Twilight at Marquette?

Over the past six years, Russell R. Reno of Creighton University has on occasion ventured to rank various (American) graduate programs in theology. The first of these rankings appeared in 2006, followed by another in 2009, and another in 2010. The 2012 rankings appeared on the First Things website just this morning. You can access them here.

His criteria (stated in the context of this year’s rankings) are as follows:

  1. Orthodoxy and support for graduate students who want to think with the church
  2. Intellectual rigor
  3. Commitment to students
  4. Financial Aid

While these criteria are certainly good, I wonder how they actually play out in Reno’s rankings. I would note, as a case in point, Marquette’s program, which apparently exists as a sort of problem child on the playground of graduate programs in theology.

In 2006, Reno mentions Marquette, but he does not rank it. He contends that it (with Boston College, Fordham, and St. Louis University) has suffered damage from the “liberal-revisionist agenda” of the Jesuits: “some excellent faculty teach at these places: Ralph Del Colle, Michel Barnes, and Susan Wood, for example, are at Marquette. But because it is a Jesuit program, the 1970s is still going strong.”

In 2009, something changed. With regard to Jesuit colleges, Reno writes: “last time I ranked programs, I plugged Boston College. They have lots of money, but I think I was mistaken about the quality of the program. Like so many Jesuit theology departments, Boston College has drifted from the excitement of the post-Vatican II era to the banality of contextual theology … I’m afraid the same is true of Fordham and St. Louis U.” What is REALLY different in 2009 is Reno’s attitude toward Marquette: “The one Jesuit exception is Marquette, which I put in the fifth slot. Michel Barnes, Alexander Golitzin, and Mickey Mattox are superb historical theologians. Susan Wood, Ralph Del Colle, and Stephen Long provide a great deal in systematic theology. Overall, Marquette seems to have avoided the narrow parochialism of the now old and often narrowly liberal Catholic theology. As a result, the Jesuit tradition of adventuresome intellectual fidelity fits nicely with a graduate program that is interested in the riches of the theological tradition.”

A brief recap: Marquette in 2006 suffers from the “liberal-revisionist agenda” of the Jesuits, but in 2009 it has “avoided the narrow parochialism of the now old and often narrowly liberal Catholic theology.” In 2006, it is not quite cut out for the top ten, but in 2009 it is number five in the country. Onward.

Fast forward a bit to 2010, where Marquette drops from fifth to sixth: “alone among Jesuit doctoral programs, the theology department at Marquette has as its greatest strength the fact that it is not hobbled by the increasingly superannuated agenda of liberal Catholic theology. The faculty in historical theology and systematic theology don’t necessarily jell into a corporate personality, but professors such as Ralph Del Colle and Susan Wood are pushing forward, trying to discern the possibilities for Catholic theology in North America after the collapse of the short-lived but once ruthlessly dominant Rahnerian consensus. Some of the avatars of the declining Rahnerian approach still teach at Marquette, but the theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar and St. Thomas are also well represented … Marquette’s biggest liability is Marquette. It’s a fine institution, but it lacks the overall atmosphere of academic excellence that one finds at most elite universities, and this invariably holds back the theology department as well.” While I take issue with the final comment, that Marquette “lacks the overall atmosphere of academic excellence that one finds at most elite universities” (we do just fine, thank you), not much has changed between 2009 and 2010.

Fast forward two more years, to 2012, and it would appear that we (Marquette) have barely made Reno’s cut. We place ninth overall, just before the University of Dayton: “in the past I’ve given Marquette University good marks. Lately staffing has changed. Ralph Del Colle passed away earlier in the year, and Alexander Golitzen left to become an Orthodox bishop. This tilts the program in the direction of dead-end liberal Catholicism. There are still good folks there (Mickey Mattox, Stephen Long), but it’s less congenial than it once was.”

As one who has been a student at Marquette since 2007 (two years in the MA program, almost four in the PhD), just one year after Reno began his periodic rankings, I would like to close by commenting on our apparent rise to and fall from greatness, especially in light of Reno’s four criteria.

  1. The orthodoxy criterion, it would seem, is paramount in Reno’s ranking system, yet I remain unclear on what the standard for orthodoxy actually is. In the past year, Marquette has indeed undergone some shifts in faculty: the passing of Dr. Del Colle was and is a great loss to the department, as was Fr. Golitzen’s appointment as bishop (and subsequent departure from Marquette). I am not convinced, however, that Dr. Del Colle was the sole bastion of orthodoxy in our department, and I am unsure how the absence of a (non-Catholic) Orthodox professor “tilts the program in the direction of dead-end liberal Catholicism.” Moreover, Reno’s first criterion is in effect two separate criteria: orthodoxy is not the same as “support for graduate students who want to think with the church.” One of Marquette’s strongest selling points is the confessional diversity of its student body. Graduate students are encouraged strongly by faculty to “think with” their respective traditions, regardless of what those traditions might be. I have several Catholic colleagues in the department whose research locates them squarely within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, I think it is safe to say that the majority of Catholic students in the Department desire for their own research to be in keeping with the Catholic faith.
  2. Intellectual rigor is a goal toward which every graduate program (theological or otherwise) should strive. I often remark to fellow students and faculty that Marquette’s program seems more rigorous to me every semester. To be sure, part of this is likely due to my own progression from the MA to the doctoral program, as well as my penchant for taking on side projects. As is certainly the case in other graduate programs, there are students at Marquette for whom intellectual rigor is not a concern (because I am tactful, I will not name them here), but I have yet to encounter a faculty member at Marquette who does not value and emphasize scholarly excellence.
  3. I cannot imagine a graduate program with a greater commitment to students than that of Marquette. MA and PhD students alike are treated by (most) faculty as colleagues rather than serfs, and graduate students frequently appear on panels alongside faculty. Also, the majority of graduate seminars are structured so that students have the opportunity to teach each other. The members of our faculty, while obviously busy with the numerous tasks of scholarship, never lose sight of their responsibility to mentor the next generation of theologians.
  4. Financial aid is, regrettably, the one point at which Marquette falls short. Unlike other programs (Duke, Notre Dame, Emory, etc.), we are unable to fully fund every doctoral student that we admit. I myself spent my first year of doctoral study working at the reference desk in the library (one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, FYI). This is certainly not due to misappropriation of funds, but rather to the fact that we simply don’t have as much money as other programs. While the tides seem to have shifted in recent years, we still have much work to do in this regard.

Reno’s 2012 ranking closes with a useful comment, the first part of which serves as the impetus for this post: “There’s no substitute for talking to current graduate students. They have the goods on the professors. And don’t forget that studying theology, the queen of the sciences, is almost always intrinsically gratifying and worthwhile.”



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