The right people in place

Author: Julie Hail Flory

In the beginning, they were few. Nine, to be exact, according to the first University catalog, published in 1850. All men, primarily Holy Cross priests and brothers led by Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward F. Sorin, CSC, made up the earliest core of the University’s faculty.

They were professors of religion, Latin, English, art, music and math; two served as “prefects of discipline.” The student body numbered 69 and tuition was $45 a semester back then.

What a difference 159 years make.

Today, Notre Dame’s faculty is about 1,400 strong. Roughly a third are female, and some 10 percent are members of religious orders. The student body has multiplied by hundreds (tuition has gone up a bit, too) and the disciplinary fields of instruction have exploded exponentially into limitless areas of study within the University’s colleges and schools.

Amid all this change, however, one principle has remained constant, according to University leaders. Behind every truly great university is an excellent faculty.

“No university can be better than its faculty,” wrote Notre Dame’s provost, Thomas G. Burish ’72, in a recent letter to alumni and friends. “This simple truth guides our perpetual search for the best teachers, the admired researchers, the luminous intellectuals. For whatever else a university is — and Notre Dame, certainly, is many things to many people — it is, above all, a place of learning. And it is the faculty who lead us in this endeavor.”

These days, Notre Dame’s new faculty are coming on board with great expectations for both themselves and the University, according to Robert Bernhard ’69, vice president for research.

“The more recent hires are thinking they’re coming to an Ivy League university in the Midwest,” he says. “And it is dawning on people that our research can have the impact of the great universities of the world.”

One of those more recent hires is Michael Desch, a professor of political science who joined the Notre Dame faculty last summer from Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government, despite a plea from the school’s namesake, former president George H.W. Bush, to stay at his previous institution.

“You can’t achieve excellence without a faculty that’s committed to a particularly aggressive agenda in research and excellence in teaching,” Desch says. “And it’s not something that can be mandated from the top down. The upper administration can support this and provide incentives to do these things, but ultimately the great ideas are going to come from the people in the trenches.”

It does, however, fall chiefly to the University’s top leaders to keep professors engaged in their research while they maintain a commitment to teaching. To that end, administrators are pulling out all the stops to show they’re serious about Notre Dame’s quest for excellence.

Chief among their new endeavors are a series of integrated research projects funded by the Strategic Academic Planning Committee, a board composed of a dozen faculty and administrators from each of the University’s colleges. Notre Dame last spring announced an $80 million commitment to two phases of SAPC projects, the first of which designated up to $40 million to five initiatives in the areas of nanoelectronics, global health, advanced diagnostics and therapeutics, an imaging core facility, and a new multidisciplinary think tank.

“It is a new day at Notre Dame,” says Wolfgang Porod, the Frank M. Freimann professor of electrical engineering who is leading the nanoelectronics effort. “This initiative would not have happened even a few years back. This is an exciting time to be at Notre Dame, to see these resources made available for academic excellence.”

Porod says he hopes the SAPC funding will lead to significant improvements in the University’s infrastructure for research, including new state-of-the-art facilities that will allow Notre Dame to attract highly competitive funded projects and to recruit top new faculty.

“This initiative is not going unnoticed,” Porod adds. “Several of my colleagues at other institutions have expressed their surprise, even amazement, at Notre Dame’s commitment to academic excellence. This investment may well help to attract prominent individuals to campus who otherwise would not have considered Notre Dame.”

Quest for the best

The dollar amounts are attention-grabbers for sure, but Bernhard is quick to point out that the SAPC initiative is just one component of Notre Dame’s overall strategy. In its quest to compete for the most sought-after new faculty members, the University is thinking big, not just in funding but in the way it positions itself to take on grand-scale global issues. This challenge often has great appeal to scholars who want to light the world on fire with their research.

“What we’re building is a framework on campus, in some cases with SAPC funding and in others just by organic development . . . so we can respond to whatever call comes to us,” Bernhard says. “We would like to have, for example, an energy center and an environment center that are already sort of loosely organized so that the science, technology, engineering, social sciences, humanities and the arts, all things associated with that area, are ready. And then, when a call comes out for an interdisciplinary effort, we’re ready to respond.”

Take nanotechnology, for example. Bernhard says he envisions a cross-disciplinary approach that will put Notre Dame — and its faculty — at the forefront of the world’s most important conversations on the subject.

“Someday, somebody’s going to be asking us a lot more about social issues connected with nanotechnology, and we want to be the world leader in that, or economic issues in nanotechnology,” he says. “It’s not going to be only about advancing the nanoelectronics piece; it’s going to be the trade-off with the economics and the new technology.”

Porod shares Bernhard’s desire to see Notre Dame take ownership of key areas of global significance.

“I believe that we need to develop several programs with critical mass that will achieve true national and international prominence,” Porod says. “We need the confidence and resources to step forward and take risks, leading the way in new and bold initiatives. I believe the SAPC initiative has Notre Dame started on this path.”

Also among the University’s biggest draws to prospective faculty are endowed professorships, or chairs, according to Burish, who calls the appointments “the most useful tool a university has for populating its classrooms, laboratories and libraries with exemplary teachers and scholars.”

Since Notre Dame began fundraising for endowed chairs in the 1960s, the University has established more than 230 endowed professorships and directorships. “Chaired professors are at the forefront of their fields, instilling in their students a passion for discovery, a deep appreciation for lively inquiry, and a commitment to excellence,” Burish wrote in his recent letter. “The chair is a prize for excellence, yes, but it is also a catalyst for extraordinary achievement.”

The number of endowed chairs has kept a respectable pace through the years, but Burish believes there is room for improvement.

“Despite steady growth over the past half-century, Notre Dame still has far fewer chairs than many of the nation’s other leading universities,” he wrote. “Realizing the University’s potential for even greater academic excellence will depend on our ability to recruit and retain exceptional professors — and this, in turn, will demand that we grow the ranks of endowed faculty positions with which to do so.”

Landing that next big hire may always be an appealing prospect to the University’s top brass, but make no mistake, Notre Dame is hardly starting from scratch in its effort to build the cross-disciplinary academic dream team that Burish, Bernhard and others have in mind.

“The major resource is the existing faculty,” Bernhard says. “So the strategy for taking what we’ve inherited is to show them the opportunities that are available, to give them hope for new ideas to happen.”

Lofty ambitions are a good thing in the eyes of most faculty. At the same time, some, like Desch, bring the conversation back down to earth, stressing the importance of also having realistic expectations.

“There will always be limits to what a private institution can do,” Desch says. “Even Harvard and Princeton aren’t excellent in everything, so the big issue will be trying to identify those particular niches that this university can fulfill.”

Bernhard considers Notre Dame to now be in the launch phase of a long-term plan to become a global leader.

“The major efforts involved now are getting the right people involved, making investments and building a consensus with all the stakeholders of where we want to go,” he says. “So in regard to getting the right people in place, relative to my expectations, I think we’re really there, or very close, if not there already.”

Notre Dame’s role of education will always be of primary importance, but Bernhard believes that over the next 20 years those both within and outside the University will be “increasingly interested in universities’ scholarship contributing to solving the grand challenges facing the world.

“When we get the call,” he predicts, “we’re going to be ready.”

Julie Flory is associate director in the Notre Dame Office of News and Information.