All This and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Too
Sitting in a small office in a modest three-story building in busy downtown Sacramento, Calif., Barry Suggarman envisions a sprawling, tree-lined 450-acre university campus filled with 5,000 of the best students from around the country.
Adjacent to the campus is a small university village with shops, retailers and other services. To top it off, Mass is celebrated each day in a splendid campus chapel, and the Catholic faith permeates every classroom.
Some may call it a dream, but Sugarman, executive vice president of the University of Sacramento, calls it a plan whose time has come. And he has the studies, blueprints and funding to make it a reality.
The university, run by the Legionaries of Christ, began classes last January on one floor of that modest three-story building in the California capital, with graduate-level courses in education and liberal arts. Twenty degree students are enrolled, and all teachers work part-time. It's a small but necessary step, says Sugarman, toward accreditation — and the building of a reputation for academic excellence.
The next big step will be to purchase land for the campus on a former Air Force base on the outskirts of Sacramento. According to Sugarman, a developer has put together a group of investors to buy and build on the property.
In addition, the university already has 6,000 ordinary donors who send regular contributions, large and small.
“Right now the county is doing an analysis of the property and will report how many buildable acres will be made available,” Sugarman said. “After that, we'll be ready to buy.”
Legionary Father Robert Presutti, the university's president, said that the University of Sacramento is the first multi-discipline institution of higher education in the United States run by the Legionaries, which has U.S. houses of formation and seminaries as well as numerous apostolates and outreach programs for young people and families.
The congregation was founded in the 1940s in Mexico and now has headquarters in Rome.
The Legionaries of Christ have founded 14 universities since opening the Anahuac University in Mexico City in 1964. Besides the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va., they currently direct nine universities in Mexico, one in Santiago, Chile and one in Madrid, Spain, as well as the Regina Apostolorum and the European University in Rome.
“Wherever we are established in the world, we consider higher education a key component of our work,” says Father Presutti. “It has always been a goal for us to open a university in the United States.”
Plans for the school began coming together almost 10 years ago, accelerating in 2000 when a $1 million seed donation came through. Sacramento was chosen because of the area's demographics, which suggest that California will need 700,000 more higher-education seats in the next decade.
Then, too, there's the fact that the capital city does not have a major private college or university.
Plans are to make the school a nationally ranked university that will attract students not just for adherence to Church teachings but also for academic excellence and contributions to high-level scholarship.
Key to the project has been the enthusiastic support of Sacramento Bishop William Weigand. In a July 2002 letter approving the establishment of the university, he wrote: “I have for quite some time been palpably concerned at the lack of a Catholic college or university within the metropolitan area of a diocese of our size. The Catholic population is growing even more swiftly than the general population, yet the nearest Catholic college or university is 100 miles away.”
He also wrote to the Catholics of his diocese, urging them to enroll in the new master's programs. The education course includes certification in religious education for use in Catholic schools and parish catechetics.
Dan Cairns, 47, a financial planner, enrolled in the education course because he wanted to learn to spread the faith and engage the secular culture.
“I have a great interest in teaching the faith to adults so they in turn can teach their children,” says Cairns, who is married and has three school-age children. “It's very clear to me that we're involved in a culture war and, for too long, I've been sitting on the sidelines.”
How will the university grow from a few dozen students meeting in a downtown office building to a sprawling campus with thousands of students?
The growth will be gradual, says Sugarman, who has a doctorate in education from Columbia University in New York City. A major study commissioned by the university indicates that the growth in population and the number of Catholics in the area add up to a ripe evangelizing and educational opportunity.
“Because the public colleges and universities in California are so good, there is a lack of private institutions of high learning in the state,” he notes. “The demand for seats in the best public universities far exceeds the number of seats, and all demographic factors point toward a sharp increase in demand over the next decade.”
The University of Sacramento will fill the need for quality higher education in the state, he says. As a nationally ranked university, it stands to draw students from all around the country.
“It will be a gradual process, but we're committed to the task,” Sugarman says, adding that an “insistence on deep and strong growth in our faculty and student body … will give us a reputation not only for commitment to Catholicism but to academic strength that even non-Catholics will want.”
“There is no conflict between academic excellence and the Catholic faith,” Father Presutti points out. “In fact, the two are inseparable. Faith and reason are complementary and even necessary for one another. At the University of Sacramento you find both in harmony.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.