for Catholic doctrine.”  Two questions came to my mind:

1. Is the English Department discriminating against Catholic students by requiring them to read a book which vilifies their faith such as The Handmaid’s Tale?  Is this all that different from a teacher at a black college requiring students to read a book portraying backs as racial inferiors?

2. How did so many instructors who lack respect for the Catholic identity of St. Thomas end up in the English Department?  Is it possible that Catholic applicants were discriminated against in the hiring process because they were faithful Catholics?

I wrote UST Director of Institutional Diversity and posed the first question to him.  He didn’t write back.  I wrote again.  No answer.  So I tried to find out more about him on the internet.  There I found an article in which he wrote “…we must learn to reject the age old teaching of homosexuality as sin.”  But the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are objectively sinful.  So here was another individual who didn’t respect the Catholic mission of the school, or Catholic doctrine.

Finally, the Director wrote back.  He said he would take no action and added this comment: “Clearly, the University acknowledges that there is no absolute on the notion of ‘truth’.”

This is exactly wrong.  The Catholic Church teaches that objective truth exists and that it is knowable by reason. It also teaches that Jesus is Truth incarnate: “the way, the truth and the life.”  By saying, “Clearly, the University acknowledges that there is no absolute on the notion of truth,” the head of the Office of Institutional Diversity shows that the University is failing its Catholic mission.

I then discovered a talk given by Fr. Dease on Sept. 5, 2006 in which he speaks of the “Catholic Mission” of St. Thomas.  In the talk he says, “We value the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender… faculty… of the University of St. Thomas. We will continue to recruit faculty from among these communities.” 

What Fr. Dease said was in violation of the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which says, “The University should strive to recruit and appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith constitute a majority of the faculty.”   Ex Corde Ecclesiae says, “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the university… the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority of the faculty within the institution, which is and must remain Catholic.

On November 17, 2007, I wrote to Fr. Dease expressing my concerns above and asked him how many of the teachers who signed the protest letter were Catholic.  He never replied.

The Theology Department

In the spring of 2008, my daughter enrolled in a theology class.  One day I asked her how she liked her class, and she responded that though she liked her teacher, she was confused, because what she was being taught didn’t agree with what she had learned before.  I asked her if her teacher was Catholic.  She said she didn’t know.  Since she was well into the class, she asked me to postpone inquiring until the class was over as she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

After the class was over, I wrote the Chairman of the Theology Department and asked which teachers in the Theology Department were Catholic.  I asked him if he could tell me which of the Catholic instructors had a mandatum.  (A mandatum is a document, signed by the bishop, in which a Catholic professor of theology expresses his commitment to teach authentic Catholic doctrine.)  According to Canon Law #812 and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Catholics who teach the theological disciplines are required to have a mandatum granted by a competent theological authority.”

The Chairman of the Department wrote me back and said that two Lutherans, a Methodist, an Orthodox Christian, a Jew and a Muslim taught theology and that he could not tell me which Catholics had the mandatum as this was a “private matter”  I wrote back that this didn’t make sense.  It was like going to a GM dealership expecting that your car would be worked on by a “GM certified mechanic” and upon asking if it had been worked on by “GM certified mechanic” being told that it is a "private matter between the mechanic and the certifier."

I then wrote my daughter’s teacher and explained that my daughter had taken a class from her.  I asked if she was Catholic and if so, if she had a mandatum.  The teacher replied that she “did not answer personal questions from strangers.”

These responses also conflict with Ex Corde, which says: “Catholic students have a right to receive from the university instruction in authentic Catholic doctrine and practice, especially from those who teach the theological disciplines.” (Art.4, 5a)  They also conflict with the interpretation of Ex Corde given by the Vatican Secretary for the Congregation of Education: “The Catholic faithful--- both parents and students--- have a right to the assurance when choosing a university or a specific course that those teaching theology are in full communion with the Church… silence frustrates the purpose of this law and deprives the faithful of their right to the assurance about the doctrinal soundness of a professor.”  (Speech at Franciscan University, April, 2007)

My daughter then told me that her class on the New Testament used two books: the Bible, and a commentary by Bart Ehrman.  She then directed me to an interview on the internet in which Mr. Ehrman says that he doesn’t believe in God!

As a parent, I believe students have the right to know the religion of their theology teachers and if their teacher has a mandatum.  This information helps the student connect with the teacher of his or her choice.  It helps the student avoid wasting his time and money taking a class, only to discover too late, that the teacher isn’t Catholic.  My daughter and I asked for her money back, and for her “B” grade to be expunged from her record.  The request was denied.

Imagine my surprise then, reading these words in an article titled “Our Mission as a Catholic University,” by Fr. Dease in the spring, 2008, ST. Thomas Magazine:

“…we have made remarkable progress in establishing a more vibrant Catholic community… examples include… Theology courses… Are we fulfilling our mission as a Catholic university?  The answer is yes.”

My daughter’s and my experience does not concur with the assessment of Fr. Dease.

In his book The Catholic Catechism, the late university professor and theologian Fr. John Hardon says this when discussing “fraud” as a sin against the Seventh Commandment: “All substantial defects… must be revealed to a prospective buyer, where a substantial defect would render the object useless or substantially inhibit its use for what is the presumed purpose of the buyer.” 

For students who want authentic Catholic teaching, the failure to disclose that their Catholic Theology teacher is not Catholic, or is a Catholic lacking a mandatum, is a “substantial defect.”  My daughter certainly did not receive what she thought she was buying.  Students have a right to know this before spending over $3000 on a class.  Failure to disclose this is certainly the sin of fraud.   It may constitute legal fraud.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Real Catholic education is far superior to what one could receive in a secular university.  Though people often think of Catholic schools as narrow, this is not so.  For example, a Catholic school will answer the questions: What is the purpose of life?  What happens after I die?  How do I know if this is a morally good act?  Why is there evil and suffering?”  It will also tell the non-Catholic or secular answers to these questions.  Lacking theology departments, most public universities don’t answer these questions very well if at all, and to the extent they do, their answers are secular and relativistic.  St. Thomas, by allowing its English Department to degenerate into a sort of Political Re-education Department, and its Theology Department into a Religious Studies Department, is becoming more like a secular university, thus devaluing the “diversity,” the brand that St. Thomas brings to the educational marketplace.

As St. Thomas now stands, the student experience under many instructors is not only not Catholic, but anti-Catholic.  As a result, Catholics and non-Catholics who send their teenagers to St. Thomas do not always receive the educational product that St. Thomas claims to deliver and for which the students or parents pay a premium.  In my opinion, this is caused by the school ignoring the requirement to “recruit and appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith constitute a majority of the faculty.”  The school can have only so many faculty members who are philosophically opposed to the Catholic mission of the school before their philosophy becomes dominant: in the classroom, in their department, in the school--- until the university ceases to be Catholic.

This metamorphosis is already well underway.  The preface to the UST Mission Statement says, "Founded in 1885, the University of St. Thomas is a Catholic diocesan university..."  If the Board perceives its trust as preserving the Catholicity of the school, it needs to adhere to the ordinances and guidelines for Catholic universities set forth in the Code of Canon Law, and the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States, which says:

“The Board should see to it that the university periodically undertakes an internal review of the congruence of it mission statement, its courses of instruction, its research program and its service activity with the ideals, principals and norms expressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”  As this applies to St. Thomas, this means the Board must require the administration to enforce adherence to the school’s Catholic mission by the faculty, and that UST must hire more faithful and qualified Catholics as instructors.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae says:

“The identity of a Catholic university is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.  It is the responsibility of the competent authority to watch over these two fundamental needs in accordance with what is indicated in Canon Law.”

“Each bishop has a responsibility to promote the welfare of the Catholic Universities in his diocese and has the right and duty of watch over the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic character.  If problems should arise concerning this Catholic character, the local Bishop is to take the initiatives necessary to resolve the matter, working with the competent university authorities in accordance with established procedures.”

The “established procedure” that existed before the Bylaw change of 2007 made the bishop’s work easier.  With this in mind, the Board should restore the Bylaws so that the incoming bishop automatically becomes Chairman of the Board with the power to appoint the president.  Otherwise, what mechanism is in place to assure the Catholic identity of St. Thomas 50 to 200 years hence?  There is none.  The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, whose advice, by newspaper accounts the Board heeded, is a secular out-of-state organization with no authority in this matter whatsoever.  The Archbishop is the authority.  The Vatican Congregation for Education is the authority.  As it stands now, if students or parents are dissatisfied with the fidelity of the school to Catholic teaching, there is no authoritative non-administrative person to whom they can appeal.  There should be such a person, and that person should be the Archbishop.

It appears that the president of the university plays a major role in nominating individuals to the Board.  It would strengthen the checks and balances of university governance if there was one member whose position was not due to the president’s nomination.  The obvious choice for this again is the Archbishop.

The Board is comprised of successful businessmen and distinguished men and women who serve in prestigious positions.  To further communication with the local Catholic community, it would be good if there were a few distinguished local Catholics respected for their holiness and lowly service to the Church.  If a lay person may make such a nomination, I nominate Brian Gibson of Pro-life Action Ministries.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about my daughter’s departure from St. Thomas.  I wanted her to continue to go there, as I still think it is possible, with effort, to get a good Catholic education there.  But she wanted to go elsewhere, and her experience with the English and Theology Departments cut the legs from my arguments for her staying there.  I do, however have three teens in high school and would like St. Thomas to be an educational option for them.

If the Board would like to discuss this further, I am available.


Michael Bird


Supporting Documents for Parents' Perspective