Catholic Dominican Identity

The Mission Statement of Providence College
Providence College is a Catholic, Dominican, liberal arts institution of higher education and a community committed to academic excellence in pursuit of the truth, growth in virtue, and service of God and neighbor.

Providence College was founded in 1917 by the Dominican Friars at the invitation of Bishop Harkins to provide a Catholic education in the arts and sciences.

Faith and Reason
Providence College is confident in the appeal of reason, believes that human beings are disposed to know the truth, and trusts in the power of grace to enlighten minds, open hearts, and transform lives. Providence College maintains that the pursuit of truth has intrinsic value, that faith and reason are compatible and complementary means to its discovery, and that the search for truth is the basis for dialogue with others and critical engagement with the world.

Academic Excellence
Providence College is committed to academic excellence, and holds itself to the highest standards in teaching, learning, and scholarship. Its core curriculum addresses key questions of human existence, including life’s meaning and purpose, and stresses the importance of moral and ethical reasoning, aesthetic appreciation, and understanding the natural world, other cultures, and diverse traditions. Providence College honors academic freedom, promotes critical thinking and engaged learning, and encourages a pedagogy of disputed questions.

Community and Diversity
Providence College seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the human family. Following the example of St. Dominic, who extended a loving embrace to all, it welcomes qualified men and women of every background and affirms the God-given dignity, freedom, and equality of each person. Providence College promotes the common good, the human flourishing of each member of the campus community, and service of neighbors near and far.

Veritas and Providence
Providence College brings the eight-hundred-year-old Dominican ideal of veritas to the issues and challenges of today. It seeks to share the fruits of contemplation in an increasingly global and diverse society, and to praise and bless all that is good and vital in human endeavors. Providence College supports the Dominican mission of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to a new generation of students and helping them discover God’s providence in their lives.​


As PC200 strives to build on our first hundred years of success by developing a strategy to navigate the challenges and opportunities which we will face in the next ten years and beyond, the mission and identity of our institution are of central importance, since it is our mission and identity which form the goal of our strivings and the chief criterion of our progress. Providence College was founded in 1917 by the Dominican Friars to provide a Catholic education in support of the Order’s broader mission to preach the truth of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.

This founding mission continues to inspire and inform our unique identity and purpose as an institution. Providence College holds the special honor of being the only Catholic, Dominican, liberal arts institution of higher education founded and administered by the Dominican Friars in the United States. The unique Catholic and Dominican identity and mission of Providence College, expressed with great clarity in the College’s mission statement, make Providence College an unparalleled institution in the American academy, attractive in its distinct contribution to the institutional diversity of American higher education.[1]

With a clear vision of our mission and identity, the College now requires a sophisticated strategy for realizing that vision. Recent organizational identity studies have shown that the preservation, transmission, and development of a distinct institutional identity requires intentional and persistent strategies of maintenance and renewal in light of isomorphic (i.e. homogenizing) pressures which arise from within certain organizational fields.[2] Many religious institutions of higher education have lost their distinctive identity as a result of these pressures to conform to their secular counterparts.

The institutional diversity of American higher education, and our unique contribution thereto, should be valued and celebrated. And as the college looks ahead to the next decade and beyond in its strategic planning, we should intentionally develop, strengthen, and celebrate our unique Catholic and Dominican mission and identity, so that we might continue to make our distinct contribution to the diversity of American Higher Education and carry on the mission for which we were founded.

This report aims to support the work of PC200 by presenting our research into the challenges and opportunities which bear upon our institutional identity as the nation’s premiere Catholic and Dominican college. We consider our Catholic and Dominican identity and mission and the isomorphic pressures within the field of higher education which challenge that identity.

I. The PC Difference and Institutional Pressures to Conform

a. Our Unique Contribution to Diversity in Higher-Ed: Inculcating Contemplative Wisdom

What is most distinctive about the Catholic education provided at Providence College? In his inaugural address as the twelfth president of Providence College, Rev. Brian Shanley, O.P. appealed to the earliest Dominican university roots in order to “re-appropriate what is perennial and central to the Dominican university vocation as our touchstone for the future.”[3] President Shanley states that the defining feature of a Catholic and Dominican education is that it is sapiential. The Catholic education we strive to provide is one that inculcates contemplative wisdom, the ability to see how all truth fits together as a whole and finds its origin and purpose in the one God, the source of all truth:

What is known to be true on the basis of reason cannot contradict what is revealed to be true in faith because both are ultimately grounded in the mind of God. Truth—veritas, the motto of the order—is one and the ally of faith. This foundational claim has important ramifications for thinking about the search for truth on a Catholic and Dominican liberal arts campus. As Alasdair Macintyre has written, the greatest contemporary threat to the traditional conception of a catholic university education is posed not by some rival alternative view of the whole, but rather by the widespread view that there is no such thing as an ordered view of the whole. If there is no ordered view of the whole, then a college education involves exposing students to a variety of disciplines with their own distinctive methodologies, leaving students with the feeling that truth is at best relativized to disciplines or at worst non-existent. On this scenario, if there is to be a view of the whole, it will be what I choose to create for myself. By contrast the catholic view of a university education is marked by a belief that, at least in theory, it should be possible to see how all truths fit together into a single whole. Cardinal Newman expressed the view thus: “That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.” This capacity of mind is classically called “wisdom,” and that is what a catholic education aims to inculcate.[4]

As those charged with carrying out our unique mission of inculcating wisdom, the faculty of Providence College, “have to have some sense of the whole and the place of their own discipline in that whole” since “we cannot expect our students to integrate their own knowledge if their professors cannot help them.”[5] President Shanley notes that the faculty contribute to this sapiential mission in the way they “model for students the kind of integrated thinking that lies at the heart of a Catholic and Dominican liberal arts education,” especially through their contributions to “the Development of Western Civilization program that lies at the heart of our curriculum.”[6]

Those of us involved in Dominican education constantly face the challenge of articulating what it is that is distinctive about our tradition as opposed to the Jesuit tradition. I would propose that the answer to that question lies in what we have talked about today. Dominican education should above all else seek to cultivate students who are contemplatives. I know this is a counter-intuitive and counter-cultural claim; I do not expect the marketing people of the college to make this our new slogan on the web site. Yet it expresses the core conviction of the Catholic and Dominican educational ideal: both faith and reason are a means to contemplation of truth about God, and it is precisely for the contemplation of truth that we were made; in grasping this truth about truth-seeking, we come to know who we are as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. If knowledge of truth is the purpose for which we are created and our ultimate end in the beatific vision, then it is vital for our students to come to understand the contemplative vocation as the heart of life. In a world where human identity is in danger of being reduced to social or commercial value, and the role of education correlatively rethought in instrumental or market-place terms, it is a prophetic educational message to assert that the ultimate goal of education is contemplative wisdom. In educating our students to lead contemplative lives we are at the same time educating them to make good choices: it is not possible to know what is worth choosing, and even dying for, apart from an appreciation of the truth of the whole. Moreover, no one who thinks about the truth of the whole can keep it to him or herself. That is why another motto of the Dominican order is contemplare et aliis tradere — to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation. In educating our students to be contemplatives, we are educating them to be prophetic agents of social change. The most powerful force for transforming both self and society is the contemplation of truth.[7]

The mission statement, included in full above, elaborates the vision proposed by President Shanley in his inaugural address. The Catholic education that we provide at Providence College addresses key questions of human existence utilizing a pedagogy of disputed questions to communicate the harmony of faith and reason and the unity of truth in God.[8] As stated in our Mission Statement, this unique education “supports the Dominican mission of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to a new generation of students and helping them discover God’s providence in their lives.”

Our distinctive identity and mission, and our distinctive contribution to the diversity of American higher education, is worthy of celebration in its own right, but it also provides us with a competitive advantage in development and in hiring.[9] As much as our identity is to be celebrated, it is in need of intentional and strategic preservation. The diversity of American higher education is threatened by certain isomorphic pressures which put pressure on institutions such as ours to conform to our peers and to diminish that which makes us who we are. Our report now turns to an analysis of these pressures before offering some practical recommendations about how they can be successfully navigated.

b. Identifying Mechanisms of Institutional Isomorphic Change

Sociologists of institutional identity and change point to three predominant processes of intuitional isomorphic change (i.e. homogenizing change) among organizations belonging to the same organizational field: coercive conformities arise in response to political pressure and the goal of cultural legitimacy, mimetic conformities arise in response to the problem of uncertainty, and normative conformities arise in response to professionalization.[10] Of course, not every intuitional conformity is identity compromising, and some institutional conformities are indeed “best practices” which are adopted to the benefit of our unique mission. Nevertheless, not all conformities are identity and mission enhancing, and because the pressures leading to institutional conformities persist within organizational fields, these pressures must be acknowledged and at times intentionally resisted, as all potential conformities are evaluated with respect to our unique identity and mission.

1. Coercive Isomorphic Pressures

Federal law, accrediting organizations, ranking reports, and cultural expectations exert formal and informal pressure upon Providence College to adopt conforming changes with respect to peers within the field of higher education. Many of these changes are mission enhancing, challenging us to provide higher quality student services, athletic programs, facilities, and classroom instruction. But some coercive pressures encourage conformities that threaten to compromise our Catholic and Dominican organizational identity, and these pressures must be carefully anticipated, evaluated, and creatively resisted.

One such isomorphic pressure comes from a cultural trend towards religious individualism and indifferentism that tends to discourage the positive consideration of an applicant’s Catholic faith and love of Christ in hiring faculty, staff, and administrators. As the mainstream American secular moral order diverges further and further from the Catholic worldview, cultural isomorphic pressure can lead people from outside and from within our institution to question the value of the distinctly Catholic education we provide and to judge our curriculum from the vantage point of secular ideologies often at odds with the truth of Jesus Christ.[11]

2. Mimetic Isomorphic Pressures

In addition to the coercive pressure of outside organizations and cultural expectations, uncertainty is another powerful force that encourages imitation and conformity.[12] When the solution to a problem is unclear or when strategic goals themselves are unclear, organizations tend to model their solutions and goals off of other organizations in the field. A recent study of organizational identity change notes that uncertainty concerning how to measure institutional success is a strong driver of mimetic isomorphic change among colleges and universities: “Organizations like colleges and universities are susceptible to isomorphic change, due to the difficulty in measuring institutional quality. . . . In the absence of suitable measures, these organizations tend to be judged by prestige and best practices, and subsequently, colleges and universities tend to look and behave like the dominant organization.”[13] Surveying peers and identifying so-called best practices often requires fewer resources than arriving at a solution or goal tailored to an organization’s specific identity or mission. As with coercive pressure, mimetic pressure to conform can lead to the adoption of best practices that are truly best for our identity and mission, but they can also lead to the compromising of that identity and mission.

3. Normative Pressures to Conform

Occupational culture, expectations, and methods establish informal norms within an organizational field, creating a third source of isomorphic pressure. Administrators, staff, professors, and even students have roles with cultural norms that transcend any particular institution. Those who make up our college community belong to occupational fields, sometimes reflected in professional organizations and associations, which have their own norms and conforming pressures. These professional norms are the source of isomorphic pressure encouraging conformity within the field of higher education. As stated above, these conformities can be good or bad. Most professional organizations and associations in higher education are secular in nature and do not foster explicitly mission-oriented professional norms. Some such norms may be identity-enhancing; others might be identity-compromising. There is need for discernment in light of this isomorphic pressure: a unique mission-conscious professional identity ought to be fostered, an identity that could be aided by the promotion of membership in explicit mission-oriented, Catholic professional associations.

In summary Providence College, with its distinctive Catholic and Dominican identity and mission, makes a unique contribution to the diversity of American higher education. We belong to an organizational field with strong coercive, mimetic, and normative isomorphic pressures which must be strategically navigated in order to preserve and develop our unique Catholic and Dominican identity. Many religiously-affiliated institutions of higher education have succumbed to these pressures, losing the distinctiveness of their religious identity, reducing the diversity of American higher education. In preparation for the coming decades, Providence College will need to develop a strategy of strengthening our Catholic and Dominican identity among our faculty, staff, and students to ensure that we can continue to make our unique contribution to the diversity of American higher education and fulfill the mission entrusted to us by God in his divine providence.


[1] Our Mission Statement reflects our founding purpose as expressed in our original charter, which established Providence College for “the promotion of virtue and piety and learning.”

[2] See Eric Childers, College Identity Sagas: Investigating Organizational Identity, Preservation, and Diminishment at Lutheran Colleges and Universities, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), ch. 2.

[3] Brian Shanley, “President’s Inaugural Address,” (address, Inauguration of the Twelfth President of Providence College, Providence, RI, September 30, 2005).

[4] Brian Shanley, “President’s Inaugural Address.”

[5] Brian Shanley, “President’s Inaugural Address.”

[6] Brian Shanley, “President’s Inaugural Address.”

[7] Brian Shanley, “President’s Inaugural Address.”

[8] In his study of trends in Catholic higher education since the Second Vatican Council, John Rodden concludes that the survival of a distinctive Catholic intellectual tradition depends upon a self-conscious engagement of that tradition with the more prevalent secular intellectual traditions which predominate in higher education today. See John Rodden, “Less ‘Catholic,’ More ‘catholic’? American Catholic Universities Since Vatican II,” Society (2013) 50:21-27. Our core curriculum and our pedagogy of disputed questions is especially well suited to enable faculty and students to engage rival secular traditions in this way.

[9] Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter argues that the goal of strategic planning for a company or organization in a competitive field must go beyond striving for operational effectiveness, since the goal of maximizing operational effectiveness tends toward competitive convergence such that competitors become indistinguishable from each other. Porter argues that the most important strategic goal must be to achieve sustainable competitive advantage through strategic positioning, namely “by preserving what is distinctive about a company. It means performing different activities from rivals, or performing similar activities in different ways.” (Michael Porter, “What is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, [November 1996], 1). A recent study by the former dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame confirms the competitive advantage of a distinctive institutional identity. The study found that for hires who had previously earned tenure in higher-ranked institutions or who had turned down offers of employment at higher-ranked departments or who were otherwise greatly outperforming their peers, the Catholic mission broadly understood was the highest factor (“by a two-to-one margin over the next highest factor”) in their decision to teach at Notre Dame instead of pursuing a more prestigious opportunity. The dean concluded that “by stressing our Catholic mission, we could hire above our academic ranking,” (John Garvey and Mark W. Roche, “What Makes a University Catholic?” Commonweal Magazine, [February 10, 2017]).

[10] DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. (1983). “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160, (150 here).

[11] Academic Vice President of Gonzaga University, Patricia O’Connell Killen, notes this danger: “In our time, when outcomes-based curricula are required to meet the expectations of accrediting bodies and disciplinary specializations narrow focus toward the isolated particular and away from broader visions of the whole, it is easy to lose sight of the richness of the Catholic intellectual project. Of necessity, we must translate it in terms of mission statements, learning goals, and student learning outcomes. A significant administrative challenge is to carry out the translation in language and structures that do not lose the compelling power of the Catholic vision of intellectual life.” (Patricia O’Connell Killen, “Reflections on Core Curriculum, Mission, and Catholic Identity in Our Time,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education [2015], 86). Killen goes on to explain in practical terms how Gonzaga has approached this administrative challenge: “At my university, the larger Catholic vision flows from the mission statement, which in turn is translated into a set of Baccalaureate Learning Goals that guide all academic programs,” (86).

[12] DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” 151.

[13] Eric Childers, College Identity Sagas, 20. See also, Christopher Morphew, “Steering Colleges and Universities toward Distinctive Missions,” Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis Seminar, 2002.