How Catholic the Faculty?

Author: Richard Conklin ’59M.A.

The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.

That sentence from Notre Dame’s mission statement is simple to parse grammatically but difficult to parse politically.

The question of just how Catholic are Catholic colleges and universities arose in the 1960s when these institutions moved into the mainstream of American higher education, influenced by the ecclesial “window-opening” of Vatican II. Lay governance became the trend in institutional reorganization, and the key document in defining the contemporary mission of Church-related colleges and universities was the landmark Land O’Lakes Statement orchestrated in 1967 by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, then Notre Dame’s president, and some two dozen progressive Catholic educators. That document stressed the values of autonomy and academic freedom. Subsequent dialogue—between liberals and conservatives on Catholic campuses and between U.S. Catholic educational leaders and the Vatican—has continued for four decades.

Because everyone agrees that the DNA for Catholicism is carried not by students or the administration but by faculty, attention has centered on the process by which an effective Catholic presence can be maintained in the body of scholars and researchers constantly renewing itself in the nation’s Church-related institutions of higher learning.

In an address to the faculty last fall, Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, might have been thinking about this challenge when he cited three facets of Notre Dame’s mission: “A distinctive moral and spiritual education; research that arises from the moral and religious character of the University; and service to the Catholic Church.

“These three dimensions,” he went on to say, “stand as a test of whether we are fulfilling the founding purpose of Notre Dame. We can succeed in advancing these aspects of the University’s mission only if we have, among our faculty, a critical number of devoted followers of the Catholic faith.”

Jenkins, however, had earlier noted with concern an erosion of Catholic faculty over the last 30 years, from near 85 percent to 53 percent. (He did not mention the 1990 papal statement on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but conservative Catholics are fond of pointing out that it states “the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the institution.”) Notre Dame’s figures come from self-identified Catholics who have complied with a request to voluntarily specify their religious affiliation at the time of appointment. Also, while the presence of Holy Cross religious has always been a historical anchor for Catholicism at Notre Dame, there are currently only 27 priests on the teaching and research faculty, or 4 percent of the total. (Another 32 CSCs serve as rectors, in campus ministry or in staff positions.)

Jenkins said reversing the trend was a top priority, and last fall the University unveiled a new strategy. The family of longtime benefactor and trustee Donald R. Keough endowed two chaired faculty positions for world-class scholars committed to the Catholic character of Notre Dame. “It is our preference that the holders of the Keough-Hesburgh Professorships be Catholic themselves,” said Provost Thomas G. Burish, “able to give witness to faith in their lives as well as provide intellectual leadership.” These senior, distinguished scholars are intended to help attract other outstanding faculty members to Notre Dame.

In addition, the Keough gift funds an office to provide a needed tool in the search for faculty to enhance the Catholic intellectual tradition. Heading this effort is Rev. Robert Sullivan, associate professor of history and director of the Erasmus Institute, a center for applying the Catholic intellectual tradition to research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

In an August talk to academic leaders, Sullivan elaborated on the rationale behind Notre Dame’s commitment. “While valuing diversity, the University aims to offer its overwhelmingly Catholic and undergraduate student body an education that is broader than transmitting and discovering knowledge, as well as an education both catholic and Catholic. The Catholic assumption is that it takes like to produce like. In the case of Notre Dame, the theory is that to help undergraduates mature into publicly useful Catholics who represent the legitimate, intelligent and adult variety of their own religion, a preponderance of their teachers must live and model what they should become. No subtle theology is required . . . what matters is their religious identity and lives as Catholics.”

The University will not lower academic standards to recruit such teachers; in fact, he said, such professors “must be able to advance Notre Dame’s aspiration to be a great research university.”

What the University lacks and what his new office expects to supply is “a search engine with which it can systematically identify and recruit such intellectuals in considerable numbers,” Sullivan said. “There often appears to be a disconnect between a seemingly abstract commitment to recruit ‘Catholic intellectuals’ and the nuts and bolts, give-and-take of hiring on the ground,” he pointed out.

Developing directories for all Notre Dame’s departments requires gathering personal knowledge of, say, Catholic doctoral candidates in a given top-10 department, as well as painstaking scanning of public sources, electronic and print, for which a first-rate information specialist will be hired to develop research tactics. “There exists no template for this in any academically first-rate institution, Catholic or otherwise, so we must try everything that looks promising and not expect quick success,” said Sullivan.

While the Sullivan project seems to have been welcomed by those with a role in hiring, the broader issue of how Catholicism factors into the process is still a sensitive one. Probably few would disagree with George Marsden, a Notre Dame professor of history who specializes in the secularization of U.S. Protestant colleges and universities. He has predicted, “Once a church-related institution adopts the policy that it will hire simply ‘the best qualified candidates,’ it is simply a matter of time until its faculty will have an ideological profile essentially like that of the faculty at every other mainstream university.” The disagreement comes in deciding how big a thumb on the scale Catholicism should be.

In its early years of low faculty salaries and average academic profile, Notre Dame was mainly attractive to Catholics who wanted the satisfaction of teaching in a collegiate environment conducive to their religious belief. Today, in the words of a former department chair, “Notre Dame can be seen [by someone indifferent to its religious mission] as a decent place to go and write your first book.” Another department chair counters, “We cannot lose faith in the power of this place to get into the blood of young professors, to move them [from neutral] to deeply committed.”

As for students, the University once could count on getting many of the best Catholic graduates of public and parochial secondary schools because of its religious character. While its percentage of undergraduate Catholics remains healthy at around 85 percent, the University now competes with such places as Yale, Duke and Stanford for the best of those students, with such universities offering well-developed campus ministry programs.

It is entirely legal under federal law for Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, to take religion into account in hiring. Principals in the campus discussion all agree that “mission-centered hiring” (the preferred term) includes welcoming Protestant scholars (such as Marsden) whose academic interests enlighten aspects of Catholicism itself, as well as those from non-Christian backgrounds who respect the Catholic tradition of Notre Dame.

In his fall address to the faculty, Jenkins stressed that non-Catholic faculty “are indispensable to the life and success of Notre Dame—in promoting scholarship, in building community, in provoking debate, in pushing for excellence, in ensuring diversity of perspectives. . . . They make us a better university.” Virtually every Catholic at Notre Dame can cite an example of a non-Catholic colleague he or she considers more important to the moral and religious integrity of the university than another colleague viewed as nominally Catholic.

Over the years, faculty loyalty in American higher education has shifted from the institution to the academic discipline or research organization. That shift makes departments key to the hiring process. In the end it is not Notre Dame that defines what is excellence in the field of, say, English, as much as it is the Modern Language Association (MLA). While it might be argued that Notre Dame ought to teach the Catholic novel, that is not going to earn many points with the MLA. It is at the departmental level, in the delicate interplay of the chair, the search committee, the committee on tenure and promotion, and the entire departmental faculty, that the issues of department academic needs, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as Catholic character are negotiated. The dean monitors the process, a diplomatic exercise that has to respect the autonomy of the department and its procedures while recognizing a larger institutional interest in the outcome.

The fact that the rubber meets the road at the departmental level was highlighted in an anomalous situation in the Department of Theology, where as late as 1980 there existed a Protestant majority on what was then known as the appointments, tenure and promotions committee. In an interesting footnote, one of the Protestants who made up the 3-2 majority converted to Catholicism after leaving the University.

At Notre Dame, the College of Arts and Letters, headed by O’Shaughnessy Dean Mark Roche, draws the most interest. It has slightly more than half the teaching and research slots at the University and teaches the largest number of undergraduates. It houses the two core departments of any Catholic university—theology and philosophy—as well other academic disciplines with which the religious heritage of the University would presumably most resonate. It was also at the center of last year’s controversy over The Vagina Monologues, a play about female sexuality and identity whose annual campus presentation was sponsored in 2006 by the English and sociology departments.

“During the last decade,” Roche said, “the college has identified and recruited some outstanding faculty members who are committed Catholics and/or recognized scholars of various aspects of Notre Dame’s Catholic inheritance.” However, he pointed out, the academic marketplace cannot replicate the number of Catholics who are retiring from the University.

“Our minimum goal in the hiring of Catholics is 50 percent. For the second time in nine years we dropped below our minimum goal. Forty-two percent of new teaching and research faculty hires in 2006–2007 and only 35 percent of such hires in 2005–2006 are Catholic.” Roche added, “Departments have varied dramatically over the past nine years: eight have hired at least 60 percent Catholics during this time; another two have met the minimum goal of 50 percent, but seven have hired 33 percent Catholics or less.” There is a pipeline issue as well, in that fewer baccalaureate graduates of Catholic universities seek academic careers than do their counterparts at other universities.

Roche is proactive. He has been known to ask search committees whose finalists include no Catholics to explain who its highest-ranking Catholic candidate was and why that person did not make the cut. He has promoted parallel search committees for the same position to see if competition would increase the likelihood of turning up qualified Catholic candidates. He also dangles incentives, such as the possibility of upgrading a non-tenure appointment to a tenured one if a qualified Catholic can be found. By way of determining the fit between Notre Dame and a candidate, he will ask a candidate how his or her research and teaching will be affected by being done in a university that is Catholic.

Unlike some who see the Catholic factor as a burden in Notre Dame’s research university aspirations, Roche sees it as a competitive advantage. He identified 50 new faculty hires in his first seven years as dean who stood out for various reasons, and he then sought to identify the most significant factor leading to their choice of Notre Dame. “The Catholic identity of Notre Dame, broadly understood, was by far the strongest,” he reported. A case in point is Brad Gregory, a Catholic specializing in the history of Christianity who left Stanford University for Notre Dame. Gregory told a reporter for the The Wall Street Journal, “Notre Dame’s Catholic character wasn’t only a factor, it was the factor. By any ordinary measure, you’d be crazy to leave Stanford for Notre Dame.”

Roche applauded the Sullivan project, which he had a hand in developing, and said he looked for it to provide, in addition to Catholic scholars, others “who devote their scholarship, regardless of their religious convictions, to the preservation and renewal of the University’s Catholic inheritance.”

Carolyn Woo, Gillen dean of the Mendoza College of Business, where the second largest number of undergraduates is enrolled, believes “every hire should be a mission hire.” Interpreting Notre Dame’s values broadly, she expects every faculty member to embrace such concepts as social justice and the inherent dignity of the individual. She sees Catholicism not only as a body of doctrine but also as a faith that is lived out in interaction with others. Woo says she is proud of the fact that the overall reputation of the college’s undergraduate and graduate programs has improved without sacrificing its relationship to institutional mission, a relationship strengthened by the fact that all its department heads are Catholic.

The words “predominant number” in reference to Catholics on the faculty first appeared in Notre Dame’s mission statement for a 1993 self-study. That phrase was controversial then and still is. In the student newspaper, The Observer, the current Catholic faculty initiative was described as “chilling” and “a blunt instrument” by, respectively, a Jewish theologian and a Protestant philosopher. The use of such terms as “predominant” and “preponderance” implies a numerical value for Catholic faculty that is unsettling to some, including Paul Weithman, chairman of philosophy, one of the University’s highest ranking departments.

Weithman is opposed to what he terms “the numbers game,” claiming that numerical quotas for Catholics are as artificial an index to Catholicism as the counting of student daily communions by the prefect of religion in the 1930s. “There is no magic number that can ensure the preservation of Notre Dame’s Catholic character,” he stated. As a practical matter, he is not sure there are enough outstanding Catholic scholars in the academy to achieve the University’s academic aspirations. Some areas, such as philosophy, have been mined extensively in recent years, he noted. In addition to tracking and attempting to hire Catholics, he emphasized that the department is broadening the understanding of what counts as scholarship and teaching that satisfies Notre Dame’s mission.

“We have tried to develop and maintain strength in areas such as philosophy of religion, Thomism and medieval philosophy important to a Catholic university,” he said. “And we have tried to build a department in which the bearing of faith—including but not just the Catholic faith—on philosophical questions is taken more seriously than elsewhere.”

One problem facing critics of the “numbers game” is how—absent some sort of quantification—one measures progress or regress. Professor of philosophy Kenneth Sayre has suggested a method modeled on the way departments are now academically evaluated. “Individual departments would work with their deans in identifying specific contributions they might be expected to make to the Catholic formation of their students,” he explained. “In some departments, for example, theology, the contributions presumably would be more specific than in, for example, mathematics. After a few years of operating with these expectations in view, departments would undertake self-assessments of their contributions and submit the results to their various deans. Deans would comment as they see fit and prepare summary assessments for respective colleges. These would be the basis for an overall assessment of the academic wing by the provost’s office.”

In Sayre’s scenario the academic assessment would then be combined with those from areas such as campus ministry and residence life, and this internal evaluation of institutional Catholic character then reviewed by outside evaluators.

Perhaps the last word on the Catholic faculty issue belongs to Fernand Dutile, a veteran faculty member of the Law School, which has done well in Catholic hiring. “It is true,” he commented, “that having many people on the faculty who are formally Catholic will not necessarily preserve the Catholic character of the institution. But having few or none will surely end it.”

Dick Conklin retired in 2001 as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame.