Just Universities

Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education

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Gerald J. Beyer
  • New York: 
    Fordham University Press
    , February
     2021.
     304 pages.
     $29.99.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9780823289974.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education, Gerald Beyer’s thesis is that American Catholic universities have failed to live up to the promises of Catholic social teaching (CST) in perpetually excluding outsider voices of adjunct faculty, the material poor, those who are concerned with the environment, and those of diverse race, gender, and sexual orientation. These injustices have led to his conclusion  universities “have not escaped” neoliberalism (2). As such, lay boards control all the internal movements of their universities, and their stakeholders bear the responsibility for not being gospel-centered campuses. The core of Beyer’s criticism lies in addressing what amounts to immoral business practices (e.g., corporate donations), and the main CST concept he uses throughout the text is solidarity, which is recognizing one’s neighbor as a member of the extended human family and working towards their highest good.

One of Beyer’s major contentions thereof is that the Catholic Church and universities need to practice what they preach. Catholic schools are all about formation of character, at least in theory, so they ought to base the concrete material in the classroom on CST. Commodification, however, rules the Catholic university, and higher education is merely consumption for students. Majors are chosen according to earning potential rather than what they do for one’s soul. Administrators become not guiding lights for university’s future but managers. Neoliberalism reduces the human person to homo economicus, eliminates community, and forces competition where there originally was none. All things are priced, and people are objectified and alienated from themselves. One might say a kind of “institutional advancement,” or elitism, takes the place of mission mostly because university administration lacks knowledge of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  Administrators have the power to change such things, but they need humanistic anthropology in place of the capitalist values that animate the corporate university.

Because of such values driving the university forward in time, Beyer argues Catholic schools do not care for their own. Adjunct faculty are slave labor, while administrator and athletic coach salaries reflect corporate America. Beyer’s larger point, in accordance with solidarity, is workers have dignity. For this reason, they deserve their wages. Beyer observes many Catholic schools first existed to educate the poor, but lately they do not (91). Pell grants, traditionally reserved for financially needy students, are not enough, which causes student loans to be too much. Higher education as a human right is not really a right in the papal encyclicals. The right to higher education is rooted in solidarity and the duty to participate in one’s government. Faculty want the best students, and one way to find them, Beyer contends, is to open higher education up to all.

Another major concern, Beyer writes, is ethical investments. Stewardship (how goods are managed) is of major concern for coming generation(s), and the author notes several Catholic universities where protests occurred to that end, including Boston College. Here Beyer cites United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Economic Justice for All with “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions, indeed the Church should be exemplary” in reference to corporations’ responsibility to “create returns for investors” (138). When thinking of the university as a corporation, Beyer points out the lack of return in favor of student support for ethical investment, particularly as concerns “the ethical status [including origin] of the source[s]” (149). Accordingly, the people most affected by these situations (students and faculty) have the right to participate in university-wide decision processes.

Beyer’s final two chapters, on race and gender respectively, hit on many of the points often found in socio-economic circles advocating more just treatment of minorities.  He argues Catholic universities need to do more to hire on the basis of race (181) and delegate non-exclusionary climates towards those who do not identify with mainstream gender categories (237).  Specifically, on the topic of women, Beyer discusses women’s pay and position in the Catholic university. Beyer notes any woman’s husband’s wages are decidedly higher than hers, and that there is a marked bias against women desiring tenure and parenthood. The assumption is the woman stays home with her children while the father pursues university life. Beyer’s recommendation is a flexible course schedule for faculty to care for their children and a family leave policy. There is also appeal to donors to make colleges family friendly by stipulating their donations work to that end. He also expresses concern for women’s studies, writing, “Loyola University of Chicago was the first Jesuit University to implement a women’s studies program in 1979” (230).

On that note, Beyer comments sexual orientation and gender identity need to be built into non-discrimination policies, but that opposes the kind of orthodoxy he argues in advocating for CST as part-and-parcel of Church teaching. In other words, if CST is part of orthodox Catholicism, then its sexual ethics must be as well—or he’s arguing for a new ethic. I do agree, however, on his assertion that bullying and harassment have no place in the academy whatsoever. Similarly, sexual assault climate surveys are good for breaking the “culture of silence” about such matters (244). Obtaining data on sexual assault can aid us in preventing such things in the future. 

Still, I must disagree with Beyer on his fundamental assumptions about CST. He seems to think any right at any time is what the Church supports, and that just is not true (e.g., gender identity). The book, however, is completely readable and will suit anyone with an interest in the topic just fine. Moving forward, the future of Catholic higher education lies in the hands of our faculty and students relating to each other as learners on the road to infinite wisdom. All prejudice is excluded by default. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy W. Rothhaar is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Marquette University. 

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald J. Beyer is associate professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University. He is the author of Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution.

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