Pres. Michael Scaperlanda’s Vision for Catholic Education at St. Gregory’s University

Dr. Michael Scaperlanda, the new president of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla., wants Catholic students to know that they can have it all: faith, education and career.

In an interview with The Cardinal Newman Society and in his address following his inauguration as the 16th president of St. Gregory’s on March 21, Dr. Scaperlanda argued that there’s no reason a Catholic college can’t faithfully live out its Catholic identity—with a firm grounding in the liberal arts and a clear emphasis on forming the whole person—and still prepare students well for “the servile arts.”

“A university deeply enmeshed in its Catholic identity is a particularly good place to receive such practical training,” Scaperlanda said.

He emphasized this point by preceding his inauguration ceremony with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and the university’s first bi-annual “Leisure and Labor Conference.”

“Michael Scaperlanda is a great choice to lead St. Gregory’s University at this time,” Archbishop Coakley said. “Under his leadership I am confident that the University will thrive providing students with the intellectual, moral and spiritual formation crucial to living joy-filled lives oriented toward the common good.”

The new president was also praised by Father Don Wolf, chairman of the university’s board of directors, and David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma where Scaperlanda taught law for many years. “Scaperlanda’s vast leadership experience coupled with his passion for St. Gregory’s mission, commitment to excellence, tireless work ethic and effective communication skills bode well for St. Gregory’s future,” Boren said.

Before his appointment as president of the Newman Guide-recommended university, Scaperlanda had been a member and vice chairman of the board and helped create St. Gregory’s strategic plan, “Vision For Our Next Century.” He has been married 35 years to his wife, Maria, and has four children and eight grandchildren.

In his keynote address, Scaperlanda shared his vision for the integration of a liberal arts education with preparation in the servile arts, all for the formation of the whole person.

“The type of education we are creating at St. Gregory’s University” is one that provides the “resources necessary to equip its students with the tools for critically analyzing the deep moral questions of the day or a framework for living an integrated life,” he said.

“The liberal arts foundation, which is reinforced seamlessly throughout our curriculum, develops habits of mind that liberate students from narrow technical training, providing our alumni with great vertical and horizontal job mobility,” Scaperlanda explained. “Our Catholic, Benedictine liberal arts foundation provides our students with a framework for being liberated from the fears and base appetites that control the lives of so many, allowing them to live joy-filled lives in service to others.”

The practical benefits of career preparation, while important, never overshadow the greater purposes in life.

“The ultimate goal of Catholic education (including higher education) is not to make good citizens, efficient business people, or competent professionals,” Scaperlanda added. “The real goal, the ultimate goal of Catholic education, is to make saints.”

Scaperlanda reiterated and expanded upon his vision for Catholic higher education in his interview with The Cardinal Newman Society. The following has been edited for clarity.

The Newman Society: What is your vision for Catholic higher education at St. Gregory’s University?

Scaperlanda: I have this image of a tree: we are a strong oak tree. It’s fed by the Church and Christ and the trunk of the tree is the liberal arts guided by philosophy and theology. And the canopy of the tree are our professional and pre-professional programs, which are essential and must be integrated to the trunk or they won’t survive.

The liberal arts aren’t just boxes that need to be checked. The liberal arts are reinforced in the professional and pre-professional standards.

What is taught in liberal arts core is reinforced throughout the curriculum.

Every professor, no matter his or her discipline, is expected to demonstrate the four characteristics articulated in Ex corde Ecclesiae: ethical concern, theological perspective, integration of knowledge, and faith and reason.

Student life reinforces all that; it is not a separate thing. Everyone in the university participates in the education of the students: Groundskeepers educate through beauty, and the coaches model and teach discipline, teamwork, and healthy competition. Our ultimate goal is that we have graduates who have the framework to live a joy filled life with service to others.

St. Gregory the Great once said that St. Benedict was a luminous star in a dark world. Our graduates are luminous stars in today’s culture.

The Newman Society: How has your first semester and a half as president gone? [Scaperlanda was appointed president in May 2016, but was not inaugurated until March 21, 2107.]

Scaperlanda: Wonderfully. There are just so many people that are thirsting for this sort of education. Students, parents, members of the community are really thirsting for this kind of education to be provided in Oklahoma. Arkansas doesn’t have a Catholic college, nor does New Mexico. There’s a real hunger and thirst for authentic Catholic education. In the first 10 months [of his presidency], there have been just so many miracles small and large that have allowed me to build a great team and really see God’s hand in this. We know we’re doing something right because we see the devil trying to set up roadblocks, too.

It’s really been wonderful. I’ve been welcomed warmly by the students and community.

The Newman Society: What have you been most surprised by?

Scaperlanda: Well, it shouldn’t surprise me, but God’s grace in all this. And how much this has been a journey of spiritual growth for myself, learning to trust in God’s providence and God’s mercy and Love. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it has been.

Before coming into the office, I always go into the church and pray before the tabernacle, and this morning, I was reflecting on the spiritual growth that has happen to myself as I’ve journeyed through these 10 months.

That’s interiorly. Exteriorly, I’ve been presently surprised at how many people want St. Gregory’s to be a strong Catholic college.

The Newman Society: Why was the position of president at St. Gregory’s attractive to you?

Scaperlanda: I wanted to frame my presidency with a conference on “Labor and Leisure” and with a vision of liberal arts permeating up through all the professional degree programs.

We brought people from all around the country, who had never heard of St. Gregory’s, [to campus for the conference] and they came away really happy that they had come and ready to share the good news about St. Gregory’s.

I taught law for 27 years at the University of Oklahoma, but also through my law teaching I got to know Christian legal scholars and wrote about Catholic education and saw the importance of Catholic education.

[Scaperlanda is a nationally known scholar in Catholic Legal Theory, and his books include Recovering Self-Evident TruthsCatholic Perspectives on American Law.]

When this opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance.

I saw that we had this mostly hidden gem that I wanted to grow into a nationally recognized university.

Especially at this time, it is necessary to have an education that is rooted in philosophy and theology.

The Newman Society: You played a role in creating the university’s strategic plan, Vision For Our Next Century. Can you share a few details of the plan?

Scaperlanda: I headed up the academic excellence subcommittee for that plan. The plan articulated four strategic initiatives.

  1. To be a nationally known university that is rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition with a seamless education from the liberal arts to professional degrees so they’re not disconnected. That’s the centerpiece of it.
  2. To strengthen the relationship with the two dioceses of Oklahoma and the diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. For example, the house of formation in the diocese sends their students to St. Gregory’s for philosophy, theology and some humanities courses. We want to be a center for Catholic culture and learning in at least these two states. We’re in dialogue with all 3 dioceses about other ways we can provide educational assistance to those dioceses.
  3. To grow our health care. We have a nursing program that will graduate its first class of 4 year-BSN graduates this spring. We see an opportunity for that program to grow. About 5% of the population of Oklahoma is Catholic, while 35% of hospitals in Oklahoma are Catholic. I’ve talked to the heads of 3 of the 4 Catholic hospital chains and they are concerned about the Catholic identity of the hospitals and we think our students, with authentically Catholic education, can serve there well.
  4. To grow our relationships with and provide education to Native American students. We were founded by 2 French Benedictine monks in 1875 to serve the Citizen Potawatomi Indians. We’ve partnered with and worked with the Citizen Potawatomi for a hundred years, and we want to continue to be present to the Indianan nations.

The Newman Society: St. Gregory’s is recommended again in  The Newman Guide for its strong Catholic identity. How do you plan to maintain the university’s Catholic identity?

Scaperlanda: Mostly through strong hires. One of the great things about The Cardinal Newman Society is that it brings Catholic higher education leaders together. Any new hire we have, we reach out to the other Newman Guide colleges to see if they know of anyone available on the market.

Our mission statement will be in all the advertisements. Every person that applies has to write a 2-page memo to share how they will fit within the mission [of the university]. We only hire people who our mission fits.

Our tenure standards are very strict about Catholic identity. Every person is expected to demonstrate ethical concern, a theological perspective, integration of knowledge, and faith and reason before being tenured.

We don’t have a vice president for mission and identity purposefully. I am the vice president for mission and identity; my academic dean is the vice president for mission and identity. We are all vice presidents for mission identity because we are all going to live and breathe this in every aspect of life on campus.

The Newman Society: What role do you hope St. Greg’s will play in the future of Catholic higher education?

Scaperlanda: Right now, I’m looking at many of these other Newman Guide colleges and what they do well and we’re trying to emulate that as we grow.

Our unique value is that we have both a liberal arts foundation and professional and pre-professional degrees. At many schools, there’s often a lack of integration.

I want to successfully integrate that whole curriculum so that when a student is taking a chemistry class or a sociology class, it will build upon a liberal arts foundation and won’t be disconnected.

The Newman Society: If you could give some advice on the key to fostering a strong Catholic identity on campus, what would you say to other college presidents or faculty about the state of Catholic education and what needs to be done to ensure its defense and protection going forward?

Scaperlanda: It starts with hiring good people.

Also, I’ve become increasingly aware of this: it requires having an evangelical attitude toward the people who are already in your faculty and staff. It’s a matter of evangelizing them into the mission.

To the extent that faculty and staff are ignorant of the depth of the mission, I would treat that as mission territory.

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