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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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‘Concerned Supporters’ take issue with College administration during conference

Editor's Note: This is the second part in an ongoing series of controversy over social values on Saint Mary's campus in the wake of the admissions policy and its reversal. The first story, on the emergence of the Loretto Trust, can be read here.

Following the release of Saint Mary's nondiscrimination policy, which would have approved the admittance of students who “identify as women,” hundreds of alumnae, students, parents and other supporters of Saint Mary’s College grew concerned about what the policy meant for the Catholic identity on campus. 

Immediately following the release, a Facebook group titled the “Concerned supporters of Saint Mary's College [sic]” was created and became the main hub of those in opposition to the policy. Within this private group, alum Priscilla Pilon ‘86 and others helped organize a conference for those to discuss the policy and rising concerns about the intended direction of the College. 

Pilon stated the conference was an opportunity for alumnae, students, parents and faculty to meet together “to gather facts, to speak to one another and to students to find out what they’re experiencing on campus and how we can support them.” 

Held on Feb. 17 in the Gillespie Conference & Special Event Center in the Hilton Garden Inn right next to campus, roughly 30 alumnae as well as four SMC students and other student-parents arrived to connect with one another over the issue. A survey was also sent out prior to the conference asking invitees what the five most important topics should be discussed at the conference with regards to Saint Mary’s College. 

Larry Bettag, the father of sophomore Claire Bettag, was one in attendance. When broken into small groups, his table consisted of freshman Elycia Morales, sophomore Macy Gunnell, Susan Powers ‘81 and other parents and alumnae wishing not to go on record. During the conference, Bettag offered the idea of writing and publishing a letter consisting of the main topics discussed at the conference. 

Bettag individually sent his letter on March 19 to each member of the College’s administration office, the Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee, as well as to President Katie Conboy, The Observer, The Irish Rover and various Catholic press agencies. Bettag was given written permission by each attendee of the conference to draft and publish the letter. 

Gunnell and Claire Bettag, also created a podcast titled “Cancel 38” just after the conference in February to publicly broadcast several overarching issues they perceive at Saint Mary’s in addition to the concerns brought up at the conference. Since the podcast's inception, they have published eight episodes which discuss the now-rescinded nondiscrimination policy, Catholic identity at Saint Mary's and other right-leaning content, averaging around 200 views each on YouTube. 

Pilon said the letter “was not a result of the conference” and rather an initiative personally taken by Bettag.

Actions for administration to uphold discussed at the conference 

The first issue listed was a concern relating to the College’s “commitment to the Catholic faith.”

“SMC has abandoned the faith,” Bettag wrote. “The administration, led by President Conboy, has lined itself in direct opposition to the tenets of the Church. Priests ... celebrate mass at the Church of Loretto and give a homily on the non-discrimination policy, contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s a form of pulpit intimidation.”

The letter called for the revamping of the Center for the Study of Spirituality and stated its director, Fr. Dan Horan, “has no place” at the College. It also stated the course curriculum should mandate a basic course on Catholicism be taken by each student attending Saint Mary’s. 

“I'm not going to say that the school should be 100 percent religious classes, obviously, but … there should be way more opportunities for religious enrichment than very secular, anti-Catholic courses and departments like gender and women's studies,” Gunnell said. “There's not enough emphasis on theology and religious values here. There's a lot more focus on very secular things that the Church definitely stands against.” 

Further, the letter called for the abolition of classes that teach “contrary to the Catholic faith” and stated the general education Sophia Program “is a mess.”

“Gender reassignment surgery should not be talked about in an entry-level course … Gender ideology should not be talked about in an entry level course … If you want to take a course like that, go for it. No big deal. I got no problems with it,” Morales said. “But some of them are Sophia, general education, and if it's going to fill a ‘women's voices’ requirement in the class, it should be women's voices.”

In an additional effort to foster social Catholicism on campus, the letter urged all future lecturers, commencement speakers and honorary award recipients to be fully vetted and approved by a “Catholic council.” 

“The current echo chamber at SMC promotes controversial Catholic-in-name-only speakers, whose words and deeds [do] not match the faith, but does not allow counterbalance with Catholic speakers who uphold the faith. Speakers who align with the Catholic faith need to be the norm, rather than the exception,” Bettag wrote. 

The letter also called for a greater amount of accountability from President Conboy, the administration and “some members” of the Board of Trustees, while specifically pointing out issues with President Conboy. It asked for any and all policy changes to be “communicated publicly and in a timely manner” and the release of summaries of all future meetings “regarding points that are important to students, parents, faculty, administration and for all contemplating enrolling in SMC."

“Important decisions need to be reported. We don't need to know the inner workings of employee decisions, but we need to most certainly know about any decisions that affect the college going forward. And that is something that we would like the Board of Trustees to make a pledge for, more transparency,” Pilon said. 

In addition to transparency, the letter asks for the College to set a goal of 75% or more appointed faculty members to be Catholic, and to annually report and publish the progression towards this percentage. 

Concerns about current administration 

The concern for greater transparency and the loss of trust originally stemmed from the lack of communication about the change in the nondiscrimination policy, critics say. But since its promulgation, and after its reversal, the ‘concerned’ community now places much of their worries towards the current foundation of the school’s administration.

“When the news came out, I felt very lied to because I had trusted this administration. It's not cheap to go here … it did feel very two-faced,” Morales said. “It was almost like I didn't have the choice; the choice to choose was taken away from me. I just felt like I couldn't trust the administration anymore,” Morales said. 

Gunnell believes the source of the reduction of the College’s Catholic identity comes from the head of administration and now is the cause for Saint Mary’s current financial status. 

Gunnell believes the College is losing money because donors are losing faith in Conboy's ability to uphold the school's Catholic identity.

​​“I hope that President Conboy is removed immediately. I hope that we get someone who is much stronger in the Catholic faith in her place. I think that there is a spiritual revival that Saint Mary's needs in order to continue. There's a lot of trust that's been lost, and that's why Saint Mary's is financially facing a huge downfall, because they're losing donations, they're losing all the money … There's so many things going against Saint Mary's because of the lack of trust that we have now,” Gunnell said. 

Gunnell says she worries that the downfall of the institution itself may occur within her lifetime. 

“It's just very frightening to see the future that is currently in line for Saint Mary's. I know for a fact that the school will reach its demise very soon if changes aren't made, and I don't want to see that. I don't think anyone wants to see that. So I guess that's why I'm very adamant about fighting against the very corrupt administration that we have right now,” Gunnell said.

Bettag believes that despite her growing concerns about the College, an alternative path for Saint Mary’s future can emerge following the establishment of new administration. 

“​​Saint Mary's not only can be rescued, but can thrive. It could shine. It’s so tarnished right now. It's got such horrible, I believe, horrible leadership. But I'm not going to place it all on Katie. I think that Katie was put there by people who control the shots more than even she does,” Bettag said.