Sunday, September 12, 2010

Can this school be saved? Part one: Basketball Madness

Below is the first installment of the story I wrote for Creative Minority Report about Seton Hall University. I will close comments until it has run in its entirety. I link to the newspaper articles I used for sources.

It seems there is a quiet battle going on behind the iron gates of Seton Hall University: a battle for the university’s soul. The Division 1 men’s basketball program has endured a very dark off-the-court stretch, a new class is being offered by a member of the faculty who operates clearly and loudly at odds with Church teaching, and a year-long search for a new president has turned out fruitless. All of these things are circling in the air over these 58 acres of South Orange, NJ. Is Seton Hall’s soul dead, or merely on life support?

Seton Hall University is the oldest and largest diocesan university in the United States. Founded in 1856, just three years after the founding of the Diocese of Newark, NJ, Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, established Seton Hall University to fill the need for a Catholic university within the diocese. He named the university for his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Catholic convert who established the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in Emmitsburg, MD to care for and educate poor children. Mother Seton would be the first American-born saint, canonized in 1975.

What’s been going on at The Hall lately?

Basketball madness

In April, 2006, Seton Hall Univeristy announced that Bobby Gonzalez, a coach known for his passion and explosive temper, would lead its Divison I, Big East men’s basketball program. In the four years he was there, Gonzalez did bring the better connections with local high school coaches that the university was looking for (National High School basketball powerhouses St. Anthony’s and St. Patrick’s are within 12 miles of campus.), but he alienated those same coaches and he also brought in some questionable transfer students who had run-ins with the law while enrolled at SHU. One was arrested for drunk driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway. Another punched a player on the opposing team below the belt during a game. A third, after having been kicked off the team, duct taped 8 people, some of whom were former teammates, and robbed them. On March 17, 2010, Gonzalez was fired by SHU President Robert Sheeran, six months after having been granted a contract extension through 2014. Sheeran cited Gonzalez’s conduct and that of his players as cause for termination. Gonzalez sued Seton Hall for wrongful termination shortly after he was fired, and Seton Hall countersued. The cases were settled out of court on August 25, 2010. No details of the settlement were released.

Seton Hall’s men’s basketball team has been the big team at the University. When any college’s or university’s basketball team does well in the NCAA tournament, its national profile is higher and it typically sees a sizable jump in admissions applications, which can translate into more qualified students and more money for the university. But at what cost? Bobby Gonzalez was a questionable choice for Seton Hall from the start. He’s intense, but was his brand of intensity a good fit for a Catholic university? Don’t Catholic colleges and universities have to hold themselves and their employees and students to a higher standard of behavior, modeling themselves on Jesus Christ?

It seems that Seton Hall has learned a lesson from the Gonzalez experience. On March 28, 2010, Seton Hall hired Kevin Willard, a family man who turned around the basketball program at Iona College and who served as Rick Pitino’s assistant with the Boston Celtics and at the University of Louisville. In an interview published on August 24, Willard told ESPN’s Dana O’Neil “When I met with Seton Hall, we talked a lot about behavior, but we also talked about winning and losing. I think you can have both. You can have a program you can be proud of and also have success. That’s what our goal is.”

Is it possible for a Catholic college or university today to have it both ways: to be a national sports powerhouse that is also fully committed to its Catholic identity? Of the colleges and universities who answered the National Catholic Register/Faith and Family Magazine’s 2009 College survey (only 26 schools completed the survey out of about 240 Catholic colleges and universities across the country), none of them have Division I athletic programs.

To look at Division I powerhouse Notre Dame’s decisions over the last 15 years or so, one might be left to wonder if Catholic colleges and can their sports and be faithful, too. Certainly there are some members of the theology faculty who are solidly committed to the teaching authority of the Church, but there are others who are not. Notre Dame hosted the play The Vagina Monologues in 2008. And the fact that Notre Dame gave an honorary degree to President Obama in 2009, one of the most vocal proponents of abortion in our nation, and still refuses to drop charges against peaceful protesters might leave some to wonder if a Catholic college can really “have it all.” And if it’s worth having in the first place.