COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Columbus is home to the only seminary in the United States that’s directly linked to the Vatican, and its accreditation is in jeopardy.
The Pontifical College Josephinum was placed on probation by the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditation organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The college has trained 1,900 Catholic priests since its founding in 1888, and has alumni all over the world.
On a certified letter dated June 30, the HLC informs PCJ’s leadership that “the institution has been placed on probation because it is out of compliance with the criteria for accreditation.”
Accreditation is important, as the USDOE relies on those evaluations to ensure students receiving federal financial aid are getting a quality education.
According to the letter, the pontifical college did not meet multiple criteria in integrity, transparency, degree programs appropriate to higher education, effective governance and administrative structures, and systematic and integrated planning and improvement.
Among the HLC’s concerns, the school was “knowingly offering an online graduate degree, the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies,” that had not been accredited.
The letter also states the school’s Director of Human Resources was leading Title IX investigations. “This dual assignment potentially inhibits the effective administration of the complaint process,” the six-page document read.
Issues with finance and planning were also uncovered, according to the HLC.
“The institution continues to rely on unrealistic assumptions about recruiting goals and fundraising as ways to fill enrollment and budget shortfalls,” the letter said, expressing concern over the school’s struggles to “maintain an effective process of shared governance.”
According to the HLC, PCJ met several accreditation criteria, but “with concerns,” including exercise of intellectual inquiry integral to programs; program review; persistence, retention and completion; and resource base.
“It’s a very extraordinary institution,” said Stephen Graham, a director at the Association of Theological Schools, another recognized accreditating organization with 280 member institutions.
Citing planning issues, the ATS placed PCJ on “accredited on warning” status this year, something Graham said is an unusual move for his organization.
“A warning is issued, if the school generally fulfills the standards as a whole. But there is one maybe two standards that they’re in danger of not fulfilling completely,” Graham said. “The school doesn’t completely fulfill the standard, which expects planning that looks forward to the future and make sure that the school is allocating its resources effectively, meeting enrollment targets, has those targets and so forth.”
Graham would not elaborate on the specifics of the ATS’s findings at PCJ.
“The only thing I would say is that the visiting team discerned, and then the board of commissioners agreed, that the resources are in place for the school to do what it needs to do to have the warning removed,” Graham said.
The school’s communications director declined NBC’s request to interview the president and rector, Very Rev. Stephen Beseau, but provided the following statement from him:
The Pontifical College Josephinum is accredited by The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada (ATS) and the Higher Learning Commission (an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
“In the winter of 2022, ATS renewed the Josephinum’s accreditation for a period of seven years. The report praises the academic programs of the Josephinum but notes a substantial need for forward planning and enrollment recovery.
“In June 2022, after an evaluation visit in October 2021, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) notified the seminary that its new status is “Accredited—On Probation.” This means the Josephinum remains accredited while it works to meet several standards of accreditation in which the HLC deemed the Josephinum’s performance to be insufficient. While under probation — a temporary status expected to be rectified by the end of 2023 — the seminary remains fully accredited, and none of its formation or academic programs has been cited in the areas of concern.
“Many of the issues raised by our accreditors had surfaced through our own extensive self-study process. Chief among these concerns is that while the seminary received accreditation from the ATS for the Masters of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) program offered through the Josephinum Diaconate Institute, it was not accredited through the HLC. This matter has already been resolved, and the HLC added the MAPS program to our accredited offerings in March of 2022.
“Other concerns include the renewal of the seminary’s strategic planning, its relationships with sending dioceses, and its internal operating structures. With the help of the HLC, the Josephinum has begun the process of improvement in expectation of having the probationary status lifted after a scheduled evaluation in November 2023.
“After a long process of consultation, the Board of Trustees is expected to release its new strategic plan in the coming months. Board planning is essential to shared governance, a concern of the accreditors. The Board seeks to make the best use of the seminary’s resources and to ensure that all the efforts of the Josephinum community are directed toward our mission to prepare holy, generous, adaptable, and resilient priests for the 21st century.
“The new strategic plan will provide the structure and momentum to maintain the Josephinum’s program of formation of future priests and deacons at the highest standard and to help it forge new relationships with sending dioceses and religious orders across the country. Also, in order to improve its internal operations, the Josephinum administration, faculty, and staff have begun to incorporate new governing documents into our institutional life.
“In January, the Josephinum received approval for its new constitution, which reforms the seminary in light of the 2016 Ratio fundamentalis issued by the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome. This is already the culmination of many years’ effort, and leads directly to the re-drafting of the documents that govern our communal life. The process of adapting our internal structures will lead to better shared governance and greater clarity for all the Josephinum’s community members.
“As we enter this period of probation with the HLC, the Josephinum expects to meet and/or exceed the expectations of our accrediting partners as we renew the seminary’s commitment to serving the universal Church.”Statement from Pontifical College Josephinum President and rector Very Rev. Stephen Beseau