There is nothing more central to Villanova’s Catholic, Augustinian identity than our community. When Villanova first opened its door to poor immigrant Irish young men needing an education, a tradition of committed welcome was established. We know at Villanova that such a welcome does not end when we say hello. We know that to be fully a part of our community means to be an essential part of the education offered and practiced.
You may have seen an opinion piece recently published in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the University for including questions on the long-standing course evaluation survey asking students about their perceptions of the classroom experience, including technology, the setting and the quality of instruction. In a time when it is easier, and, for many, more satisfying to paint policies and persons in extreme terms, guided by the history and mission of Villanova University, we would instead offer a different view of this issue, one rooted in the inseparability of truth, unity, and love.
The opinion piece portrays this survey as part of a political litmus test, as an aggressive attempt to target faculty with particular views and as an effort opposed to Villanova’s historic Catholic identity and mission. This is untrue. While for some this polarization may be tempting, it fails to offer the kind of perspective that is, and has always been, characteristic of a Villanova education, and the Villanova community as a whole.
Catholic Intellectual tradition is best accomplished through and by a diverse community of scholars and students with a wide variety of viewpoints. Student evaluations are important: Surveying students about their experiences in the classroom is not only a reasonable response, it is the only way to know how well we are meeting the challenge of creating an authentically diverse community of scholars.
At Villanova we value the voices of each community member. We celebrate hearing and listening to everyone’s thoughts and opinions, which embody a wide spectrum of perspectives. Diversity and inclusion are not accessories in higher education today, they are at its core. We know that it is through dialogue between respectful colleagues that differences are resolved and progress toward understanding made. When different voices are included in important conversations, new insights are reached, and discoveries can begin. In today’s society, all Villanovans must be prepared to live, thrive, and work effectively across and through the lines of difference.
We are greatly concerned that the op-ed fails to accurately or adequately characterize the nature of a liberal arts education, and especially such an education as it occurs here at Villanova. The authors suggest that a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is antithetical to a liberal arts education, and this is a position we firmly reject.
Our Catholic Augustinian Mission Statement insists that “to foster academic excellence, we as a University: create a diverse community of scholars, united and dedicated to the highest academic standards.” Villanova, as a faith-based institution, takes this claim seriously, recognizing that there is no conflict between academic standards and the values of unity and love, our academic mission and our Catholic heritage.
As a result, we believe that a Villanova education must not simply address questions of fact, but also questions of the linkages between knowledge, perspective, and action. We advance a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. To foster knowledge without a concern for human connection, or absent a concern for how such knowledge can “ignite change” in our communities is, simply put, inadequate and hollow.
Yet, even more hollow is an education wherein these concerns over truth, unity, and love are ignored in one’s own community. As an academic institution committed to excellence, we challenge ourselves every day to prove it.
We do this through our faculty’s research efforts, which are reshaping knowledge in a variety of fields, and making critical interventions in contexts and communities across the globe.
We do this through our students, who meet the challenge of excellence by winning postgraduate awards like the Fulbright, finding meaningful employment or postgraduate study, and, in all ways, truly use their Villanova education to ignite change.
And, yes, we do this through embracing thoughtful pedagogy that recognizes that knowledge creation is part of the dynamic exchange among and between perspectives.
Our work is not to eliminate perspectives, as suggested by the op-ed, but to be carefully attentive to ours and others’ perspectives. It is only through such communal, caring engagement that our students and teachers can exemplify the teachings and wisdom of St. Augustine.
Also missing in the op-ed is the thoughtful, planned process that led to the creation and addition of three questions to the regularly administered course evaluations. Through a process that began with student input, then moved through the administration for formation and then to the faculty for evaluation and shaping, three questions were added to the survey. After pilot testing and more evaluation, the questions were added to the standard survey form. Even after the addition of these to the evaluation form, we continue to solicit faculty and student feedback on these questions, and also examine the patterns evident in students’ responses to them. Indeed, we have been quite pleased to note that students at Villanova overwhelmingly rated their faculty at the very top of the scale.
Although the op-ed makes it appear as though we are using this tool to evaluate faculty for employment decisions and identify faculty members’ beliefs, the purpose is actually to provide guidance for internal self-improvement. The survey questions themselves were generated from the community and provide evidence that our classrooms are spaces where faculty and students are embodying Villanova’s ideals every day.
This is not easy work; but it is the work that stands as the foundation of a civil society. We are far from being the perfect model in this endeavor. There are ways in which we must continue to reflect upon our failings and then strive to rectify them. But our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not among them. On the contrary, Villanova University stands as a great educational institution because of our commitment to difference and the authentic community we create.
We come to Villanova and learn the words Veritas, Unitas, Caritas. We live Villanova when we place Truth, Unity, and Love at the core of who we are.
Reverend Peter M. Donohue, OSA
Patrick G. Maggitti, PhD