Spurning proposals from a number of Catholic colleges and universities, Dr. Anthony Esolen, the prominent professor at Providence College, has chosen to renounce his tenure, give up his well-earned sabbatical, and accept a teaching position at one of the smallest colleges in the country. With a total of 92 students, The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire has existed in relative obscurity since its founding in 1978. All of that is about to change when Professor Esolen arrives on campus this Fall to join the teaching faculty and contribute to the college’s new Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture.
For some of us who would have welcomed the opportunity to have Esolen as a colleague on our own campuses, it is good to consider why he has chosen the tiny college in the Northeast. We know that his choice had nothing to do with status strivings or holding out for a better financial package. We know he wasn’t swayed by the offer of an endowed chair and a light teaching load. Rather, it is clear that Esolen based his choice on love.
Esolen fell in love with Thomas More College. He fell in love with the curriculum and the students. In fact, Esolen told a reporter at the National Catholic Register that he felt drawn to Thomas More College because students are meant to be “surrounded by beauty and sanity, where young men and women falling in love and getting married is celebrated—not the ‘rat poison’ of the sexual revolution, the Lonely Revolution.” He said that he admired how the education at Thomas More focuses on the “whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, making it the kind of environment that can produce leaders in thought, art, public affairs and the Church.” He wanted to be part of delivering a curriculum that was based on the Truth—saying that he intends to bring to Thomas More College what he sought to bring to the students of Providence College: “a love for art and poetry and the best of human wisdom, and the trust that such things can bring us into the precinct of the divine.”
Too many Catholic colleges—including Esolen’s once beloved Providence College—have forgotten the reason they were created in the first place. Patterned on the sixteenth-century Jesuit plan of study, Ratio Studiorum, the primary aim at Georgetown, which was founded in 1789 as the first Catholic college in the country, was to keep the faith alive and spread the faith to others. The earliest Catholic colleges were designed to prepare young men to be priests, create centers for missionary activity, and cultivate the moral virtues. It was not that the earliest Catholic colleges were unconcerned about academic excellence, it was just that the intellectual life of the university was always assumed to be connected to the moral mission of the university.
At Providence, there was never a question about Professor Esolen’s commitment to academic excellence. His scholarship—including his translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—has always been highly respected. But, it was his willingness to question the “diversity movement and identity politics” on campus that made him the target of progressive professors and their students. As John Leo at Minding the Campuspointed out, Esolen has a “low opinion” of identity politics and has referred to some of the activists in the diversity movement as “narcissists” who want to study only themselves. Leo pointed out that support for Esolen by the college president, Fr. Brian Shanley, has been “tepid, of the sort sometimes issued by Catholic administrators embarrassed to be interrupted while converting a Catholic college into a formerly Catholic one.”
Esolen has been living under siege at Providence for nearly a decade now. He even admitted in an interview with Rod Dreher that “The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program—the focus of curricular hostility—also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.”
While Esolen’s departure is a huge loss for Providence College, Thomas More College’s gain is actually a gain for all faithful Catholic colleges and universities. His highly publicized departure from Providence highlights the precarious state of all Catholic higher education. For those of us teaching on faithful Catholic campuses—those, like Franciscan University, my own academic home, that are listed in the Newman Guide to Catholic Higher Education—it is a reminder of how easy it is to lose sight of our Catholic mission and our commitment to the truth. The Providence debacle demonstrates that it can all be lost so easily when a misguided commitment to diversity and identity politics trumps Catholic teachings on life and the sanctity of marriage. Providence College used to be listed in the Newman Guide as one of the “faithful colleges.” It is no longer listed there.
Indeed, Esolen’s departure should be a cautionary tale for those of us who teach at faithful Catholic colleges and universities to be mindful of what is happening on our campuses. It reminds us to pay attention to whether our courses are teaching the truth of the Gospel as it comes to us through the Church. It encourages us to look closely at the student culture on campus to ensure that we are not sliding into an ethos that gives rise to a hook-up culture and celebrates a woman’s right to choose abortion. Academic freedom is, of course, important but a commitment to the truth has to take precedence on a Catholic campus.