In 2022, The Lumen Christi Institute received a 3.65 million dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Grant #62372) to support the Catholic intellectual tradition on campuses nationwide. The In Lumine Network has expanded this year to a total of nine institutes. We interviewed one of the executive directors of the expanding network of Catholic institutes on university campuses, Dr. Elizabeth Lyon Hall, on the work that goes on behind the scenes. COLLIS was started because of the In Lumine Network and here Dr. Hall shares the story of COLLIS from its birth.
Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Lyon Hall (COLLIS)
LCI: What is the story behind the beginning of COLLIS?
ELH:The origins of COLLIS Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture lie in a phone call between the late Thomas Levergood and Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University. Thomas posed the idea of forming a Catholic institute at Cornell and offered to include the institute in a grant application to the Templeton Foundation if Jonathan could put together a board and incorporate within a matter of months. Thomas Levergood called the right person: Jonathan had founded the St. Albert the Great Forum on Science and Religion at Cornell. Several years earlier, co-founded The Society of Catholic Scientists (an international organization) and worked to establish a Cornell chapter of the Thomistic Institute—and in his day job, he was the chair of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell! He gets things done. Jonathan very quickly put together a fantastic board of Catholic faculty, COLLIS incorporated in January 2022, and the board put out a job posting for executive director in February 2022.
That’s where I come in. I am a Cornell alumna (PhD, ’21). Following a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (Frankfurt am Main), I lectured at Cornell and Ithaca College while also working at Cornell’s campus ministry as music director and part-time campus minister. I had heard rumors around the campus ministry that a group of Cornell faculty was forming a Catholic institute, and when the job posting was announced, I jumped on it. I had been thinking for years that Cornell and Ithaca needed some kind of Catholic center for culture and learning (and was even working through the finances of what this would look like). So the timing seemed providential. I was hired in July 2022, and we now have one academic year of programming under our belt.
LCI: What do you think are some of the major accomplishments of this year?
ELH: After I was hired in July 2022, we obtained diocesan approval, attained 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, applied for affiliate status through Cornell United Religious Work, initiated donor outreach, acquired an office space on Cornell’s campus, all while running a pretty substantial year of programming. This academic year, we presented four lectures, one symposium, three workshops, six grad-faculty seminar” sessions, two non-credit courses, a sacred music choir, a house concert fundraiser, and piloted a community outreach program. It’s taken a lot of legwork to get everything up and running so quickly. I think we benefited from some amount of luck in obtaining approval from three complicated bureaucracies (the IRS, the USCCB, Cornell) with relatively little delay.
On a more human level, the two areas I am most proud of this year are winning significant faculty buy-in and participation and facilitating connections between faculty and PhD students. Most Catholic faculty at Cornell attend the local parishes, rather than the student liturgies on campus. For this reason, most Catholic students have had almost no connection with Catholic faculty. In fact, when I canvassed students about ideas for the institute last summer, students would usually ask me, “Are there any Catholic faculty members?” COLLIS provides a forum where Catholic faculty, students, and staff can interact and learn, and where Catholic intellectual and cultural traditions can be passed down in an authentic way—i.e. in relationship. We’ve had amazing faculty response to our programs and almost a dozen Cornell professors served as instructors or seminar leaders this past year. Connections between Catholic faculty and PhD students is particularly important to me given my own experience of writing on a Catholic topic at Cornell while in graduate school. I encountered challenges both in terms of research (theology is not usually held in esteem here) and in identifying an intellectual community. It turns out that there are actually a number of scholars at Cornell doing research that ties into Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic history, or the arts. In the past there has been no easy way to find each other. COLLIS can provide a context for connection and collaboration among these researchers. It is extremely gratifying to me to observe graduate students approach COLLIS faculty at the end of a session with words like, “Why haven’t I met you before? Can I make an appointment with you? My research is….”
LCI: How do you understand the mission of COLLIS?
ELH: COLLIS aims to develop Catholic thought, culture, and community at Cornell University, enriching students, faculty, staff, and community members of all faith traditions and none.
LCI: You're hosting a new summer seminar this summer at Cornell University’s campus. Can you tell us more and what you're excited about?
ELH: Yes! The seminar is called, "Explorations in Integral Ecology: Science, Theology, and Creation,” led by Sr. Damien Marie Savino, FSE, PhD (Dean of Science and Sustainability, Aquinas College), and Fr. Terrence Erhman, CSC, PhD (Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame). Over the course of the seminar, participants will integrate theological study with scientific observation of the natural world and experiences of creation. So in the morning, students will be deep in discussion on texts ranging from Bonaventure to Joseph Pieper. In the afternoons, they will be hiking up gorges as they learn about the ecosystems they support, taking water samples in Cayuga Lake onboard a “Floating Classroom” yacht, meeting with some of Cornell’s top scholars on sustainability, and visiting Cornell’s student-run organic farm. By the end of the seminar, the hope is that students will not only have thought carefully through several important issues at the juncture of science, religion, and the environment, but they will have had personal experiences with parts of creation tied uniquely to Cornell’s locality.
LCI: How has the In Lumine Network and the continued community of Catholic institutes impacted your work on campus?
ELH: It has been a lifeline to have a community of institutes who can provide know-how and perspective drawn from longer experience, and with whom to initiate meaningful friendships and collaborations. Belonging to a network of institutes has also provided a bona fides of sorts: COLLIS is new, but some of these other institutes (like the Lumen Christi Institute and Collegium Institute) are established and have name recognition, even beyond Catholic circles. There have been a number of instances in which explaining that COLLIS belongs to the same network as Lumen Christi has opened doors, helped to communicate our aspirations, and attracted speakers.
LCI: To our readers who are not yet familiar with COLLIS, what do you want them to know about it?
ELH: All of the sister institutes of the In Lumine network share similar goals, of course, yet there are features distinctive to each—each has a charism if you will. We are a young institute, and so we are still very much in the process of discerning ours. But it seems clear to me that at the core of COLLIS’s identity will be the bridging theory and practice, the transmission of skills that include but also go beyond intellectual discourse, and forging connections with the community. The summer seminar will actually manifest many of these aspirations! But other examples include the sacred music program we are developing—we host lectures and concerts, but we are also teaching musical and liturgical skills to our students so that they can actively participate in and contribute to the tradition. We just piloted our first community outreach program for Cornell and Ithaca-area families: “Now Thank We All Our God: An Interactive Organ Concert and Instrument Petting Zoo.” There are now about fifteen Ithaca children between the ages of three and seven who think the organ is the coolest thing ever (it is) and are asking for lessons. It’s important to us to connect our college students to the wider community through intellectual service and that COLLIS support Catholic families in a town with no Catholic schools. In a way, these commitments tie back to COLLIS’s foundation by and for Cornellians. Cornell is the only land-grant university among the Ivy Leagues, and so pursuing knowledge for the public good and translating academic research for the sake of community flourishing is part of the school’s ethos. I think COLLIS can tap into this ethos within a Catholic framework.
LCI: I believe you’ve worked in campus ministry in the past. What’s different between campus ministry versus an institute for Catholic thought? Why are institutes for Catholic thought necessary?
ELH: COLLIS is a lay initiative, founded by Cornell faculty, with a substantially different relationship to the university than the campus ministry: the campus ministry functions as a surrogate parish for the students, while COLLIS’s university-facing side is more academic. Some COLLIS events this year have been co-sponsored by university departments, and we aim to provide our participants with the same or higher degree of academic rigor than they would find in their university classes and lectures. At a place like Cornell University, an institute like this is critical because it publicly demonstrates the vitality of the Catholic tradition for the University qua place of learning and research. Students attending a university such as Cornell are intellectually very gifted; I believe they are owed an opportunity to develop a level of intellectual maturity in their religion equivalent to that which they develop in their respective disciplinary fields. So both surrogate parish and institute of thought are necessary. I am put in mind the words of John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” On a side note, I’m married to the associate director of the Catholic campus ministry, also a Cornell PhD! So we are always swapping notes and thinking about Catholic life at Cornell as a Gestalt.
LCI: Tell us a bit about yourself. Your training is in musicology, how did you find your way into becoming an executive director at an institute for Catholic thought?
ELH: My professional trajectory has taken some interesting turns. My PhD is in musicology, but I originally came to Cornell to do a PhD in Classics, concentrating in ancient philosophy (to be specific, to work on music, ethics, and metaphysics in the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo). Before that, I spent six years in New York City in the Columbia-Juilliard-Joint-Degree Program. While I pursued a degree in Classical Studies at Columbia, I was studying to be a professional cellist at Juilliard. I went on to obtain a Master’s Degree from Juilliard in cello performance. The subject of my Cornell PhD dissertation, “Theorizing Music as Spiritual Practice: Perspectives from Augustine to Tinctoris,” was an attempt to address ethical and spiritual questions arising from my life as performing musician through frameworks drawn from Christian philosophy, music theory, and historical theology. So in terms of my teaching competencies for an institute of Catholic thought and culture, I’m well equipped when it comes to many of our theological, philosophical, musical, and liturgical traditions. In taking on the position of executive director, I have been enormously grateful for the many and various skillsets I’ve picked up over the years at arts organizations, several university departments and organizations, working as a freelance musician, and the campus ministry. This job involves everything from navigating university bureaucracy, to graphic and web design, crafting and curating programs, teaching, organizing fundraising events, and more… I’ve definitely been dusting off “toolboxes” I acquired in years past and have put them good use for this new organization.
LCI: Why the name COLLIS?
ELH: “Collis,” is the Latin word for “hill.” Cornell University is located in the Finger Lakes region of NY state, a breathtaking region of incredible natural beauty and geological interest. For most students, a walk to campus involves a trek up a big hill, and possibly up or over a gorge. (As many a bumper-sticker around here reads, “Ithaca is gorges!”) So “COLLIS” refers to Cornell’s hilltop location, but it also is meant to evoke Scriptural imagery of hills and mountains as sites for mankind's illumination through encounter with the divine. Our motto is drawn from Psalm 43:3:, “O send forth your light and your truth; they will guide me on. They will bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.” You’re probably wondering why COLLIS is in all caps, though… and yes, COLLIS is also an acronym: COrneLLiense Institutum Sapientiae (Institute of Wisdom at Cornell).
LCI: What else should we be excited or looking forward to with COLLIS this upcoming year?
ELH: Before the end of the Templeton grant, I want to organize a Hackathon at Cornell. Taking VHacks (Vatican-Hackathons) as inspiration, the idea would be to challenge teams of students to propose solutions to a real-world problem requiring a synthesis of science, technology, and ethics—all under an overarching framework of Catholic Social Teaching. I’m still in the brainstorming phase, so we’d probably be looking at Fall 2024. But it would be amazing to be able to close out the Templeton grant with something that gets at the heart of its intent—to foster dialogue between science and religion—in a format that would be fun, novel (for a Catholic institute), and attractive to students. Stay tuned!