Question: What is the most influential provider of continuing adult education in North America?
Hint: It’s not a school system.
Answer: The daily newspaper.
Even in this day of declining circulations and rising competition for time and attention, far more people acquire far more information about their world and how it works from newspapers than from any other source.
Much of the content of this issue of In Trust reflects on aspects of the public character of theological schools, the theme for the June biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh. One of the consequences of having a public character, however, is sometimes attracting the attention—for good or ill—of a newspaper. Two stories in the pages that follow describe what happened after newspapers got interested in aspects of operations at seminaries.
At the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the graduate theological school of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, a reporter for the New York Times came calling, wanting to know how today’s prospective priests are prepared for a life of celibacy.
At Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, a reporter wanted amplification and explanation of a confidential audit report leaked to the newspaper that appeared to point to financial malfeasance by the school’s dean.
As Robin Lind’s article ("Seminary Placed Front and Center") points out, Mundelein’s rector/president John Canary chose to invite the Times reporter in and let her see for herself. What emerged on the Times front page was a story that unquestionably advanced public understanding of education for celibacy and showed the case that priestly candidates are better screened for possible sexual aberrancy than was the case in earlier years.
Berkeley, whose story is told in the "Balance Sheet" section of this issue, was confronted by a more ticklish challenge than Mundelein. It chose the opposite strategy—silence before publication of the first story (also a Page 1 piece), and then retention of a public relations firm and circulation of a prepared statement that no official would comment on or explain. This left guidance on the meaning of the audit report entirely in the hands of the person who provided it to the Courant, a source who has never been identified but who, it would appear, was an insider with no love for then-dean R. William Franklin.
Berkeley’s statement, issued in the name of board chair Christian R. Sonne, challenged the accuracy of the audit report and defended Franklin. But it weakened its other points by claiming preposterously that Franklin’s resignation, which it proceeded to announce, had nothing to do with the confidential report on the school’s management. In fact, though Franklin declined to discuss the matter, reporters soon learned he had told friends he had found dealing with the Yale investigators so unpleasant that he no longer wanted to work with the university.
Would Berkeley, Yale Divinity School, and Yale University have been better off if they had made the audit report generally available once it was apparent that the Courant reporter had it? Would it have helped the institutions for officials to respond directly to reporters? It’s hard to say with certainty.
Open doors rather than closed mouths would, however, definitely have provided an opportunity not often present: to explain what theological schools do, and why they can be an important part of a university’s life. To those who care about institutional governance, it might have shed light on why, or if, a university should require an affiliated school to conform precisely to the university’s management policies.
The importance of a theological school to university life did, however, burst full-blown into public awareness last year at Duke University, in events described in "Right Place, Right Time." The coincidence of an abrasive newspaper advertisement provided the catalyst in that instance, but if a school accepts my assertion that newspapers are the most influential provider of continuing adult education, any senior administrator and any board can look for ways to present aspects of theological wisdom that will command space in newspapers and capture public imagination.
Educating about theology is what theological schools are for, isn’t it?