My Alma Mater, Making National News

Franciscan University of Steubenville is a small Catholic college not especially well known outside of a few niche Catholic circles, but its decision to drop student healthcare coverage, ostensibly in response to the HHS mandate and the PPACA, has made the national news.  And how! I haven’t seen the school receive this much press since…well…ever.  The Herald Star quotes Michael Hernon, VP of Advancement:

We feel the health care mandate from the Obama administration violates our religious conscience because it includes coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing medications as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. We also are concerned for our students and their families because the plan dramatically increases the cost of the health insurance for students. We don’t feel it’s fair to pass that cost on to our students.

As this school is my Alma Mater, I suppose I should say something.  I figure I owe it more than an eye roll, my customary response to its ventures into politics.

First, a little context.  Franciscan University takes pride in its reputation for orthodoxy and devotion to the magisterium, fancying itself a leading and valiant upholder of authentic Catholic culture.  If you were to call the typical student a dogmatic extremist, she’d take it as a compliment.  I was never quite the typical student there, but at the time I gleefully breathed in the atmosphere of antagonism: having the Truth and wielding it skillfully as a weapon against its enemies.   If we couldn’t save the world, we could at least be retainers of Real Catholicism.  As you may imagine, the university caters to the sort of Catholic who finds the world an evil place and desires a light in the darkness, a safe learning environment where there’s no risk of heterodoxy or heresy passing from a professor’s lips.  Strange that I fell to the dark side of philosophy there.

Anyhow, to survive in the market, the university needs to uphold this particular reputation.  I therefore suggest keeping this in mind when inquiring into the meaning of its public actions.  Kate Sheppard is right: the university will go a long way to make its stances clear.  It has a vision of itself to promote, and there’s nothing like free publicity.  No doubt the school administrators are very pleased with the news coverage.  They may be trendsetters.  And be assured that this principled stance plays very well with the school’s prospective customers.

But is this a principled stance?  Noticeably, the university has not done away with health insurance coverage to its administration or faculty, even though these would, by their reckoning, also fall prey to the mandated offenses.  The Herald Star touches on this:

Hernon said the university has not taken action on employee health care, “because we believe cooler heads will eventually prevail. We believe legislative action and other options will allow us to provide health care to our employees in a sound moral environment.”

But not to the students?   Color me skeptical.  If you can wait on dropping the faculty’s coverage, then why not also wait before dropping the student coverage?  The alleged additional costs, we’re told, but, if so, then this particular decision was made for economic reasons rather than because keeping the student coverage would be a violation of conscience.  Not exactly consistent with the university’s stated reasoning, is it?  If the employee and student coverages differ in a way that’s relevant here, then the school spokespeople should say so clearly.  They haven’t, though.  Instead, they’ve given the impression that dropping student coverage now, before the law is set in stone, is a moral necessity.  That doesn’t seem to be true.

So what’s going on here?

If you’re wondering, the staff and faculty of Franciscan University are sincerely devoted to upholding and promoting the Catholic faith, at least in so far as they understand it.  Their overall religiosity is much too tied to right wing politics for my liking–as illustrated by their dismissal of board member Nicholas P. Cafardi’s after his endorsement of Barack Obama and by their inviting a known supporter of torture techniques to give the commencement address–but I do not question their hearts.  If push comes to shove, you can bet the university will also drop employee healthcare coverage.

Right now, however, there is a reputation to promote, and being the first Catholic institution to drop coverage, if only in part, has its promotional advantages.

And here I am, doing my little part like a reliable alumnus.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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11 Responses

  1. GordonHide says:

    I’m confused. Isn’t coverage of employees (going to be?) mandatory in law whereas coverage of students is not?

    • Nob Akimoto says:

      Yes. So essentially they’re having it both ways.

      They get to continue to not paying the tax assessments as a large employer.

      And they get to grand stand on the issue.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The university’s president has stated unequivocally that they will not comply with the law.

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    I was under the impression that the Magisterium was quite equivocal in its condemnation of torture…how does that square with an ultra orthodoxy that invites a torture supporter to give a commencement address?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      It doesn’t, but I suppose the school would reply with the BS “enhanced interrogations isn’t torture” defense.

      • Nob Akimoto says:

        Which I suppose raises the question about whether or not having the insurance company provide the extra coverage is insufficiently different from providing it yourself.

        …I mean if semantics can go against torturing people, I would hope it could go for providing health insurance.

  3. Nob Akimoto says:

    Also as my front page mini-post shows, at least your alma matter isn’t embarrassing itself with a nationally prominent typo.

  4. Kevin Rice says:


    Don’t Franciscan University faculty (and presumably the admin as well) take the fidelity oath? Students at the university don’t have to take a fidelity oath before the local bishop. I never did. I would have, but no one asked me. While I was there I was told by one of our fellow travellers in the Philosophy MA program (I can name the source if you like) that at least one of FUS students had gotten an abortion. God knows how many are secret contraceptors, but if I had to wager I would bet that the number is not zero. I would also bet that no university employee who wanted to keep his or her job at FUS would use his or her employee insurance as a third party payer for abortifacients, contraceptive hormone pills being used for that purpose as opposed to a medically acceptable one (e.g., inhibiting menstruation for sufferers of endometriosis). Should students who, as far as I know, cannot be expelled from the university for aborting or contracepting, reasonably be as counted on to refrain from charging their university health plans for contraceptives and abortifacients as fidelity-oath-taking employees with an interest in maintaining their employment?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I suspect that, from the university’s standpoint, no one, neither student nor faculty, can be reasonably counted on to refrain from procuring the offending goods and services. If the school could, then they would seem to have a way out–a means of following the mandate while staying true to their principles. Maybe they’re keeping this as a fallback course of action, but I doubt it. The law itself may even prohibit the school from setting any such expectation–I don’t know if this is the case, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The mandate would lose its force if institutions could terminate the employment of those who availed themselves to contraceptives, etc., through the employee healthcare plan.

      • M.Z. says:

        Under previous experience with out of wedlock births, employees do enjoy privacy privileges with regard to reimbursed expenses. However, were the triggering event independently ascertained, it would be actionable. And while the conduct of employees can be subject to morals agreement, persons who are not employees who are covered under the plans cannot be bound to such agreements. For example, a child dependent who is found to engage in immoral conduct cannot be terminated from the plan. Any forthcoming employee termination would be as a consequence of at will employment and not prohibited conduct.

      • Kevin Rice says:

        I don’t think that faculty and students are equally unworthy of trust in this regard. You didn’t say that they were, but it looks like you think that whatever difference there would be in their reliability is trivial. I don’t agree. I have offered two reasons why the university might consider that students would be significantly less likely to refrain from abusing their health care coverage than faculty and thus the need to deal with the issue of the students’ insurance coverage would be more urgent. On the issue of whether FUS could fire contracepting faculty, the Supreme Court has recently affirmed the right of religious institutions to have and enforce employment policies based on fidelity to their doctrinal traditions. That is an existing precedent which will either have an influence on the way that the Court will decide on the issue of the constitutionality of the mandate (probably by the end of June), or there will be another legal challenge to the mandate on first amendment grounds in which that precedent will necessarily be brought to bear whether the case makes it to SCOTUS or not. All in all, things are not presently looking good for the mandate.