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In 1965, the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA) was launched in El Salvador as the wealthy family’s educational alternative to the increasingly leftist National University. But within a decade, the UCA would shift its focus to the inequalities and injustice experienced by the country’s popular majorities and to its own role as society’s conscience. This article examines the evolution of the UCA’s institutional identity during the civil war and how it negotiated its public role as the nation transitioned from a time of war to an uneasy process of democratization. It proposes that the evolution of the UCA’s public role from the university’s founding to the present day unfolded over three rough stages of development, and that these stages illustrate the transformation of the UCA into a Christian social project that embraces the preferential option for the poor in its institutional and public life. The article concludes by assessing the significance of the UCA’s transformation for Catholic higher education today.