A Question for The Rev. Dennis Holtschneider

For Catholic Colleges, Strategy is Everything

By Carol Schuler    //    Volume 31,  Number 6   //    November/December 2023

The Rev. Dennis Holtschneider is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) and chancellor of DePaul University, which he led as president from 2004 to 2017. A member of the Congregation of the Mission, he served as board chair and then chief operating officer of Ascension, the nation’s largest non-profit health system; executive vice president of Niagara University; clinical associate professor of higher education at SUNY Buffalo; and associate dean and assistant professor of higher education policy at St. John’s University, NY.

Holtschneider holds degrees in mathematics and theology, as well as a doctorate in higher education policy from Harvard University, where he lectures on governance and strategy in higher education and has twice been in residence as a visiting scholar.

He is a member of the boards of directors of St. John’s University (NY), the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). He chairs the NAICU Secretariat, the National Pastoral Migratoria, which provides services to recently arrived immigrants in various U.S. cities, and the Institute for Global Homelessness, which addresses street homelessness in partnership with the United Nations.

You recently co-authored an AGB report on changing governance structures at Catholic institutions and participated in a webinar that our members can view.1 Taking a 10,000-foot view of the higher education landscape, what role do Catholic institutions fill that others do not?

There are presently 228 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, educating 750,000 students. They range from prestigious research institutions to liberal arts colleges serving their local communities. The exact number is a moving target. A few have closed in recent years and four new ones are getting ready to open.

A little under half of our students are from Catholic families. Everyone is welcome. As such, Catholic universities provide the nation with educated young adults for our economy and democracy, as well as specialists and scholars through our large array of graduate programs for all the fields that need this expertise.

By requiring all students to take ethics, religion, and philosophy courses, they seek to give students principled ways of thinking for the challenges of life ahead. Our hope is that our alumni will do the right thing when the right thing is required.

That said, Catholic universities also provide the church with theologians, philosophers, and ethics professionals; nurses for its extensive health care system; teachers for its 5,900 schools; social workers for its extensive charities; and laity committed to a life of faith.

Quietly, Catholic higher education has always served populations without easy access to higher education, a tradition that goes back to its founding when waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants came to the U.S. Today, 40 of our Catholic colleges are listed as “Hispanic-serving institutions” by the federal government, and another 40 are “Emerging HSI’s.” People are often surprised to learn that, except for the Ivy League, Catholic universities have the highest graduation rate in the nation for Pell-eligible students, which are the students from our country’s poorest families. For us, access without attainment is access to nothing.

What is the most significant change occurring in the governance of Catholic institutions? Will this lead to other changes among these colleges and universities?

Ninety percent of Catholic universities were founded by sisters, brothers, or priests from religious orders, such as Franciscans, Benedictines, or Jesuits. Those religious congregations gave more than free labor; they suffused their institutions with their values and sense of mission to the world. Today, those same religious orders are aging and diminishing in numbers. Catholic universities must find other ways to keep their institutional cultures strong and their connection to the Catholic church itself secure. Good governance is part of that solution and why we conducted the research that AGB just published.

We all know about the approaching demographic cliff. How do you foresee that Catholic institutions will respond?

Catholic institutions are no different from their secular peers when it comes to recruiting from a smaller pool of high-school-age students. We have to succeed in our recruiting, but more importantly in building programs and the services students want in the present age. In the end, strategy is everything. What did St. Augustine used to say? “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you!”


1. Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Relationship Reconsidered: Catholic Colleges and Their Changing Governance Structures (Washington, DC: AGB, 2023).

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