In 1889, the Bishop of Manchester invited a group of Benedictine monks to form a college. That college is now known as St. Anselm. From the start, those monks were empowered by the school’s charter to govern the school.
One of the monks fulfilling that role today is Abbot Mark Cooper. Like most of the Benedictines, the 70-year-old Cooper has taken a “vow of stability” to live and work on campus, where he’s been for the last 50 years.
In that time, he says the school has seen significant changes. The campus has doubled in size. The student body has grown by more than a third. And it’s gone co-ed.
“As far as its Catholic identity: I think we’ve been pretty true to the Catholic mission, keeping it in harmony with the Church,” he says.
The college now has a separate board of trustees, which shares with the monks the task of maintaining that harmony between the church and the college.
Most of the time, the monks and the board of trustees have settled their disputes. But recently, things have gotten tense. The board of trustees initiated a move to take away the monks’ power to amend the college’s bylaws. Cooper and the monks said: absolutely not, and have gone to court.
They say having that power is central to their role in guarding the school’s Catholic identity.
“There is no issue right now,” he says. “That’s why I keep trying to say to the trustees, ‘We love you. You’re great. You’ve done a great job. You’ve done so many good things for us. You’ve been generous. But this is something for the future.’”
Cooper says, with this change, future trustees could design policies about academic strategy or campus life that run contrary to the church’s teachings. He says the Benedictine monks, since they’re on campus mostly for life, are best suited to wield that “amending power.”
“We’ve always had it for 130 years,” he says. “Our principal obligation in my mind was to be able to guarantee as much as possible that we are offering the best expression of the Catholic faith.”
After the Board of Trustees moved earlier this year to take away that amending authority, Cooper and the monks responded by suing the board of trustees. Their lawyer, Michael Tierney, says state law allows the monks to retain this power because it’s outlined in the charter.
“The declaratory judgment action is going to ask the judge to look at the 1889 charter and look at the statute, and look at what the words in the charter mean, and look at what the words in the statute mean,” says Tierney.
Attorney Ovide Lamontagne represents the Board of Trustees. He disagrees with the monks’ interpretation of the charter, and says the Board of Trustees can amend the bylaws without the monks’ prior approval. He says that having this power is necessary for the trustees in order to meet the requirements of the regional college accreditation agency.
“How can you be a board of trustees with governing authority accountable to us as the accreditor when you can’t even amend your own bylaws?” he asks. “And that’s what the current situation is.”
Lamontagne says if the Board of Trustees succeeds in taking away the monks’ amending power, the monks will still have the power to reverse Trustees’ decisions with a two-thirds vote.
The monks already do have seven spots reserved for them on the 40-member board of trustees. But Abbot Mark Cooper says that’s not good enough. He says it’s easier to stop a bad decision before it’s taken than it is to reverse one once it’s been made.
He says the current system allows the monks and the board of trustees to work together, which gives the school a competitive edge.
“You have this group of people who live there on campus, are teaching, are administering, and then you have trustees who have backgrounds in different areas, expertise in different areas.” Cooper says, “If you can blend those two well, I think it leads to superior decision-making.”
The accrediting agency, the New England Commission on Higher Education, says there is “no formula” for how bylaws should be crafted.
Since Cooper and the monks filed suit, the state’s Division of Charitable Trusts intervened in the case. It’s watching how the court will decide who has the ultimate authority to change the bylaws and, by extension, shape the Catholic school’s future.
The two parties are scheduled to appear in court for the first hearing in the case on Jan. 6 — the feast of the Epiphany.