An appreciative and grateful review of the Catholic Leadership Program 2023

Author: Ante Crnčević

Ante Crnčević and Oksana Kulakovska working on an exercise during the Catholic Leadership Program 2023.
Ante Crnčević and Oksana Kulakovska working on an exercise during the Catholic Leadership Program 2023.

I had the privilege of participating in the Catholic Leadership Program organized by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame in July 2023. For this precious opportunity, I am grateful to the institute and the USCCB Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Catholic Leadership Program was designed for the professional formation of leaders at Catholic universities in Central and Eastern Europe and to improve their management skills. I am the head of the Department of Liturgy at the Catholic Faculty of Theology in Zagreb (University of Zagreb), and from the fall of this year, I will assume the position of vice-rector (vice-president) of the Catholic University of Croatia. In need of new knowledge and skills, as well as the experiences of others in university management, I participated with attention and commitment in an intensive and excellently organized program. I experienced this entire week as a valuable enrichment and preparation for the tasks that will be entrusted to me soon.

A selection of topics covered and lessons learned

The topics of all sessions of the Program were carefully selected and elaborated and, apart from the theoretical part, they were enriched by the great experience of managing the University of Notre Dame and its organizational units. Holders of various responsibilities at Notre Dame were happy to share their rich leadership and management experiences.

This intensive one-week program brought together a multitude of valuable reflections, analyses, experiences, visions, and proposals about the management of the university and the preservation of its Catholic identity. Discussions and workshops focussed on the identity, organizational, and management issues that concern every leader of a Catholic university, with special reference to the social and cultural context of our universities in Central and Eastern Europe. We learned

  • how to clearly formulate the vision of the university and how to always have it in front of your eyes;
  • how to turn a vision into a mission;
  • how to define the strategic goals of the university;
  • how to implement them in short-term and medium-term plans and in the development strategy;
  • how to make the vision and mission of the university present in organizational matters and the everyday life of the university;
  • how to share visions and ideas with the closest management team; and
  • what to do so that all university members (administration, teachers, employees, and students) are jointly responsible for the vision and mission of the university and its Catholic distinctiveness.

The session dedicated to building the leadership team and the frontline supervisors in university management as key collaborators was invaluable. Leadership skills were clearly distinguished from management skills, noting the necessity and complementarity of both. The presentation on guarding and protecting the dignity of every person, which is expected from every true leader, is particularly important for a Catholic university, where every person should grow and progress, not only in their tasks but in personal development as well.

The life of the university

We heard that the space of the university (universitas) is close to the identity and mission of the Catholic (Universal) Church; we thought about the role of universities in the life and mission of the Church today and tried to see how, despite different cultural and socio-political contexts, to build and preserve the recognition and distinctiveness of Catholic universities.

The wide range of areas that university leaders encounter in their daily activities requires wisdom and diplomatic skills in listening, talking, and negotiating, which we practiced in special workshops. A good diplomat and leader speaks several languages, and an even better leader and diplomat is one who "listens to several languages."

Students were at the center of all presentations and discussions because they are the purpose of the university. We asked ourselves how, in relation to them, along with scientific training, we could maintain a relationship of respect toward the diversity and dignity of each person.

Discussion and enrichment

Ante Crnčević receives a certificate from Clemens Sedmak.
Ante Crnčević receives a certificate from Clemens Sedmak marking his completition of the Catholic Leadership Program.

In addition to listening to valuable lectures, which were offered by excellent presenters with extensive life experience and management careers, there was enough space for joint discussions and workshops, for questions to the lecturers and workshop leaders, and for the exchange of personal experiences and opinions that we could subject to the criticism of other participants. "How to realize a distinctive university?" was the question we had before us in every presentation and discussion. The program enabled us to learn a lot and taught us that it is necessary to learn a lot, all our lives because the leadership of the university—which is a place of research and learning—rests on continuous learning: only those who are ready to learn continuously can be leaders of educational institutions. What we learned this week cannot be learned from textbooks and manuals, because excellent presenters generously and selflessly shared with us their personal experiences and skills that they built over many years of leadership in large university systems.

Most of us who participated in the Leadership Program come from small and young universities, some of which were founded only after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. We are aware of our limitations and the challenges ahead of us, but we also need to learn a lot from the experiences of others. Such programs as this one are a great help to us in developing the mission of our universities, which cannot develop without excellent leaders and managers.

The Catholic Universities Partnership in action

“The Catholic Leadership Program helps us deepen these connections [with other Catholic universities in our region] and encourages us to cooperate, which I consider necessary and the right path for the development of our universities.”

This program has greatly helped us to be more aware of our possibilities and the opportunities that are open to us, as well as to see more clearly the shortcomings that we need to address to enable the development of our universities. The Catholic Leadership Program educates us for humility and for service, for co-responsibility and for subsidiarity in management, and for greater trust in co-workers; those of us who come from countries with a communist legacy are especially in need of such skills.

I notice that in the period after the fall of communism, we were very open and interested in cooperation with large universities in the West, somewhat shying away from links that classified us in some "Eastern" associations, because we are bearers of the communist legacy that had its own political goals of unification. Even today, we want better cooperation with Catholic universities in the West (in the USA and Europe), because we have much to learn from their experience, but we are also becoming more aware that we need closer relationships and connections among universities in Central and Eastern Europe because we live and operate in similar political and cultural environments and because we face similar concerns and challenges. The Catholic Leadership Program helps us deepen these connections and encourages us to cooperate, which I consider necessary and the right path for the development of our universities.

In this sense, the Catholic Universities Partnership, which invests a lot of effort and resources in connecting Catholic universities in Central and Eastern Europe, is also valuable and encouraging. Without this relationship and connection, it would be difficult to preserve the Catholic identity of the university in our environment; our universities would be much more focused on themselves and, thus, poorer and less developed. The Nanovic Institute invests great effort in our development, especially in the professional training of current and future leaders and managers, and enables connections and diverse cooperation with other universities.

The programs organized and generously offered by the Nanovic Institute, supported by its sponsors and benefactors, are invaluable to us, but the justification for such investments is sometimes hard to see. It is difficult to show it in the short term because it is directed toward the long-term strategic goals of the presence and mission of the Catholic Church in university life in Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore, I am immensely grateful to the Nanovic Institute and all the supporters of its initiatives for the opportunity to participate in the Catholic Leadership Program.

The video above goes into further detail about the program. See Fr. Ante beginning at 1:14.