React Online: The Soul of a University

Author: Readers

Editor’s note: The following letters were received through the magazine’s React Online form and from those written or emailed to the magazine.

Reading Mr. Anthony DePalma’s article on the “Soul of a University” was both moving and enlightening. As the parent of an only child, who is currently a senior in high school, I am fraught with anxiety about letting go while being concerned whether my child will be well taken care off at the college she selects to attend and still get an excellent education that will help her prepare well for a productive future.

The article was very enlightening for Mr. DePalma’s insights both as a parent and as a student as well as one who has had a rich and varied perspective of college life and quality here in America.

Thank you Mr. DePalma for what I think was a very honest, open and yet reflective piece of writing on Notre Dame. A college that is prominently on my daughter’s list of choices.

Astrid Fernandes
Louisville, Kentucky

DePalma’s article was an elegy to the beauty of our campus and to the outreach of its priests. Like him, I still miss the park-like setting of Notre Dame, and I still remember the kindness its administrators showed my family when my father died, too young, while I was there. But DePalma was asked to write about Notre Dame’s soul, and Notre Dame’s soul is not tied to its status as an arboretum or a social outreach center; it is tied rather to its status as a Catholic university. To be one, it must provide its students with two things: the degrees they seek, and the lived example of how to intellectually grapple with faith without losing hold of it.

While at Notre Dame, I got a degree, but more important, I learned —by watching my professors think—how to reconcile thoughtfulness with Catholic faithfulness. If the professors ever stop taking an interest in this latter goal—and anecdotal evidence, including the holding of a Gay Film “Festival” and the dropping of a Core class, suggests that many of them have—then all the trees and priests in the world won’t save Notre Dame from losing its soul. The essence of a university lies not in its extracurriculars but in its classrooms, and Notre Dame will stand or fall depending on whether it finds Catholic intellectuals to teach its students. A better piece would have focused on this search, and on the tension between a hunt for Catholic professors and a hunt for professors acclaimed by more secular academies. DePalma hinted at this, but spent most of his time talking about the trees. They’re nice, but they’re not the soul of Notre Dame. The trees are not in danger. The soul of Notre Dame is.

Jason Spak ‘95
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I thought the article was superb. I could relate to the story on so many levels. I am a pediatrician, so I’ve dealt with children in similar situations. I am an alum and parent of a present ND student so I have experienced the feelings described in the article. The article epitomizes what all of us alums, subway alumns and those who love the university know deep down in our hearts. The place is truly special in many ways.

I would hope that all of those criticizing the administration, the athletic department and residence life especially would read the article. They might come to realize the fine people that have been and still are associated with Notre Dame. Then again those of us who truly know the essence of the university don’t need to be persuaded. My love for the university has been since I could talk, and I yearn to return to Notre Dame to live. I just get a special feeling and inner peace whenever I am on campus. Congratulations to Mr. Anthony DePalma for a wonderful peace. Good luck to him and his entire family. And good luck and continued good health to Aahren. They know what it truly means to be a part of the Notre Dame Family!!

Rick Petrella ‘74

After reading Anthony DePalma’s story I wasn’t surprised by how Aahern DePalma’s hallmates and school administration handled his medical situation. The caring and compassion is what sets ND apart from other schools, the feeling of family. As a parent of a current student, I’ve come to expect this. When my son was a freshman last year, a tragedy struck their class as one of their classmates was missing and later found dead in the South Bend area. The school, and I’m sure this young man’s hallmates, handled it in the same manner. What bothers me, however, is that I sense this same “feeling” isn’t shared by all current and former students. I hope I’m wrong in my assessment.

The judges on the popular TV show, American Idol, constantly remind contestants that if they expect to win the competition, they must possess that indescribable thing they call “it.” Well, “it” is what I’m referring to. Based on the article, the school administration, Aahren’s hallmates and many others who were involved have “it.” And so do the majority of those connected to the school. I’m particularly concerned by those who don’t have “it.” I’m sure they are in the minority and pray that they remain the minority. For, without “it,” Notre Dame will become just another place of higher academic learning.

Don Rehmer
LaGrange, Illinois

Mr. DePalma has provided words I never could to describe that special, intangible quality that makes Notre Dame unique. He reminds me of how proud I am to be a part of that great family and of how truly fortunate I feel, to have spent four wonderful years there at such an important time in my life. He has also identified the source of the nagging discomfort I experience when considering some of the changes in the university. I, too, observe the emphasis on academic rankings and new buildings, and wonder at what cost. I despise the term “aspirational peers,” as well as the misplaced priorities it implies. This obsession with trying to measure up to someone else’s definition of success is the very type of personal insecurity I leaned to overcome while at Notre Dame. It is disheartening to see my teacher forget the importance of the lessons she once taught so well.

I thank Mr. DePalma for his insightful article. Hopefully his informed and even-handed warning will give pause to the current administration, before Notre Dame’s irreplaceable qualities erode away from within.

Kevin P. Whalen ‘75
Mountain View, Caifornia

Couldn’t agree more with Mr. DePalma. Though my wife and I didn’t have to go through the nightmare of the DePalmas, we too felt the close personal and caring touch of Notre Dame when our daughter was a student there. I’m a college professor myself, so I know that what I have seen at Notre Dame isn’t something you commonly find at other schools. This is something they should not let slip away during their striving to become and remain one of our country’s leading universities.

Herbert Mapes
Gallaudet Univesity
Washington, D.C.

Mr. DePalma’s article very eloquently stated the concern that I have had since Father Hesburgh’s retirement. There is entirely too much focus on the rankings that purport to measure ND’s greatness and too little regard for what truly makes ND great.

Mr. DePalma confirms my worst fears when he speculates that the University may have been overly willing to accept a weakening of the undergraduate experience in order to advance its academic reputation. The leaders of the school should not need U.S. News and World Report to tell them that ND is doing a good job.Experiences such as Mr. DePalma’s should be all the confirmation they need. They just have to create an environment that will ensure that such experiences are the rule rather than the exception.

I fully support efforts to continually upgrade the academic profile of the incoming students. I also support efforts to upgrade the quality of the faculty,provided that teaching quality is a key criteria in measuring faculty performance.If that leads to a rise in the rankings, fine. If not, then I will be satisfied as long as the students are.

The Magazine is to be commended for publishing this article.I hope the response to it helps convince the University to reconsider its priorities.

Gerry Swider ‘72
Sherman Oaks, California

I’m writing mainly to say I think the photo of Our Lady on the Dome is a great shot, although I don’t favor low-angle pictures of people. You should print credit prominently for such outstanding work.

The article illustrates the strong sense of family that still exists at Notre Dame despite growth of the university in recent decades.

Terence E. Byrne ‘57
Rockville, Maryland

[Editor’s note: The photo Mr. Byrne refers to is on page 18 of the spring 2004 print issue. Bill Steinmetz was the photographer. We do give photographers credit for their work, but the type size of the credit is rather small. That is standard formatting for magazines.]

Dr. DePalma—The account you shared is so powerful and touching. It is both a challenge and an inspiration. As a reader I am just so impressed and grateful for your story and the challenge it presents. Thanks.

Jim Malloy ‘71

I confess that I’m somewhat confused. Notre Dame has selected a new president with an aggressive agenda for enhancing the graduate school and promoting research.

The article by Anthony DePalma stresses that the “soul” of the university is its focus upon undergraduate life and introspection.

And the barrage of “Your Reaction” letters in last quarter’s Notre Dame Magazine made it clear that most Irish alumni consider any and all attempts to join a graduate school consortium and collaborative research group such as the Big Ten or ACC should be regarded as treason. Induhpendunce in duh football then seemed to be the foremost concern of the university.

Is it possible for someone at Notre Dame to provide a list of university priorities?

Alex Foreman
Indianapolis, Indiana

It seems that an important question to ask when contemplating academic excellence is “to what extent do the common measures of that excellence, eg. program rankings, reflect the programs’ impact upon the university’s primary constituents, the students?”

If an improved institutional ranking reflects a better educated student, then it is a worthy goal. If by securing improving rankings an important part of the education of Notre Dame students is lost, as the author hints at, then the measuring stick is faulty.

Perhaps America, and the Catholic church, needs a university that educates fully the students that attend it, more than they need another top tier research institution that has sacrificed its core, even unwittingly, for the sake of standards that we will discover to be as insubstantial and empty as much of the rest of American culture.

Michael T. Riley
Scottsdale, Arizona

The article was both touching and disturbing for a long time lover of the university. The soul is obvious but, in Father Hesburgh’s thougts, the danger of losing our unique Catholic character is always possible.

William Sullivan
Sun City, Arizona

After giving much thought to my response to this “eye opener” article, I realized . . . it’s easy. We Catholics of the old school believe in the power of prayer like no others.

If all of us just simply close our eyes and say a sincere prayer for the perseverance of Catholic greatness so unique to Her university, Our Lady won’t let us down. She wants ND to gleam more than any of us. Mary wants us to pray, pray, pray.

I am the mother of a graduate. I have been to the Grotto; I know the power of prayer.

Suzanne M. Gallagher
Winter Park, Florida

n his “The Soul of A University” visiting scholar Anthony DePalma comes admirably close to describing the core of Notre Dame’s uniqueness. What he has observed about Notre Dame as a visiting scholar and as a parent provides a compelling account of what distinguishes Notre Dame from other fine universities. I am aware, though Notre Dame’s extensive and incredible network of 230 Alumni Clubs around the world, of a young Asian-American girl who was recently accepted into Notre Dame’s freshman class for next fall, and who was struggling with the decision of whether to come to Notre Dame or to attend Duke. After reading “The Soul of a University,” she recently chose Notre Dame.

While her choice may provide ample evidence of the article’s effective description of our University’s soul, I also find in Mr. DePalma’s piece a potent reminder to all in leadership positions at Notre Dame of what should be the focal point of our work. With reference to more than 3,000 institutions of higher learning in America, Mr. DePalma observes, “Surely, in so broad a universe, with so many options and so vast a population to serve, there is room for one place where the human dimension is considered a priority and is protected with at least as much passion as the rankings.” I have often wondered about the thousands of institutional leaders over the past two centuries at Ivy League and several other schools we constantly see high in most published rankings. Did they go down the same thoughtful paths of planning and goal-setting and excellence-seeking as we at Notre Dame are doing, only to result in institutions that are ranked very high in several categories, but have somehow lost their institutional souls—the kind of soul Mr. DePalma sees still alive and vibrant at Notre Dame?

As only one of many who subscribe enthusiastically to our recently adopted strategic plan, “Fulfilling the Promise,” I intend to reread Mr. DePalma’s work periodically as a reminder that the world has a number of great universities, but the world has only one Notre Dame, and the world is crying ever more loudly for the unique goodness only Notre Dame can provide. It is up to all of us who are working so earnestly at planning and policy making to preserve the soul of the Notre Dame that Mr. DePalma describes and that the young Asian-American girl values so highly.

Robert J. Sullivan, Jr. ‘67
Tulsa, Oklahoma_

Anthony DePalma’s story about his son and Notre Dame should become a permanent and public record at Notre Dame. It just says it all and in a perspective that encases what Notre Dame is and should be.

Terrence J. Dillon, Class of 1932_

I read with curiosity “The Soul of a University” by Anthony DePalma. As your prologue pointed out, this is a subject which many alumni, and anyone else who cares for Notre Dame, would find interesting. Unfortunately, this essay was rather disappointing.

Mr. DePalma gives a touching account of his son’s battle with leukemia which began, literally, during his first days as a student. The Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff came together as a family to help him in his fight against cancer. This impressed DePalma enough to ponder what it was about the whole experience that Notre Dame should strive to maintain, since he feels it is very worth maintaining.

He concludes that the University needs to keep the “common touch” and the “commitment to compassion” of which he and his family were beneficiaries. He quotes Fr. Hesburgh who thought it important that we keep “the concern for the human side.” He sees trees as symbols of Notre Dame, since they are “always the same yet always changing, because both are alive… They are the tradition of the place, the soul that remains deep within.”

I must admit that such language caused something to stir within me. Perhaps it was my inner Druid. With such surnames in my family tree as Donnelly, McMahon, O’Connell, O’Donnell, and Clancy, I’m sure there’s a Celtic conjurer or two amongst my ancestors. But there was more to the stirring than that.

Mr DePalma fails to recognize, or maybe fails to give credit to, the real basis of the “common touch” or the “commitment to compassion” that Notre Dame needs to keep. I submit that it is the Roman Catholic faith, properly understood and practiced, that would achieve the end he so desires.

Jesus Christ, the founder of our church (and the only Son of our institution’s namesake) commanded his followers to love one another.

Cheer, cheer, indeed, for this nice story about how the Notre Dame family helped take care of their new neighbor as Jesus instructed them to. But the bottom line is that these Domers were simply being good Samaritans to the DePalma family. Faith in the Son of Man is the mortar that keeps the bricks together here. It is the sap which keeps the trees alive.

DePalma’s claim that trees are the “tradition of the place, the soul that remains deep within” reminded me of some words written by a another fighting Irishman a long time ago on a pagan island far, far away:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
| His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

It is only in this (Saint Patrick’s) context, that I can accept the claim Mr. DePalma makes for the beautiful, yet ephemeral, trees that adorn our campus.

Brian W. Donnelly, M. D., 1981

I do care about how Catholic Notre Dame is. I also care about Notre Dame football. I do not care about the academic standards of Notre Dame, believing that they are already higher than they need or ought to be. Those who have promoted academic excellence didn’t realize or just didn’t care to what extent the Catholic and football parts would be compromised. If being Catholic does not make the difference, then what is the point?