Building on Catholic identity

The University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, which is recommended in The Newman Guide for its strong Catholic identity, inaugurated its ninth president, Dr. Richard Ludwick, last October.

Ludwick previously practiced law, led the Independent Colleges of Indiana association, and served briefly as provost at the Newman Guide-recommended St. Gregory’s University. At the University of St. Thomas, he succeeds Dr. Robert Ivany, whose successful 13-year tenure included expanding the University’s academic programs and strengthening its Catholic identity and reputation. He departed amid some controversy, including a contract dispute with English and philosophy professors.

The Newman Society is proud to recommend the University of St. Thomas to Catholic families and is grateful to Ludwick for taking the time to answer a few questions as he begins his presidency.

Newman Society: Congratulations on being named the ninth president of the University of St. Thomas (UST) in Houston! UST is one of the nation’s most faithful Catholic universities, at a time when secularism is on the rise in both society and academia. That makes UST counter-cultural, even sometimes marginalized, but also distinguished and valuable to faithful Catholic families. Why did you choose to lead such a distinctively Catholic university?

Dr. Richard Ludwick: When I looked at UST I saw tremendous opportunity to be involved in something great. The university is uniquely positioned to make itself accessible to Houston and well beyond. Looking forward, we have a chance to bring the wonderful qualities of the Catholic intellectual tradition to a much larger audience, and to offer the gifts that such formation brings to wider society. If you talk to people here at UST, they will tell you that there is a momentum building, and a general excitement about our future.

UST continues to have a strong Basilian presence, and in your inaugural address, you cited the University’s motto, “Let us grow in Christ.” What are some of the ways that you hope to build upon UST’s Catholic identity?

The way forward is clear, we must continue to build upon our Catholic identity by fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Inside and outside the classroom, the rightful expression of Catholic social teaching must be incorporated into all aspects of campus life. The students of UST are ambassadors to Houston and the world, and through our community, we can reach a wider audience with our Catholic values.

From walking across our campus, or engaging in a conversation with our faculty and students, you can tell that big things are happening here at UST, and that many of them will deepen our commitment to our Catholic identity. I’ll give you a few highlights, but I can tell you that this is only the beginning. One thing we are very excited about is recently merging Campus Ministry into the Center for Faith and Culture. The reorganization originates from the ideas and concepts around how faith is lived, nurtured and celebrated on campus, and will better serve UST’s students while integrating the practice of faith on campus with some of our academic programs. The merger will also see Campus Ministry physically moving to a prime, central campus location which will provide for abundant and meaningful collaborations with student life. This venture has been coupled with an increase in the number of and vitality of personnel supporting Campus Faith Life.

Many other developments are also taking shape and beginning to have a major impact here at the University of St. Thomas, including partnerships with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston on several fronts, taking a leadership role with the Footsteps Toward Christian Ministry program, and our Monday evenings of adoration and praise and worship. UST is also pleased to announce that it sent its largest group ever to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., this year. I look forward to seeing how students, faculty, and staff participate in these activities and those in the future to transform our city and world.

UST has a well-deserved reputation for strong theology and philosophy, and your predecessor Dr. Robert Ivany promoted a strong Catholic identity at UST. Still, there were public disagreements between him and UST’s philosophy faculty. In your inaugural address, you appealed for a “culture of encounter,” including respectful engagement within the University community. How do you hope to resolve any lingering concerns among the faculty and reinforce UST’s reputation for theology and philosophy?

Our reputation for strength in theology and philosophy is justifiably strong, and will continue to be. The programs we have here, including St. Mary’s Seminary, are critical to our mission. The cornerstones of a liberal arts education and the Catholic intellectual tradition are predicated on an understanding of the human person and his or her relationship to God. The disciplines of theology and philosophy help us understand that relationship and make us better formed for service to humanity.

Do you hope for any changes to UST’s academics—the core curriculum, majors, or academic departments?

The city of Houston has a vibrant and innovative economy, and as the University of St. Thomas looks towards the future, we will continue to find new ways to connect with it. Although we maintain a very strong liberal arts core, we know from Ex corde Ecclesiae that our scope must extend beyond that. The rapid development of science and technology creates enormous economic and industrial growth, and at the same time creates an important calling for Catholic universities to guide and offer meaning in those fields.

To get more specific, some plans that we are exploring include the creation of a Master’s degree in Liturgy, a program on the Family, one in Applied Philosophy, and a Humanities program in Data Analytics. As you can see, we plan on staying true to our roots, while also providing students with programs that empower them to succeed in growing areas of our economy.

Catholic education is not only academic learning. According to the Vatican, it also forms a person intellectually, socially, and spiritually for sainthood. What role do you believe a Catholic university plays in such formation, and what outcomes should UST expect of its graduates?

UST looks toward the formation of the whole person, body and mind. In the classroom and out of classroom, experiences are focused on helping to form, in a faithful manner, each human person to accentuate the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon him or her. The realization of those efforts forms an individual fully alive, to experience and share an abundant life.

In today’s society, Catholic universities have been greatly challenged—and have responded in a variety of ways—on issues of sexuality, gender, and marriage. So it’s understandable that your past work on an “LGBT” policy has raised concerns about what that means for UST, although you have clearly expressed support for UST’s Catholic identity. Can you explain how you will approach matters of sexuality, gender, and marriage at UST, including policies for personnel and student housing?

It is the university’s position that each person is afforded the dignity of being the Imago Dei. Pope Francis has offered guidance on this issue, encouraging us to endorse the existence of each person with love, not reject and condemn, but always consider the person. Following that guidance, my approach to issues of marriage and human sexuality will support those espoused by the teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

That being said, I want to assure our interested students and families that there are no plans to change existing policy at UST regarding matters of sexuality and gender when it comes to students, personnel, or housing. UST is Houston’s Catholic university, and although it serves the people of Houston, as a private institution it does not always subscribe to the same views. The Lord provides sexuality and gender as gifts to the human person to promote the flourishing of the domestic church, and it is through that lens that I will always address issues of sexuality and gender.

The question about my past involvement with LGBT policy is an important one, and I want to thank you for the opportunity to clarify. It is a reference to a period when I was working at Albany Law School. That school, which was not a Catholic University, decided to establish a unisex bathroom as a solution for a student who was changing gender. Many universities that do not have a Catholic identity have adopted such policies over recent years. As I said, we have no plans to change existing policies here at UST. The readers of The Newman Guide are looking for a school that is firmly grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, and I can confirm with great certainty that they have found that in the University of St. Thomas.

There have been many controversies about college speakers and honorees. A Catholic university encourages respectful dialogue and the search for truth, while upholding the truths of the Catholic faith and avoiding scandal to its students. What will your approach be to honors and guest platforms at UST, especially when a candidate publicly opposes Catholic moral teaching?

Being invited to speak at a Catholic university is an honor and a privilege. The University of St. Thomas is committed to the Catholic tradition of searching for truth. We value and teach critical thinking skills, and believe that they benefit our students. The decision about whether to host events or invite speakers to UST is based on that same criteria; is the topic relevant and will the discussion benefit our students while aligning with the mission of the University of St. Thomas.

UST has a large population of Spanish-speaking students, which is a great treasure to the Church and an unfortunate rarity in Catholic higher education. What lessons can UST offer to the Church and other Catholic universities as they strive to serve the large number of Spanish-speaking Catholics?

We recognize that we take a leadership role in this area, and not just with bilingual students. Sixty-eight percent of UST students are ethnically diverse, and students come from 34 states and 61 countries. The face of our Church is clearly reflected in the students of St. Thomas. That human family flourishes here in a rare display. We invite all who are interested in what the future looks like to join us in experiencing God’s love here at UST.

In your inaugural address, you lauded UST students for helping others in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, just months after you arrived on campus. What did you see that exemplifies UST’s students, and does this suggest anything for your presidency going forward?

The first thing I witnessed was students leaping into action, headed to shelters to help those who were suffering. As the events of Hurricane Harvey unfolded, I realized there was something much greater going on. The students of this university were not just taking action, they were also praying on rosaries and grounding themselves in faith as they went boldly forward. There are few things more moving and powerful as faith put into action.

Is there any final word you would like to share with Catholic families?

Through the right implementation of Catholic social teaching, the University of St. Thomas is a place where students truly flourish. A walk across our campus introduces you to students who not only shine brightly academically, but also shine from the warmth and caring spirit that they carry within. In my time here, I have discovered that the faculty, staff, students, and alumni hold a deep love for this university that exceeds anything I have seen before. It goes beyond school spirit, this community is a family. I ask that as we continue in our mission, that everyone continue to pray ceaselessly for us, and for our world.

KELLY SALOMON is editor of The Newman Guide and director of membership for The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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