The yearly version of the "Fortune 500" report on the richest colleges and universities is out. No big changes. About 30 institutions belong to the billionaire club in endowment fund totals, Harvard the fattest with upwards of $35 billion and others are racing to catch up. Meanwhile hundreds struggle just to keep alive with virtually nothing in the bank. In other words, an enormous gap divides rich from poor and, like the divide in the population at large, is getting wider.
Among the explicitly Catholic ones, there are three. Notre Dame, the wealthiest with $8.5 billion, Georgetown and Boston College getting by with $1-2 billion apiece. Do the wealthy ones owe anything to the church-related schools that are just scraping by? Does "Catholic identity" involve sharing goods and services or is it confined mostly to inviting the bishop to graduation and protesting supposedly anti-Catholic provisions of Obamacare?
Americans are disposed by our creed of self-reliance to say NO on an institutional level. Colleges are responsible for raising their own funds and the rich ones deserve what they get by being somehow superior. Alumni support that inherent worthiness. Survival of the fittest. Catholic schools may share a heritage to one degree or another but that's cordoned off from money realities. To each their own.
Enter Pope Francis who's taken an interest in rich-poor disparities on a broad front. He has said repeatedly that loving the Lord means not only giving but sacrifice to rescue the needy -- and castigates the rich for selfishness and stinginess. Charity does a little to redress the painful imbalances but charity is more likely to be a calculated benefit to the giver rather than an act of sacrificial love. Truth to tell, the pope's appeals for economic justice in the name of God's love hasn't yet been matched with expectations that Catholic institutions or individuals are called to do anything about it in particular. Reducing inequalities has been hailed but not mandated.
Assuming Francis desires that second part, the rich universities might take the clue and see how this might apply to distribution of their funds as a commitment to uplifting those who most need quality education. Apart from the myth that huge endowments ensure the best education, Catholics and non-Catholics have discovered on their own that top-notch faculty and curricula are available at scores of lesser known campuses. In qualitative terms, their contribution to the nation and the church is second to none. In addition, there is room for winnowing the list, allowing those that are either redundant or unable to sustain quality to close their doors. The point would be to transform a system of individualistic, status seeking institutions into a cooperative effort in sacrificial giving to a greater number.
Elitism in education is primarily a matter of wealth and its results demonstrably reinforce class lines. Generally, the upper crust go to upper crust schools because upper crust schools recruit them and create a luxury culture to accommodate them. Catholic colleges with the fewest resources welcome poor, working and minority students in much greater number. The rich schools would benefit tremendously by hosting more of them.
This mushy collaboration stuff assumes an turn away from self-serving that echoes the "unrealistic" generosity and rejection of self-seeking that Pope Francis wins such affection for -- in theory. The secular mentality of personal and institutional "success" makes it almost impossible to envision. As a society, we are about ranking, awarding and accumulation. The pope no doubt understands this and goes slowly. But his message points to just such a radical departure.