A Signature Event for Catholic School Governance

By Bill Henk – If there’s one thing I REALLY love about my job, it’s having the opportunity to participate in truly meaningful educational events.

Unfortunately such experiences tend to be somewhat rare.  But last week I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to grow significantly as a professional — right here on the Marquette campus, and best of all, in the company of terrific colleagues who are committed to advancing the mission of our Catholic schools.

It came in the form of a national summit on Catholic school governance hosted by the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium (GMCEC).  Our partnership of five Catholic institutions of higher education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch University, Mount Mary University, Marquette University, and Marian University) sponsored the three-day summit, whose title was:  How Can  Institutes of Higher Education Support Dynamic and Effective Governance Structures in P-12 Catholic Schools?

Why Governance Matters

So you know, governance is vital, because it influences nearly all of the viability factors that determine whether or not a Catholic school will be sustainable — academic excellence, Catholic identity and faith formation, and matters of organizational effectiveness including, among others:

  • data analysis
  • finance
  • fundraising
  • marketing
  • planning
  • recruitment, and
  • technology infrastructure

Put differently, how schools operate — from their board composition and configuration to their policies and procedures as well as their sponsorship, management, authority, and accountability — all influence what the exciting new National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools refer to as the vitality of Catholic schools.

And vitality takes on a profound local significance, because one of every five Catholic schools has closed within the past 15 years here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  In fact, the sobering truth is that this pattern has repeated itself throughout the entire United States during that time span.  If you’re wondering why, in a recent article in the National Review Online, the sharp decline in Catholic schools and their  enrollments were attributed to: rising staff costs as nuns gave way to lay teachers, the exodus of Catholics from cities to suburbs, the clergy sex-abuse scandals and the financial fallout, and the rise of charter schools.

About The Summit

The summit drew participants from all quarters of our country as well as Canada and from all strata of Catholic education.  Catholic school parents, teachers, principals, and board members were present as were Catholic higher education faculty and administrators, representatives of foundations and network schools, Archdiocesan central office staff, officials from the National Catholic Education Association, clergy, and even our five GMCEC-related university presidents who contributed to an outstanding panel discussion on day 3.

For the record, I foreshadowed the summit in a blog post elsewhere, predicting that the conversation would be provocative with such a rich mix of Catholic school stakeholders.  It turns out that I underestimated just how remarkably valuable the discourse would be.

In my estimation, the summit turned out to be a signature event for Catholic schooling in our nation, an admittedly lofty designation that I do not make lightly.  The keynote addresses, the presentations,  the panel discussions, and the break-out sessions were all genuinely extraordinary.  A veritable Who’s Who of Catholic school governance expertise assembled here in Milwaukee under the astute leadership of Dr. Jennifer Maney, the Institutional Coordinator of the GMCEC, in tandem with the summit’s planning team, of which I was fortunate to belong.  No kidding, it was absolutely amazing to witness firsthand how beautifully almost two years of preparing for the event played out in real terms.

What I loved most about the summit was hearing the lived experiences of so many professionals devoted to the prosperity of Catholic schools.  Although I went into the summit thinking I knew a fair amount about governance, I emerged as someone enriched with much deeper and wider knowledge of what drives success, all because of the seminal professional program and the people whose wisdom and passion informed it.

And while I treasured the national scope of the summit, I also have to admit that I greatly appreciated the opportunity to help tell the uncommon story of the GMCEC to such a distinguished audience of Catholic school leaders.   In that sense, I thought the summit achieved a near perfect balance of national and local perspectives, especially considering that ultimately all of the stories were essentially local ones that gained widespread notoriety later on the basis of their success.

Now let me apologize in advance for what I’m about to say, because it might seem like a “hooray for us” or outright bragging.  The individuals I’m about to commend are much too humble to sing their own praises although they certainly have earned our appreciation, and frankly, I can personally take very little credit for the summit or the way that our Consortium has unfolded over the past few years.

In short,  it was an incredible honor to share “the stage” with my valued GMCEC colleagues and friends —  Board Co-chairs Dr. Mary Diez of Alverno College and Dr. Deborah Dosemagen of Mount Mary University, Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, Superintendent of  Catholic Schools, Dr. Maney (who both moderated and contributed to our panel discussion), Mr. John Stollenwerk, who introduced our session and whose family has been instrumental in the Consortium’s capacity to do exceptional work on behalf of Catholic schools in our Archdiocese, and board member, Sr. Deb Golias of Marian University, who led us in a beautiful, musically accompanied prayer at the outset.

Believe me, time does not permit a recounting of just how much of an impact the GMCEC has made.  Suffice it to say that it’s been broad-based and powerful.  And most of all, the scope and caliber of the work is a testament to the volunteer efforts of several professionals from across multiple academic and administrative units at our five institutions.  The amount of what we call “in-kind” support from our Catholic colleges and universities has been immense, and all of our institutions have supported the Consortium financially as well.


As the summit concluded, I sensed that attendees were leaving with the conclusion that what is happening in Milwaukee around K-12 Catholic education  should be emulated in urban archdioceses across America.  Our truly unique GMCEC model and its spirit of inter-institutional collaboration seemingly rose to the level of an exemplar.  As a result, let’s just say that it’s enormously gratifying to be even a very small part of something so substantial and rightful as this work, and I’m sure my colleagues feel exactly the same way.  It’s for a much greater good.

Like the four national summits that preceded ours,* there will be actionable outcomes.  We expect to provide an account of the insightful school governance content and recommendations that were shared at the event  in a forthcoming themed issue of Catholic Education:  A Journal of Inquiry and Practice.

Emerging from that synopsis will be a sincere hope — that the brilliance of our national summit on governance will light the way for Catholic schools everywhere.  Our aspiration for Catholic schools must go beyond mere survival to flourishing.

These schools deserve as much; they’re national treasures after all.


* Note to Readers:  This is the fifth such summit sponsored by an informal group called the Catholic Higher Education Collaborative or CHEC. Past summits have focused on the immigrant church (Loyola Marymount), Catholic school leadership (Loyola Chicago), academic excellence (Boston College and Fordham University), and Catholic identity (Catholic University and St. John’s University).   Next year (2013) will mark the final CHEC summit, this time at Notre Dame, where the topic will be financial stewardship.

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