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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

Timing of St. Thomas shift in board policy questioned


A bylaws change approved by the board of trustees of the University of St. Thomas here at its Oct. 25 meeting has raised questions in some circles about whether the university was attempting to distance itself from an incoming conservative bishop.

The decision eliminated the ex officio role of the local bishop, currently Archbishop Harry Flynn, as chair of the university’s board. Flynn was then elected to a five-year term as chair. The move means that the automatic designation will not go to Bishop John Nienstedt, Flynn’s coadjutor, who is expected to assume leadership of the archdiocese as early as next year.

On its Web site, St. Thomas refers to itself as an archdiocesan university, but also says it “is not owned or governed by the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.”

The change in bylaws stemmed from recommendations about best practices made to the St. Thomas board five years ago, said spokesperson Doug Hennes.

“The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities came in and examined our board’s practices in 2002 and made a series of recommendations. One was a larger board, another had to do with meeting formats.” The third was “that we consider an elected chairman as opposed to an ex officio chair,” Hennes said.

Some question the timing of the new policy. The change keeps Nienstedt out of the chairperson’s seat, at least for now. Nienstedt is known for holding rigidly conservative positions on doctrinal and pastoral matters such as ministry to gays and lesbians, while Flynn, though not regarded as liberal, is perceived to be more moderate and pastoral in his leadership.

St. Thomas board member Michael V. Ciresi, a prominent Minneapolis lawyer and a Democratic candidate for the seat held by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, said that the recommendations made by the association have been implemented one by one since 2002, and that nothing should be read into the board’s timing.

“This is a critical time in the university’s history,” Ciresi said. “We have a capital campaign going on. Archbishop Flynn has been involved in the life of the university for many years. We made a decision that I believe was in the best interest of the university.”

The board’s vote also eliminated the ex officio designation from the position of vice chair held by vicar general Fr. Kevin McDonough, and from that of university president Fr. Dennis Dease. Each was subsequently elected to a five-year board term. Dease, president since 1991, was also elected to another five-year term as president.

Yet conservatives wonder if the move intentionally distances the institution from its archdiocesan roots or its Catholic identity.

“On Oct. 25,” blogged conservative Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten on Nov. 8, “[the board of trustees] effectively bumped the incoming archbishop from the board. They did so by voting to eliminate ex officio members, and then inviting back as individuals those -- such as retiring Archbishop Harry Flynn -- who have not interfered in the past with the institution’s leftward tilt.” Some students protested along similar lines.

To the contrary, said Hennes, the board is “wholeheartedly supportive of efforts to strengthen our Catholic nature” including increasing the numbers of Catholic clergy and religious board members.

Newly elected St. Thomas board members include Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Vatican prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and pro-nuncio to the United States, and Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the National Catholic Health Association.

Hennes also noted that very few boards of Catholic colleges and universities are chaired by the local bishop, and many have eliminated ex officio positions.

Kris Berggren is a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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