Critically examining the ways in which ethics, religion, and culture shape the world around us has always been a hallmark of an Elms College education.

Whether working from a Catholic theological base or a secular ethical standpoint, students have been encouraged to think about human experience holistically. Challenging students to grapple with the grey areas of dialogue and cultural encounter has become the college’s modus operandi.

The St. Augustine Center for Ethics, Religion and Culture (CERC) — so named thanks to a $1 million anonymous gift — breathes new life into this aspect of the Elms College mission. Conceived two years ago, the Center is launching at a particularly prescient time, as debate and self-examination on issues of social justice, racism, and equality are increasingly taking place across the U.S. The CERC will provide a unique opportunity to elevate that discourse and examine how it intersects with ethical, religious, and cultural values. 

Photo of the launch of the Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture (CERC)
Executive Director Peter A. Depergola II, Ph.D., MTS, speaks at the official launch of the Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture.

The new academic hub seeks to revitalize the notion of an “education rooted in faith” by emboldening students to work at the crossroads of the secular and holy. Its courses will be resolutely interdisciplinary. Its extracurricular activities will inspire not only contemplation, but academic publication. The CERC aims to bring fresh perspectives to age old questions about human virtue and community building.

The CERC was officially launched on October 27 at an ElmsSafe protocol-compliant ceremony that featured remarks by the college president, the CERC executive director, an advisory board member, and founding six-figure supporters Carolyn Jacobs, Ph.D., MSW, and B. John (Jack) and Colette Dill, speaking on behalf of the gift made by B. John and Colette Dill and Family.

View the recording of the launch of the St. Augustine Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture (CERC).

Elms College President Harry E. Dumay, Ph.D., MBA, said that, with their gift, the anonymous donor “wants Elms College’s commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition to be celebrated and visible to the world.” The combined altruism of all the founding donors “underscores their passion to shape the lives of countless students for generations to come,” he added.

“I greatly appreciate the fact that the Center for Ethics, Religion and Culture aims at training leaders in a moment in which we notice the importance of leadership or the lack of leadership in civil society,” said CERC Advisory Board member Rev. Andrea Vicini, S.J., MD, Ph.D., STD, the Michael P. Walsh Professor of Bioethics and professor of moral theology at Boston College.

“I’m convinced that, in time, the Center will change the intellectual landscape of western Massachusetts as we know it,” said CERC Executive Director Peter A. DePergola II, Ph.D., MTS, who is also Shaughness Family Chair in Humanities, director of the Bioethics and Medical Humanities Program, and an associate professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities and Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Photo of President Dumay with Jack and Colette Dill at the CERC launch
President Dumay with Jack and Colette Dill.

“Over the past several years but especially during this global pandemic, I’ve come to realize that the big questions of higher education have very little to do with academics and almost everything to do with the moral domains of human existence that don’t show up on student transcripts and can’t be remedied by lesson plans,” Dr. DePergola said of the impetus to create the Center.

“We find it both appropriate and hopeful that the board and leadership of the Elms has taken up the challenge to invigorate the conversation about ethics in our institutions’ activities and daily lives,” said B. John “Jack” Dill, president of Colebrook Realty Services Inc. in Springfield. The Dills previously provided the seed money for the Rev. Hugh Crean Distinguished Lecture Series, which will now be coordinated by the CERC. 

“If there ever was a time that thought and discussion to raise the application of ethical norms and considerations in our world was appropriate, it is now,” Dill added. “Our hope is this next generation has the analytical power, the energy, integrity, thought, and commitment to service to bail us out of the morass we are leaving them.”

Photo of B. John "Jack" Dill and Colette Dill
“We find it both appropriate and hopeful that the board
and leadership of the Elms has taken up the challenge
to invigorate the conversation about ethics in our
institutions’ activities and daily lives.” — B. John “Jack” Dill
Photo of Carolyn Jacobs, Board of Trustees member and foundational donor for CERC
“Institutions where the values are strongly embedded in the
curriculum, the co-curricular activities and the life of students
and faculty are important to me.” — Carolyn Jacobs, MSW, Ph.D.

The Center’s unique mix of ethics, religion, and culture was what inspired Elms College Board of Trustees member Carolyn Jacobs, MSW, Ph.D., to be a foundational six-figure donor. 

“Institutions where the values are strongly embedded in the curriculum, the co-curricular activities and the life of students and faculty are important to me,” Dr. Jacobs said of the impetus to make her gift. “That is what a good Catholic education will do, to insure that sound teaching informed by Gospel values and ethics are embedded throughout the curriculum wherever appropriate.”

Dr. Jacobs is Dean Emerita and Elizabeth Marting Treuhaft Professor Emerita at the Smith College School for Social Work. Her professional interests include religion and spirituality in social work clinical practice and organizational behavior. Throughout her career, she has also written and presented extensively on spirituality in social work. She is active as a spiritual director and retreat facilitator.

As a college student in the 1960s, Dr. Jacobs longed for a deep understanding of the gospel message and how it informed social action. For her the development of an interior spiritual life was essential to her future work.  Dr. Jacobs came to Catholicism through Newman centers and retreats conducted by the sisters of Our Lady of the Cenacle in Carmichael, California. She later attended Cenacle retreats in Boston while doing her Ph.D. studies at Brandeis University. An established Catholic community was pivotal to her deciding to accept a job at Smith College in 1980.

She found that connection through then-Smith College Chaplain and Sister of St. Joseph Judith O’Connell, who introduced her to other SSJs and shared information about Elms College and its mission. Dr. Jacobs agreed to serve on the college’s board and was a member from 2009 to 2018, helping fund projects such as the Lyons Center for Natural and Health Sciences and St. Joseph Chapel in Berchmans Hall. 

She rejoined the Elms College board this year. Learning specific goals of the CERC — how it includes the faith education of students as a distinctive feature of a holistic education — inspired her to make a financial commitment.

“That’s what got me excited, hearing about it and then thinking about what’s happening in this world,” she said. “How do you begin to educate students to be transformative presences in this world, fully grounded in their own intellectual base, in their own education, and how do we do that in a way to make a difference?”

What she hopes students take away from the experience, Dr. Jacobs said, is “that they know they have a responsibility and a right to make the kind of decisions that are in the best interest of the common good but are also in the interest of caring for the individual.”  

Emphasizing Ethics in Education

Among other goals, the Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture will:

  • Create interdisciplinary academic programs at the intersection of ethics, business, healthcare,
  • and biomedical sciences.
  • • Advance scholarship and add new knowledge to our understanding of these truths.
  • • Coordinate with Campus Ministry and invite students to explore their spirituality.
  • • Collaborate with the Institute of Theology and Pastoral Studies to serve the Diocese of
  • Springfield and promote interfaith exchanges.

This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Elms Magazine.