The ACU Ethics Hub is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae with a ‘Masterclass on Any Catholic University’, exploring how various member groups are understood in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In this lesson, Professor Ramsay explores the role of administrators and professional staff.


We are very used to thinking of universities as collegiate bodies of students and scholars, pursuing knowledge, building and sharing expertise, preparing for life and jobs. But most staff in universities are professionals, not academics, and the Catholic view of the university as a community of persons all seeking the human good means the contribution and experience of our professional staff must be central to our shared life.

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The range and expertise of professional staff in a modern university are astonishing. Our expertise makes us almost a mini-public service, with unique intersection between the activities of research and education, advanced technological and clinical/lab skills, and a fundamental commitment to students and their needs and hopes, which grounds the whole enterprise.

“Above all, professionals at university lead through their service – and serve through their leadership.”

The Catholic university is a place of knowledge but also of demanding and rewarding work. As we learned through 2020 when work continued but community was impeded, our professional work is not purely task-based but contains a crucial social dimension. Professional staff share with academics the responsibility not simply to complete work tasks but to complete community and to help form each other with knowledge and skill from outside our own areas.

In the next few instalments of this series I want to consider the general principles of Ex Corde Ecclesiae as they apply to different groups of professional staff, or as the document has it to ‘directors and administrators’. What principles matter most here?

Above all, professionals at university lead through their service – and serve through their leadership. Everyone agrees universities are bodies of scholars seeking knowledge and truth, and that remains forefront. But underpinning this ‘collegiate’ existence is a vast business enterprise. It could have ended up the case that professional staff within the business were regarded as subordinate, servants of the academic community; but in no university I have worked at is that the case. Instead, modern universities aim to create a culture in which academics are served by those who are also leaders in their fields and so receive in turn the respect of the academics.

This is a subtle balance and it can be lost, and in individual and regrettable cases no doubt is lost. But it is a balance we should commit to and work at.

Administrative and professional staff continued….

Professional and administrative staff add to their own specialist expertise responsibility for keeping community alive at universities, particularly in those often lengthy periods when teachers and students are less visible. They provide examples and reminders of the need for hard work – often repetitive, sometimes misunderstood, frequently involving tricky negotiation between colleagues who tend to the territorial or over-focus on their own specialty and contribution.

In my experience of Catholic academic institutions, professional staff have constituted the main body of support for the daily life of the faith and the work of prayer, liturgy and celebration. Catholic academics often, understandably, have their main focus on Catholic intellectual matters, while professional staff often carry the lion’s share of the life and activities of faith within the workplace.

In its constant teaching, the Church is clear that work and resources exist for the person, and not the other way round; thus the dignity of workers, from which flows the dignity of the work they do, is to be acknowledged at all times. Universities have a particular duty to build dignifying work and to contribute to the professional development of workers and cater for their legitimate wish to grow in knowledge and skill. People cannot be regarded as no more than the sum of their tasks: whether it is data entry, moving chairs, tidying gardens, maintaining equipment, the task matters and the person matters more, and so must not be reduced to numbing tasks or repetitive patterns or being regarded as morally subordinate to any other.
Without a doubt, this is a challenge because it relies on the moral sense and commitment of many hundreds of individuals. But the Ex Corde principles that base our common enterprise not on commercial success but on truth, on a synthesis of reason and faith and not reason and prestige, on an institutional commitment to the Gospel above every other document and code – these principles do help ground us in moral sense and so in workplace justice. If Jesus Christ cannot be named and found in our Catholic universities, we have failed. And he is found not just in chapel and classroom but in faithful work and committed service.
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