Special Topic: Study on Campus Links to Religious Sponsors

[On October 1st, 2000, the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (Washington D.C.) published the results of a two-year governance study of Catholic colleges and universities and the religious congregations that sponsor them. The study was conducted by Melanie Morey, Ed.D., Senior Associate of Leadership and Legacy Associates in Belmont, MA, and Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., Executive Vice President of Niagara University. Working with the presidents and congregational leaders of the respective institutions, the study examined 172 or 85% of the Catholic colleges sponsored by religious congregations in the United States. The complete study is available from AGB, One Dupont Circle, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036, telephone number 800-356-6317 or 202-296-8400. The cost is $5.95 for members, $9.95 for nonmembers. Request stock number 109. What follows are excerpts from the study.]


In the late 1960's, most Catholic colleges restructured their statutes and bylaws, becoming organizations independent from, yet structurally related to, the religious congregations that founded them. The colleges separately incorporated and the religious congregations turned over some governance authority to lay trustees. Congregation-controlled governance gave way to structures of shared governance with new lay-trustee partners.

The precise details of the formalized, shared-governance relationships that developed in the late 1960s varied considerably, but once established, they remained relatively stable until now. A new wave of change has begun with profound implications for the approximately 230 Catholic colleges and universities educating over 670,000 students in the United States each year. These shifts are most apparent in a widespread re-negotiation of the roles, responsibilities, attitudes, and most particularly, governance structures that shape college sponsorship. The "new day" of "shared governance" now appears to have been simply a transition stage for Catholic colleges in the United States.


According to survey respondents, the overwhelming instigating factor for these changes is the demographic shifts taking place in religious congregations in the United States. Vowed religious life in the United States is both diminishing and aging. In 1965, there were 214,932 religious in the United States. In 1999, that number had fallen to 105,833. Currently, 72.75% of vowed religious are above age 60, with only 3.5% below the age of 40. Ninety-eight percent of survey respondents indicated that colleges are experiencing organizational stresses due to the aging and contraction of the sponsoring body. These stresses include effects from the reduction of congregational witness and influence and the contracted scope of congregational control. Forty-eight colleges (28%) reported that virtually no founding religious will work on campus or serve on the collegiate board of trustees within 10 years. Six colleges report that the religious will be gone within the next 2-4 years.

Most respondents indicated that this demographic shift is undercutting the sponsoring body's ability to fulfill its historical roles in institutional governance. Less than half of the colleges (49%) have presidents from the founding congregations. 43% of the presidents at Catholic colleges and universities are either laymen or lay women.

Twelve percent of the congregation heads (20) volunteered that they are having difficulty staffing board positions reserved for congregation members. At the same time, six college presidents reported that their institutions have statutorily reduced the required number of congregational members on their boards.

In response to these profound demographic shifts, religious congregations and colleges are altering the governance structures in order to soften the impact of the loss of the sisters, priests and brothers on campuses. Twenty percent of the colleges (35) reported that they had altered their governance structures within the past five years in order to implement new sponsorship arrangements. Fifty-six percent of the colleges (96) indicated that they are either currently revising these structures or intend to do so within the next year. These structural changes are designed to keep the congregation at least minimally involved in the most major collegiate decisions.

  • Seven colleges have recently created two-tier board structures, comprised of a board of trustees and an upper body comprised solely of congregation members. This structure gives the congregation statutory control over a wide variety of pre-determined issues. This brings the proportion of Catholic colleges having two-tier boards to 51%.
  • 13% of the institutions responding to this study (22) indicated that their founding congregations are adding additional statutory reserved powers. Presently, 72% of Catholic colleges assign reserved powers to the religious congregations.
  • 13% of the institutions responding to this study have instituted requirements that votes on particular issues include the approval of at least some of the religious on the board, regardless of the board's overall vote.
  • At least 29% of the colleges (50) have signed sponsorship agreements with their founding religious congregations. One pattern these contracts follow resembles an accreditation model in which the religious congregation agrees to allow the college to use the congregational name (e.g., "Franciscan") so long as the college meets certain criteria. These criteria range from institutional clarity around a college's Catholic and congregational identity to requiring that the college offer financial aid to particular kinds of students. Generally, it is understood that the congregation will assess periodically the college's faithfulness to the terms of the agreement. Rarely, however, does the agreement indicate how often the assessment will take place, who conducts it, or whether there is an appeal if a negative judgment is rendered.
  • 34 colleges (20%) reported hiring individuals to oversee the mission and congregational identity of the college. Analogously, seventeen congregations (13%) reported establishing "offices of sponsored ministries," staffed by "sponsorship officers/coordinators/directors" within the congregations themselves to oversee the mission and congregational identity of their sponsored ministries. Many religious communities see the general work of sponsorship as a new kind of apostolic ministry focused not on the work itself but on oversight. In this new understanding, the congregational emphasis shifts from doing apostolic work to shaping apostolic work done in one's name. In a sense, this is ministry one-step removed.
  • At least three larger congregations reported creating "mission corporations," independently incorporated entities to oversee the institutional ministries carried out in the congregation's name. These new organizations replace congregations as the direct sponsors of colleges, social service agencies, and healthcare institutions.

With the aging and contraction of religious life, several survey respondents wrote of plans for the time when the religious congregation will no longer be able to play a role in the college's life.

  • Three colleges are actively planning to hand the college over to the control of the local diocese.
  • 38 colleges described efforts to acquaint faculty, staff and board members with the particular history, values, and organizational culture of the founding religious congregations, in the hopes that these lay colleagues would accept responsibility for fostering this particular spirituality in the future. Several colleges report forming or joining consortia of colleges with similar charisms in order to undertake these initiatives together. Three such consortia were described, encompassing 52 colleges and universities.
  • Some others spoke of searching for replacements for the religious. Eight colleges specifically listed "mission-based hiring" as their strategy to replace disappearing religious. Two colleges reported that they intend to use their lay congregational associates to fill congregational board slots. One college said that they hoped to hire their own alumni as a way of perpetuating and increasing the number of people knowledgeable of and committed to the congregation's spirit.

Barring some dramatic providential act, the disappearance of priests, sisters, and brothers from Catholic colleges and universities will continue to its obvious conclusion, and Catholic higher education will exist without any significant involvement of religious congregations. This future without congregational sponsorship will most likely take one of three possible paths. Some colleges will become secular. A few may find ways to protect the particularized spirit of the founding congregation. Most, however, are likely to become more universally Catholic. That is, they will shed the particular spirituality and culture that was characteristic of the founding congregation, and will adopt a more broad-based Catholic character. The likelihood of retaining a Catholic and/or congregational culture could well depend on steps colleges and congregations take now.

Some colleges and universities may retain a strong congregationally-specific culture and spirituality into the future. At such institutions, however, a memory of the founding religious will not be sufficient. The lay professionals who staff the college will need to internalize the spirituality and culture that was characteristic of the founding community. They must also become the bearers who nurture, sustain, and pass on the tradition.

Therefore, the extent to which the congregation's charism is hospitable to the lay academic life will be an important factor in whether or not the transfer of this aspect of institutional culture is successful. Those religious traditions that are more amenable and consonant with lay experience will have an advantage. Colleges animated by these kinds of spiritualities may have an easier time maintaining their unique culture even when the religious are gone from the campus. The Franciscan charism, for example, has always been attractive to laity, and many lay organizations steeped in these traditions have developed and flourished over the years. In most situations, however, the success of creating a congregational culture sustainable by the laity will be more difficult. The final arbiters of whether a particular congregation's spirituality is appropriate for laity will be, of course, the laity themselves.


Organizational cultures are kept vibrant by the energy of a core group who personally identify with the organization's beliefs and values and accept a public role motivating others to do likewise. Religious cultures are organizational cultures and operate in the same way. They require a core group of people at the center of the organization whose belief and witness both allows and encourages others to freely express and explore their own religious convictions. If, in the absence of the visible witness of religious congregations, a college desires to manifest a Catholic culture, then it must develop anew that core group within the organization. Knowledge of Catholicism is not enough. Quiet conviction is not enough. (There are Catholics of strong religious conviction teaching in state colleges, and that does not make those colleges Catholic.) Only a core of visible believers, people whose faith is palpable, can leaven the culture of an organization. Any strategy to preserve these cultures, and keep them vibrant over time, must look to create and sustain this core. Otherwise, these institutions will become secular in all but name and history.

One of the most significant losses Catholic colleges experience as congregation members disappear is the loss of witness. Therefore, a critical question they face in maintaining their unique cultural identity is how to create witnesses without religious congregations.


Perhaps the most disturbing finding of this study is the degree to which both colleges and congregations are changing their governance structures in order to solve a much larger problem. The loss of Catholic and congregational culture will not be stemmed by adding an additional tier to the governance structure; assigning additional reserve powers to congregations; creating sponsorship agreements; or creating offices and officers of mission identity in the congregations. The structures that are documented in this study will only last as long as the religious congregations themselves are viable on campuses.

Congregations are disappearing and, ironically, are creating structures of greater control over the institutions they founded. As they continue to disappear, they will be less able to exercise the control structures to which they are now turning.

Some of the changing governance structures reported here enable congregations to remain involved in collegiate life, but not in a manner that influences the day-to-day operations of the institution. As religious disappear and serve only on second-tier boards, as mission officers in congregational offices, or as sponsors at a distance, their authority becomes limited to control over specific decisions. In other words, broad influence has given over to narrow control. The students, staff, and faculty -- whether in classroom, offices, or campus gathering spaces -- will not experience the religious or their lived witness first-hand. Survey respondents overwhelmingly reported a desire to continue congregational culture in the absence of the sponsoring group, but solutions that ration and optimize the few remaining religious are only stopgap measures and thus ultimately doomed to failure.

Responses to the study clearly suggest the major issue facing Catholic colleges is the possible loss of a congregation-based culture stemming from the disappearance of brothers, sisters, and priests in this country. Unfortunately the study also indicates that colleges and universities have not worked out an adequate response. Any true solution to this problem must operate on the level of building and sustaining a vibrant culture without the direct involvement of religious congregations. The current effort to renegotiate and revise governance structures at Catholic colleges and universities is, at best, a stopgap measure and, at worst, a diversion from the real task at hand.