Letter to the editor: Let's really listen when students talk

As the third member of faculty and staff to write into the student newspaper in the space of a month, and at the risk of co-opting this venue of student expression, I write to defend Reiley Bartel by addressing my fellow faculty and staff. Our responses bear testimony to the power of students speaking their minds. That is what Reiley Bartel did a few weeks ago, and it is evident that we heard her. But are we listening?

Throughout my nine years here, one of our refrains has been that Newman is special because we listen to our students. But the guest letters to the editor from our staff risk conveying a dismissive attitude towards what Reiley wrote. The title of her essay — which she tells me did not come from her — has distracted us. “Newman athletics don't take the Catholic identity seriously” is a sweeping, imprecise statement, overly rhetorical. Most of what I have heard about Reiley’s piece has focused on that title. But she said a whole lot more than that. Are we listening?

Possible factual errors in Reiley’s opinion piece (as some have suggested) are not my immediate concern. Her claims could be verified and whatever problems they expose remedied. My concern is this: a freshman student had the boldness to voice her dissatisfaction with institutional support for her Catholic faith at our Catholic university, and our impulse was not to listen sympathetically but to sweep her complaints aside and go into “damage control” mode. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” If all we listen to are the voices that flatter us, we will likely fail to listen to the voices of our real friends. I think that we should assume in good faith that Reiley is speaking in good faith as a friend who loves our university and wants it to succeed as much as possible.

Faculty and administration may default to thinking of this as a recruitment and retention issue. However, we should all see a challenge for Newman in relationship to our local community. We struggle to recruit students from Reiley’s demographic: young people from the Wichita Catholic Diocese. Newman resides in the middle of one of the most vibrant and thriving Catholic dioceses in the nation. Catholic students should flock to our university. But many of us hear from friends and family that they are sending their kids to one of the state schools. Why? Because they are convinced that they can get a better Catholic education — and a more authentically Catholic community — in the campus ministries of those schools than at our school.  It might be that a university could thrive without Catholic students, but a Catholic university cannot. And Catholic students like Reiley will not come to us — and if they do, they will not stay with us — if they feel like strangers in their own home. The very first thing that we can do to create a more welcoming home for Catholic students is to validate their concerns by listening to them. We cannot cater to every whim or fail to offer guidance to students on how to better communicate their opinions in charitable, effective ways — ways that create dialogue, and don’t build walls. But they’re the students, and we’re the educators. One of the things that we can teach them is how to take criticism graciously… and how to listen.

Matthew Umbarger, associate professor of theology, School of Catholic Studies

Photo: Reiley Bartel, Online Editor