Fear and Loathing at St. Vincent College

I attended St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania (hometown of legendary golfer Arnold Palmer and once the home of Rolling Rock beer). When I was there, 1963-1967, it was a decent liberal arts college, about as liberal as a Catholic school could be. Keynes ruled the economics department. When the monk who taught Anthropology decided to abandon the priesthood and marry a Mormon woman with six children, one of my Theology instructors performed the marriage ceremony. Father Roman, the Art Professor, was a huge fan of avant-garde film-maker, Jonas Mekas. We invited antiwar activists, historian and Communist Party member Herbert Aptheker, and radical singer Pete Seeger to campus. A friend of mine and I snuck a monk out of the monastery one Friday and went to the racetrack in Chester, West Virginia. The good father flirted mightily with a waitress, telling us beforehand to call him Bill. He assured us that we could order meat without worrying about sin. Not long after I graduated, a champion of the poor, Rembert Weakland, became Archabbot. Weakland was later named Archbishop of Milwaukee and was the chief author of a famous Bishops’ pastoral letter condemning a society that left so many people destitute. That old swine—and Catholic—former Treasury Secretary William Simon was nonplused by this paean to greater equality.

Sometime in the 1980s the college hierarchy moved sharply to the right, perhaps in an effort to get money from the likes of Pittsburgh’s Scaife family. The economics department (later the McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government, named after its initial funder, a right-wing industrialist) became a haven for libertarians, a place where every reactionary “thinker” in the social sciences was sooner or later invited to speak. The current Archabbot, Douglas Nowicki, sadly a contemporary of mine, is an extreme conservative, fully in accord with the rightward tilt the school has taken.

One part of the college’s conservative drift can be seen in its appointments to the president’s office. The Reverend John F. Murtha’s designation almost certainly was connected to the fact that he is a cousin of the powerful congressman, John F. Murtha, notorious as the king of pork. Congressman Murtha helped channel millions of dollars in “earmarks” to St. Vincent while his cousin was president. The past two presidents of the college broke precedent, in that they were not clergymen, nor did they have academic qualifications, something to which most institutions of higher learning give at least lip service. James Will, the first layman president, was CEO of Armco Steel. Armco, now AK Steel, is a notoriously anti-labor company and one of the nation’s premiere air polluters. His appointment as president suggested that St. Vincent hoped that he would use his business acumen to both organize the college more efficiently and raise more corporate money.

It is the naming of the second lay president, however, that marked the completion of St. Vincent’s transformation from a liberal arts college to the opposite of one. This new man, James Towey, brought with him not only a completely corporate mentality but also a maniacal commitment to the most reactionary brand of Catholicism—a militant “born again” and fundamentalist Christianity no different than that championed by the likes of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell. This combination has been the bedrock of the right-wing revival in the United States, with the repression implicit in the nature of capitalism hidden by the “be charitable to the oppressed” rhetoric of theology.

It is more than a little interesting that before he became a college administrator, Towey (2E to his detractors) served in the administration of George W. Bush as the head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which aimed to substitute wholly inadequate church charity for the social programs that the government, in neoliberal zeal, had dismantled. And before that, he was U.S. legal counsel for the order of nuns run by the Albanian avatar, Mother Teresa. Towey never tires of extolling the virtues of this supposed champion of the wretched of Calcutta. Now, as has been demonstrated by more than one person, most famously by Christopher Hitchens, the saintly Teresa had an affinity for some of the world’s worst dictators, such as the murderous Duvaliers of Haiti, hobnobbed with white-collar criminals like Charles Keating, and never did a single thing to empower the poor. But she loved them. Not as an equal but as a giver of grace.

Towey incessantly makes references to his close ties to Bush and Mother Teresa, and he did his best to parlay these into the power that would allow him, with the full support of the Archabbot, to reshape the college. He even invited Bush to be the commencement speaker in 2007, which brought forth much protest, including a harsh rebuke from former monk and St. Vincent president, Maynard Brennan, who was head of the college when I attended. In a commentary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brennan wrote:

When I was president of St. Vincent College, I was proud to stand before the graduates and encourage them to engage the world with wholesome gospel values. A commencement speaker is a living example of such virtue, sending graduates forth with vision and hope. I have serious misgivings that President Bush can fulfill this exalted role. How can a man whose administration has been so tainted by incompetence and corruption be a worthwhile role model for young people?

St. Vincent College, as a vibrant example of Benedictine and Catholic Christian life, must reach back and feel its backbone. I greatly regret that the Latrobe Benedictine Community will honor the former boss of the current St. Vincent president, James Towey.

Actions do speak louder than words, and the actions of Mr. Bush and his administration have aptly demonstrated that he does not stand for the values which this college has historically represented: the principle of justice and adherence to the biblical admonitions for nonviolence and concern for the poor.

Since close ties to corporate capital had already been established by his predecessors, Towey concentrated on campus life. He had little respect for the pursuit of truth or the academic life; he said, to the amazement of many faculty, that his job was to get the students into heaven. This was translated into heavy doses of intrusive supervision, including monitoring student life with an Orwellian intensity. Student publications were censored; dormitory bulletin boards scrutinized for anything morally offensive; numerous “mature adult” and political web sites were blocked on campus computers; and students were subjected to Towey’s many invocations, in which braggadocio and moral platitudes were dispensed in equal doses. College publications, including the alumni bulletin, were filled with puff pieces about Towey and his good deeds. Even his wife got into the act, confronting students who dared protest. Towey called her the “First Lady” of St. Vincent.

While an admissions office can give preference to applications of a certain type, thus creating a student body to match the wishes of a morality policeman like Towey, it is harder to reshape the faculty, especially since many of them have tenure and cannot be easily dismissed and replaced.

This is not to say that the college hasn’t tried. I had an email exchange with an adjunct (not in the tenure stream, so essentially an “at-will” employee without due process rights) teacher in the health-related professions. He is a former career military man and a parent of a St. Vincent student. He is more than happy with Towey’s leadership and disdainful of those who have criticized the president, arguing that, as in the military, you must obey your leader once he has given orders. As a parent, he was pleased that Towey was helping to keep his daughter from what the priests used to tell us is “an immediate occasion to sin.” Given enough time, a college administration could hire around the tenured faculty by filling openings with temps who have the appropriate “values,” especially when a tenured teacher retired, died, or quit.

Towey did stack the academic deck whenever he could. He appointed as academic dean (or Vice President for Academic Affairs, the term preferred by academe these days) an untenured physics teacher, against the wishes of all but one of the faculty search committee. This man had no qualifications to be dean, and, in fact, it is unprecedented to appoint as a college’s chief academic administrator a person who has to judge the scholarship and general academic fitness of teachers but has not himself passed the tenure review in which such a judgment is made. However, like the adjunct ex-military man, the dean was a gung-ho Toweyite. I had correspondence with him as well, and he suggested to me that Towey’s opponents were “evil.” I wondered how a scientist could bandy about words like “evil,” but he remains convinced that there is such a thing, apparently brought to us by Satan. Since Towey was rooting out the forces of evil at the school, this man was all for him. I wonder whose side this scientist would have been on when Galileo was told to recant or die?

Some faculty and staff quit and went elsewhere rather than put up with Towey. One reason for this attrition was his constant harassment. Faculty with whom I have spoken and had email correspondence tell me that staff are terrified of Towey, who has hired loyalists and their relatives, sycophants who don’t hesitate to tell the boss who is disloyal. Retribution, including firing, is sure to follow. People are afraid to talk in public spaces. Faculty are convinced that their phones are tapped; cell phone use has become universal. The same is true of office computers, and faculty and staff have taken to using non-college accounts and computers for emails. Visitors find that everyone locks office doors after them.

The hiring of the untenured dean infuriated the faculty, and their anger was compounded when Towey expunged faculty concerns from a formal self-study made by St. Vincent for the Middle States accreditation agency. In desperation, thirty-two of the college’s tenured teachers(about three-fourths of the total) sent a signed letter to the Board of Directors decrying the “unparalleled crisis” facing the college as a result of Towey’s misrule. The situation received national publicity when Doug Lederman, a journalist with the online magazine, Inside Higher Ed, interviewed people at St. Vincent and wrote an article in April 2008.
Lederman was impressed that many of the Benedictine monks were not only

opposed to Towey (and by implication the Archabbot) but willing to sign the faculty letter. Most remarkable of all, one monk, Father Mark Gruber, who taught anthropology and was himself something of a Catholic fundamentalist, was quoted by name in the Lederman essay. The priest told the writer:

I would have welcomed an intellectually sound reconsideration of the best way to embody the Catholic philosophy at a college. It would be useful to take John Newman’s discussion of the university from the 19th century, or even Benedict XVI’s scholarly approach, and having a set of faculty discussions about what we should do. Instead, we get Mother Teresa of Calcutta a great deal and a lot of talk about heaven. My mission in the classroom, and our mission as a university, is to inform and enlighten, to bring the kingdom of good and of God to this world. I don’t see it as my mission, or his mission, to be a preacher of revival that gets students to heaven.

Mark Gruber would pay dearly for his honesty.

As the problems at St. Vincent became known outside of the campus, some alumni, including me, began to write letters, exchange emails, and participate in an informal and unofficial email list (www.svcalum.com). It may be that our efforts gave those on campus hope and a feeling that they had allies. Certainly the administration monitored our website and referred to it constantly, calling those of us who used pseudonyms cowards and sometimes joining the list themselves to act as provocateurs. There are members from campus who fear reprisal and so maintain deep cover. Even some alumni are afraid to use their real names, believing that Towey and friends will reach out to their employers and try to harm them. Some students have begun an underground paper called, appropriately enough, Thought Crime. I have sent them some articles under an assumed name, because that is the paper’s policy. The correspondence I have had with the editors and advisers has always been anonymous. In any event, the drumbeat of criticism deepened and broadened, and I began to believe that things were reaching the breaking point on campus.

And then, to our great joy, in mid-October, James Towey resigned, effective at the end of the spring semester. He said that faculty and alumni hostility had “zero” to do with his resignation, but that ordinarily means that it had everything to do with it. Perhaps the Archabbot felt it was time to cut his losses and save his own skin to fight another day. Towey had been making a fool of himself writing op-eds for far right-wing newspapers and magazines and giving interviews to Fox outlets. It was coming to light that he was earning large sums of money for an outfit called Aging with Dignity, which he helped found and for which he now acts as a consultant. This was in addition to his $275,000 a year in salary and benefits at St. Vincent, an obscene amount of money for anyone associated with the Order of St. Benedict. Apparently he loves the poor, but he doesn’t want to be one. During the debate on national healthcare, Towey joined hands with those who said the government wanted veterans to hurry up and die. Not surprisingly, it turned out that he was trying to market his own end-of-life planning book, Five Wishes (published by Aging with Dignity).

Unbeknownst to outsiders, however, an ugly event was taking place, one which has rocked the college to its core. In late July, at the request of Towey, Archabbot Nowicki, and other St. Vincent officials, Pennsylvania State Police were called to campus. They were given a printed list of web sites visited by users of a computer located in an area outside the office of Father Mark Gruber. The college officials claimed that the listed web sites featured child pornography. That day, the computer in question was confiscated, and the priest was accused of viewing child pornography on it.

The police interviewed Gruber and later performed a thorough analysis of the computer’s hard drive. They found no evidence of child pornography, although they did uncover images of nude men. They also discovered that there were many other accounts on the computer; that is, there were users besides Mark Gruber. The police informed the college that there was no evidence that any crime had been committed, and they were closing the investigation. The police were asked if they would try to find out who had viewed the pornographic sites, but the officers said that this didn’t matter as far as a criminal investigation was concerned.

In September, the Archabbot removed Gruber from the faculty and took away his right to say Mass and perform his priestly functions. Gruber is not permitted to be on the campus, making him, in effect, a prisoner in the monastery. The Towey/Nowicki forces have ostracized him, a prominent economics faculty member even contacting students and parents and advising them to avoid contact with the tainted monk. I was told about these events by a friend on campus not long after they happened, but I was asked to keep this confidential. However, in late November, we are all but certain at the initiation of the college, the story was leaked to the local media, several of which just reported what the college official told them. Needless to say, this put Father Mark in the worst possible light. These days, the public is willing to believe that any accusation of sexual misconduct or crime against a Catholic priest is true.

If the school believed that going on the offensive against Gruber was a good move, they were soon proven wrong. A firestorm of protest erupted—from alumni, students, faculty, and staff. The American Association of University Professors sent a strong letter to St. Vincent decrying the absence of due process in Gruber’s removal from the faculty and urging the college to rescind its actions. A formal censure of the school may be forthcoming. Local and national media were bombarded with letters defending Gruber and denouncing what Towey and the Abbot had done. Letters have also been sent to religious leaders, including the Pope. A second article was written by Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed, which included a copy of the police report. Lederman begins by saying:

When most of Saint Vincent College’s tenured faculty members voted last year to criticize President James Towey’s management of the Benedictine college, most professors were so nervous about retribution that few were willing to discuss their concerns in public. The Rev. Mark Gruber was an exception, and he may be paying a price for that outspokenness now.

As details of the case have become know, this appears to be the truth. Father Gruber never logged off his computer, which was not in his office but in an outer space frequented by hundreds of people. Anyone could, therefore, use the machine, and it was, in fact, logged into thousands of times by hundreds of people. The svcalum web site has been filled with comments by people who have used the computer, and a teacher told me that he had himself used Gruber’s computer a hundred times. So it is not possible and never will be to prove that Father Mark visited the web sites in question. The irony is that it was his vows to obey the rules of St. Benedict that committed him to let others use the computer. His work-study students have attested to the fact that the priest was not at all computer savvy and was barely able to send or retrieve email. At no time did any of the legions of users see anything pornographic on the computer, something that any computer-literate person could have located. Rumors abound that the administration planted the images or that they came via a computer virus.

Campaigns of protest are rearing up among the students, such as the wearing of Father Mark tee shirts, and alumni are informally refusing to donate money to the college. A “Friends of Father Mark” Facebook page has been initiated, and after three weeks, it had more than 1,400 members. Father Mark, himself, has secured attorneys, both secular and canon lawyers. Not a single person has come forward in any venue with the slightest evidence that casts doubt on the monk’s character. Of course, outside the confines of a monastery, not many people would care that someone looked at naked men. In a secular college, no teacher could be fired for doing so. And if this is the worst thing a priest ever did, well I am sure that he could still count on eternal life with the Lord! However, there is no evidence that Mark Gruber did that of which he is accused. A man’s life has been ruined. Why? For speaking out? For not being a hypocrite like Towey? For upholding the vows he took, unlike the Archabbot? Who is the sinner here? Who has done the evil deeds? In my forty years as a teacher, I have never seen such an ugly persecution.

I stopped being a Catholic when I was nineteen. I have been an atheist since I was in my early twenties. I have nothing much in common with Father Mark Gruber. Yet I owe St. Vincent College a great debt. It was there that I first encountered great books, films, plays, and ideas, not to mention scholarly teachers and students. It was there that I learned that I had a good brain and there that I began to use it. To see it become the Catholic version of Bob Jones University has been too painful for many of us to tolerate. Maybe the trend can be reversed. There are indictions that the Vatican lawyers will exonerate him. Maybe the monks will get some backbone and send the Archabbot back to rank-and-file monkhood. Maybe then Mark Gruber will get back his job and his life. As I think about it, perhaps we do have one thing in common. Neither of us likes to see those with power abuse those who do not.
MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class. He encourages correspondence and can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com.

Michael D. Yates is the Director of Monthly Review Press in New York City. He has taught workers throughout the United States. His most recent book is Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation and Class Struggle (Monthly Review Press, 2022). He can be reached at mdjyates@gmail.com