What Age Are We In: The Curia, The Godfather, and College Students

In June 2012 I had the privilege of joining a group of Catholic university leaders for a one-week visit to the Vatican, where we were fortunate enough to meet some of the cardinals of the Roman Curia. Their intellects and dedication were inspiring, and that week remains one of my greatest educational experiences.

At the end of the week, I had one major question I felt I needed to bring back to our university community: "What age are we in?" My visit to Vatican City triggered this question because I now had a much better appreciation of all the different time periods that the Vatican had adapted to in one way or another. It is the center of our Catholic faith, but it is also one of the oldest governments in the world. Trying to imagine how it navigated through the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, etc., was somewhat mind-boggling. How did the Vatican recognize what was happening with mankind's development within a broader context of history? How did they anticipate major events/changes? I am not a Vatican scholar, but I was inspired to consider the "What age are we in?" question at a much smaller level: the modern American Catholic university.

In August 2012 I invited one of our senior faculty members to lunch. I arrived first to the Italian restaurant we had agreed upon. When he arrived, the first thing he asked me was had I gotten there early to plant something in the men's room? We laughed at this Godfather joke, knowing that, while we are good colleagues, we have had some serious disagreements in the past. But I was there to ask him to take on a significant responsibility, not to pull a Michael Corleone.

My experience tells me that university presidents need to appoint credible faculty leadership to lead significant institutional inquiry. From my perspective, "What age are we in?" is our most important inquiry. If we can make sense of our modern era as it relates to our university's students, then we should be able to develop relevant and attractive curriculum. Honorable work. The risk you take in appointing credible faculty leadership is they may lead the inquiry toward a finding you can't fully appreciate or support. I find it's usually worth the risk, and this colleague had been through a significant inquiry with me just three years earlier. We hadn't agreed on everything, but the results of our work made a real difference at the university.

I shared with him that I wasn't sure what history would ultimately call our era, and I wasn't convinced that we are in an age that will ultimately be defined by history as a "technology" or "information" era. I offered that this could be the most important inquiry the university would have for many years. When he saw that I wasn't leaving our lunch mid-meal to go to the men's room, he agreed to lead the inquiry with the understanding that he was free to recruit a broad cross-section of faculty and staff to support the inquiry.

In April 2013 the "What Age Are We in?" group delivered their findings to me:

Today's college student is coming of age at a time when many of the major institutions that shape an individual's identity--family, religion, community, politics, culture, technology, education--are undergoing significant and rapid change, creating a sense of instability. Today's student also continues to face the same developmental tasks faced by most adolescents throughout the modern era, such as solidifying one's identity, navigating intimate relationships, dealing with loss and personal challenges, and recognizing the personal and collective impact of historical and cultural events. More than ever, students must have an arsenal of skills available to them in order to meet the challenges presented by 21st-century adult life. The most important of these skills may be those that allow students to cope with and understand change: resilience, flexibility, critical thinking, decision making, global and cultural literacy, ongoing self-reflection, dealing with failure, and learning how to learn. Beyond skills, students will also benefit from exposure to values such as openness to experience, that enables them to recognize and take advantage of opportunities presented to them, and service to others, that awakens them to their social responsibility and gives them a broader perspective on the world.

I was thrilled to receive the report as it truly prepares the university for meaningful work. I believe Catholic universities like Marymount California are in what I call the "character formation" business. Students from around the world come to American Catholic universities because they (and their families) believe we are places where character formation is taken seriously. The "What Age Are We In?" group had presented findings that will now inform the development of new general education requirements that address character formation.

Did the "What Age Are We In" group predict what history would call the early part of the 21st century? No, but they did find a way to identify the volatility of societal change and its impact on young adults. Their report is now a formal component of our current general education requirements work. There's an old joke about that work: Changing general education requirements is like moving a graveyard. Certainly, this will not be easy because it must be a thoughtful, inclusive, and bold dialogue. But I am comforted to know that we are starting from a decidedly student-centered perspective.

You could ask, given all the things that a university president has to contend with, does this guy really have time to contemplate these types of questions? What about the university cost/value proposition that so many are railing about? What about the financial stratification of our society? What about the lack of college readiness of many high school graduates? I'm often reminded of how long a list of challenges we have, but how often do we reflect on the questions that rise above all others: Are we relevant? Does what we do have meaning? What age are we in and why does that matter?

Readers' comments are welcome at mbrophy@marymountcalifornia.edu.