A year later, CUA chief Garvey settles in

Catholic University president comes to terms with political aspects of job

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A year after being tapped for one of the highest-profile posts in Catholic education, John Garvey isn’t surprised by the political pressures and criticisms that have come with the job. In fact, the Catholic University of America president said some of that criticism is a welcome change from the type he’s used to.

Mr. Garvey, who headed Boston College Law School for more than a decade before coming to D.C., came under fire from fellow Catholics for inviting House Speaker John A. Boehner to speak at last month’s spring commencement ceremony because Mr. Boehner has led the charge for massive federal spending cuts, which, some scholars at CUA and elsewhere argued, would hurt the poor.

Despite the media frenzy that surrounded the May 14 speech, it went off without a hitch, and Mr. Garvey said he viewed the episode as an opportunity to discuss important policy differences in the public arena.

“In most institutions of higher education, you expect to get beat up from the [political right side], not from the left side. So it was a little refreshing,” he said.

Mr. Garvey, 62, talked about the inescapable political aspects of his job, big changes in the future of college finance in America and how he hopes to improve campus life at Catholic University in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times editorial board.

He contrasted the dust-up over Mr. Boehner’s address with the outrage among Catholics when President Obama delivered a graduation speech at Notre Dame in 2009. In that instance, it was conservative Catholics who protested Mr. Obama’s pro-choice views. The debate over how best to care for the poor, Mr. Garvey said, is much more nuanced than the black-and-white issue of abortion.

“There is much less room to maneuver about the subject of abortion than there is about … how best to take care of poor people and future generations,” he said.

Students at Catholic University, Mr. Garvey said, were more interested in having a “marquee” name like Mr. Boehner at their graduation than they were in using the occasion as an reason to debate budget cuts.

They also are more concerned about the quality of life on campus, something Mr. Garvey has made a top priority.

“We’ve not been inclined to think about what makes happiness in the life of undergraduates … for example, there weren’t any basketball hoops on the campus. This is Washington. We have 3,500 undergraduates. What’s up with that? There has not been enough fun,” he said.

Mr. Garvey had basketball hoops installed and is pushing efforts to plant more trees on campus.

But the real mission of Catholic University and similar institutions, he said, is to encourage “virtue” among students, a valuable addition to classroom education that many students and parents are willing to pay for, even if they’re not Catholic, he said.

“We attract a certain number of Muslims, Jews, Protestants, who are religiously serious about their own faith and feel comfortable in an environment where faith is not an oddity,” he said.

But the cost of attending Catholic University — or Mr. Garvey’s former homes of Boston College, Notre Dame and the universities of Michigan and Kentucky — may be too steep for many families, leading them to explore less-expensive alternatives, such as community colleges or nontraditional institutions such as for-profit colleges.

He called the “real price competition” now emerging in higher education “a good thing,” arguing that, in a grim economy, prospective students should do their own “cost-benefit” analysis and decide what will work best for them.

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