“The need of a college, catholic in spirit and under catholic auspices, is most evident.…”
-- Bishop Matthew Harkins of the Diocese of Providence to the Dominican Fathers, Oct. 9, 1915
On Nov. 8, 1915, setting sail from Naples, Italy, and bound for New York City, the Italian-American liner Ancona carried with it approval documents of the Master General of the Dominican Order to found a small Catholic college in Providence, Rhode Island’s capital city. One day later, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank; 270 lives were lost along with all cargo and mail. Thus, The Great War interrupted the founding of Providence College.
With the perseverance of Job, the college was finally born on Feb. 14, 1917. And to correct an administrative oversight, a century ago -- likely this month, official letters reveal -- efforts were made to obtain definitive permission from the Vatican, which was granted afterwards, on July 23.
Today, the school remains the only Catholic liberal-arts college in America administered by the Dominican Friars, known formally as the Order of Preachers (the Jesuits had their chance after 22 years in Providence, but withdrew from the archdiocese in 1899).
Deliberative and ruminative during a recent interview, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., president of the college, believes that fidelity to Catholic teachings and Dominican traditions are what particularly distinguishes its liberal-arts virtues. St. Dominic de Guzman established the order 800 years ago with the mission of contemplative preaching (faith, prayer and learning) and the eternal salvation of souls. Today, mostly, these are the 3,900 undergraduate souls.
Back in 1917, the original idea was to provide the opportunity for Catholic men -- many of whom faced discrimination as the sons of European immigrants -- to receive a university education. But now 61 percent of the student body are women, 16.3 percent of the Class of 2020 are minorities; and while 64 percent of the same class come from New England, , 29 percent come from Mid-Atlantic states. The college-age demographic in New England is in decline, and by 2028 non-white students may comprise a majority of undergraduates at Providence College. (14 percent of the faculty are members of minority groups.) Diversity, accordingly, is one of the five core values in the school’s strategic plan.
Father Shanley will likely be the last Dominican president of Providence College to have grown up in the pre-digital age. Thus he is a vital link between past and present. He was a student at the college in the 1970s (and a 1980 graduate), and was ordained a priest in 1987. He was a professor of philosophy in the 1990s, and installed as the institution’s 12th president in 2005.
Since then he has worked to promote the academic and physical transformation of the campus. Over the last decade, the college has sought to include study of non-Western cultures in its core Development of Western Civilization program.
When told he would become the longest serving president of the college on June 15, 2019, President Shanley replied with elegant humility. “It’s in God’s hands.”
God’s hands may be needed in helping with the daunting tasks before him. In fact, maintaining its Dominican identities may not be the most urgent challenges facing the school. Father Shanley wants to double the endowment (which at a bit over $200 million is small relative to peer-group institutions) by 2025. He looks at today’s evolving pedagogical model and ponders the challenges of administering “smart classrooms” and “engaged learning.” And he expresses concern about how a mostly secular society values a liberal-arts education at a time when many demand an immediate “return on investment.” For Father Shanley, that return should be seen as including a “meaningful life,” and not exclusively dollars and titles.
On a recent warm day, students lounged on the lawn outside the student union, just as they have done for nearly half a century on sparkling April afternoons. Even as the campus looks more diverse, it is not immune from the full bloom of issues confronting students today -- from micro-aggressions to the more serious, such as sexual assault. And perceived institutional racism.
“Inclusiveness,” notes Father Shanley, “is different from diversity.”
In any case, the meaning of diversity and its place within a Catholic and Dominican college is not accepted with utter unanimity at Providence and is the subject of conflict and debate. Prof. Anthony Esolen, who teaches English Renaissance Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at the college, has criticized the college’s understanding of diversity as being rooted in a kind of secular political ideology. Properly understood, diversity today is, he wrote, a “push for homogeneity.” This acts as a cultural solvent that dilutes unique identities. Perhaps even truths.
For the Millennial generation, “diversity” carries with it the same emotional triggers as “Vietnam” did for the Baby Boomer generation.
Still, Father Shanley is optimistic. He is heartened that the Dominican Order is flourishing at the college, with 75 young men in formation. He hears encouraging anecdotal stories about the quality of the college’s graduates, which he understands as a validation of this goal: “To teach you how to be life-long learners.” Ideally, in 2017, to produce critical thinkers who also have emotional intelligence.
In the wake of the Vietnam War student strike and three years after Providence College’s quinquagenary, on June 2, 1970, the syndicated columnist and journalist Art Buchwald gave the commencement address on campus. In the audience that day, having just graduated summa cum laude and presented the class oration, was Roy Peter Clark, the first in his family to attend college. He went on to teach, write and edit books, and has been called “America’s writing coach.” (He interviewed Buchwald twice in the decades later.)
Clark, recently retired senior fellow at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the renowned school for journalists, will deliver the 99th commencement address and will receive an honorary doctor of journalism degree on May 21st. He is intent on creating a nation of writers. So, in his remarks he will genuinely and generously offer assistance to anyone in attendance who wishes to improve his or her writing skills. Clark today is the living embodiment of the Dominican tradition and a fitting link between past and future.
The founding of Providence College, in retrospect, may indeed have been preordained by God’s grace. But for believers over a century ago, the future was far less assured and certainly not as clear as the primeval history of creation written in Genesis. And the next 100 years? For Dominican educators, that future means the continuation of teaching by remaining true to Bishop Harkins’s grand and simple vision.
James P. Freeman, an occasional contributor to New England Diary, is a New England-based writer and a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. This piece first ran in The New Boston Post.