Academic Earthquake Rocks San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — John Galten is facing his 60th birthday — and sudden unemployment.

During a 10-minute conversation Jan. 19 with Dr. Stanley Nel, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Francisco, Galten's 25-year career at the university's prestigious St. Ignatius Institute, the last five as its director, ended with his unceremonious firing.

A few minutes later, John Hamlon, the institute's associate director, was also given his pink slip. It was a Friday, and the pair was told to clear their offices by the next Monday.

The summary firings of the popular administrators have stoked a smoldering historical feud between the institute — a small academic enclave catering to about 150 students — and the faculty of the larger Jesuit university of more than 2,000 where it is located.

Six of the institute's core faculty members immediately sent a letter to the university's new president, Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, declaring their intention to resign in protest from their posts at the St. Ignatius Institute after the spring session (they will retain their tenured professorships at the university itself).

The Friends of St. Ignatius Institute, an independent organization, set up a Web site, www.friend-sofsii.com, to protest the firings. Dozens of students, alumni and benefactors of the program have charged this is part of an “academic putsch” intended to stifle the institute's 25-year-old voice, advocating obedience to the teaching authority of the magisterium of the Church.

The institute's supporters have also been quick to point to its high accomplishments: Over the years, its small proportion of students took 30% of the University Scholar Awards.

Father Privett, barely five months in office as president, e-mailed his explanation to the university community the day of the firings. He appreciated Galten and Hamlon's service, he said, but “academic and fiscal challenges” demand “increased coordination and consolidation of University programs and the strategic concentration of limited resources.”

He told the Register Feb. 12 that the University projected “about $100,000 in savings” from the action.

Father Privett said he had appointed professor Paul Murphy, director of the main campus's Catholic Studies Certificate Program, as the institute's new director to “draw the [St. Ignatius Institute] and Catholic Studies into a more synergistic [relationship] that enriches and strengthens both programs.”

Core Faculty's View

Five of the core faculty who are resigning in protest — Professors Tom Cavanaugh, Raymond Dennehy, Erasmo Leiva, Kim Summerhays and Michael Torre — argued in a Jan. 29 open letter to Father Privett that the proposed melding of the St. Ignatius Institute's highly respected curriculum, based largely on the Great Books of Western Christian civilization, with the campus's 2-year-old Catholic Studies program was “administrative and academic recklessness.”

In their 10-page letter, the five professors dismissed Father Privett's financial explanations as “not believable.” Rather, they said, the firings were the latest manifestation of the anti-institute animosity of “a group of your fellow Jesuits, especially some members of the Theology Department.”

The St. Ignatius Institute's core faculty had always argued for “loyal assent” to the pope's teachings, the five professors added, while their opposition had argued in favor of “loyal dissent” — believing it was acceptable to publicly oppose Church teaching on faith and morals.

This bitter feud, the core faculty said, dated from the institute's founding in 1976 by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio. But the old wounds had recently begun to heal, the faculty said. Then the firings occurred, without prior consultation with the SII Advisory Board.

Father Privett's secretary initially referred press inquiries to James Wiser, the university's vice president of academic affairs and provost.

“The institute here at the University of San Francisco has historically been one whose programs have raised questions among some people,” Wiser told the Register. “There are those at the institute who believe they are representing a certain orthodoxy within the Catholic Church, and those who believe they are not being generous enough and inclusive enough of the broad-based understanding of the Catholic faith.”

Regarding allegations that the firings were “abrupt and mean-spirited,” Wiser replied, “That's not true.” Galten and Hamlon were given adequate severance packages, said Wiser, and help looking for alternative employment.

Galten, however, told the Register his firing was abrupt. He was offered the opportunity to apply for a lesser administrative position at the institute this summer, he said, but had the distinct impression the post was already filled.

Asked if the long-standing philosophical dispute between the St. Ignatius Institute and its detractors at the university had anything to do with the recent firings, Wiser replied, “Well, I wouldn't focus on that aspect of it.” He insisted that the changes were being made to enhance the institute. Its Great Books program would be untouched, he said, and other programs like the foreign studies options would be expanded.

Students, alumni and benefactors remain unconvinced. Jason Kenney, former student of the institute and a Canadian member of parliament, called Father Privett's explanation “disingenuous.”

Kenney, a Catholic convert, said he arrived at St. Ignatius Institute in 1987 as a “non-Catholic political liberal” who was nonetheless “shocked by the degree of secularization” of the larger university. He was most bothered by the university's willingness to direct resources to a pro-abortion feminist group on campus.

“It was a gross violation of an allegedly Catholic university to …furnish resources and give official sanction to organizations actively fulminating against a central teaching of the Church … and promoting the killing of unborn children,” said Kenney.

Without the institute's support, Kenney challenged the university in a public battle, waged in the local media, that “got quite vicious with the Jesuits calling me a fascist trying to effect a coup d'etat on campus,” he said.

Father Privett told the Register he was unaware of Kenney's case. Asked about tensions at the university over the Church's teaching on abortion and contraception, he said, “I think we probably have all points on the spectrum represented here. We're a university.”

Older alumni recount earlier examples of the philosophical conflict. Elizabeth Nelson, who attended the St. Ignatius Institute in its first year in 1976, wrote to Father Privett describing how, as a Protestant living for the first time in a Catholic environment, she had been “impressed by [the University of San Francisco's] efforts to welcome and create community with students and faculty of diverse cultures and faiths,” but had noticed that tolerance did not extend to the institute's Catholic commitment.

Given that “history of intellectual and spiritual tension … it is hard to believe that you would expect vague statements about ‘strategic concentration of our limited resources’ to be accepted at face value,” Nelson wrote.

Shocked Students

Freshman St. Ignatius Institute student Eduardo del Rio told the Register that he was “still recovering” from the shock of the staff changes. Del Rio said Galten was trying to help him decide his major and to make arrangements for him to take film classes at San Francisco State University. “He was the easiest person to talk to,” the student said.

But when del Rio showed up on the day of the firings for a follow-up meeting, Galten was already in the meeting that resulted in his dismissal.

“I have considered transferring,” said del Rio. “Right now the only emotion that comes out is fury.”

Off-campus criticism is also continuing. Anthony J. Ryan, president of the board of directors at Trinity Grammar and Prep in Napa Valley, Calif., said his school would “no longer recommend USF to our future graduates.”

Many benefactors have declared they will no longer donate. Ronald G.

Maxson, former professor of military science at the university, signed his letter of protest as a father of four graduates of the program and “grandfather of 22 other potential graduates and adviser to innumerable candidates.”

Father Privett's View

Father Privett, who initially declined to comment to the Register or other media outlets, issued a letter of response Feb. 6 in a question-and-answer format. Answering questions he posed to himself, Father Privett defended his “decisive action” to strengthen the institute, reiterated that the institute would retain its existing character, and criticized the dissenting core faculty, saying that they “lack the academic and ecclesiastical warrant” for their “self-appointed role as the guardians of authentic Catholic theology.”

The core faculty members responded with a second, 12-page letter in which they again charged that the firings were motivated by philosophical differences rather than administrative concerns. The letter also reported that the SII Advisory Board had heard testimony that Father Privett had “harbored an animus against the Institute for 20 years.” Specifically, it was alleged that when Father Privett served as principal of Bellarmine College Preparatory, it was the only high school in California where the St. Ignatius Institute was not welcome to advertise.

In an interview with the Register, Father Privett specifically denied this allegation.

He said he expected a negative reaction to the dismissal of the institute's directors, but “I didn't think it would be this intense.”

In a Feb. 9 editorial, The Wall Street Journal said that the dismissals of Galten and Hamlon appear to violate the spirit of “diversity” that contemporary universities promote as a cardinal virtue. “Time will tell whether the Institute survives and prospers, as the university promises,” the newspaper wrote, “or whether the change at the top signals the crippling of a program whose existence added real diversity to what USF offered.”

Asked about the future of the St. Ignatius Institute, Father Privett said, “We have highly qualified professionals to replace [the resigning faculty]. That's not a problem. We already have people lined up who are eminently qualified to teach the program.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.

----- EXCERPT: Dispute pits president against supporters of St. Ignatius Institute

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy