The Soul of a University

Author: Anthony DePalma

To survive, every major university plays a con game, pretending to have all the answers to what it is, what it does and what it wants to be when it knows full well that every response is at best only a temporary solution to a limitless list of competing expectations.

Such juggling never ends, nor does the institutional introspection that for better or worse continuously engulfs most campuses, including Notre Dame’s. Are we up in the rankings? Are we down? Too much research? Too many business majors? Not enough graduate students? Can football come back? What about endowment growth? Theological imprimaturs? Too Catholic? Not Catholic enough?

Each university worth its salt asks these or similar questions. The process is generally a healthy one because universities should be like the swift waters of a river, constant yet ever changing. Most are like that, in one way or another, and change comes ever faster as the academy turns more competitive and commercialized.

But a place like Notre Dame is different, more like a tree than a river because deep in its heart, down where the rankings never reach, Notre Dame bears a set of core beliefs that anchors everything. I know this because of the way these deep truths supported me and my family when we knew the life of our son, then an incoming freshman, depended on it. That intensely personal experience shook me, and made me see that there are parts of Notre Dame that should never change, not for the sake of rankings, nor research, nor the recruitment of overachieving undergraduates or stellar faculty superstars. But living and working here temporarily has made me realize that unless those core beliefs are recognized as having worth, they are ultimately in danger of being lost.

I am but a visitor, here for scarcely longer than a football season, yet I can see the campus from several different perspectives. In September 2003, I had the good fortune of beginning a fellowship at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, where I have been researching a book on how mythmakers shape and steer our foreign policy. Those mythmakers are journalists, like me, and as a journalist I have come to know a thing or two about con games. I have been a newspaperman with The New York Times for more than 17 years, part of that time as a foreign correspondent and another part as The Times’ national higher education correspondent. My job then was to explore the souls of our universities, and I did it for an audience that is among the most demanding in the country.

But it is as a parent that I think I can speak most authoritatively about Notre Dame, and it is as a parent that I peered most deeply into Notre Dame’s soul, into the spots that are rarely illuminated by mission statements or strategic plans but which simply are and, in being, reflect the truest character of the place.

Our introduction to Notre Dame was a nightmare, the nightmare that every parent who leaves a child here dreads. It began the very day we placed our son in the University’s hands and asked Notre Dame to take our place as his parents, the in loco parentis concept that we’d heard about during our many campus visits throughout the Northeast.

The horror is ending only now.

They say Notre Dame seeps into you — it’s that kind of a place. For us, there was no time for anything as subtle as seeping. Notre Dame engulfed us like a spring thaw on the Saint Joe River. It did not so much creep into our hearts as sweep over our souls. We were blitzed by Notre Dame, just in time.

* * *

Our family travail began right after the orientation Mass at the Joyce Center, a sunny, warm afternoon in late August 1999, when Notre Dame seemed to be located not in Indiana but at a sweet spot on the top of the world. My wife, Miriam, and I both hugged Aahren, our curly headed, Eagle Scout eldest son, and thought little of it when he complained that his back hurt, probably from having sat cross-legged on the gym floor during the Mass. We wished him the best, challenged him to remember that much was expected of those who had received the most and then drove back the 13 hours to New Jersey.

It was a long, jubilant journey, filled with a persistent mystery. Neither Miriam, who emigrated from Cuba when she was 10, nor I, the son of a longshoreman, is an alumnus of Notre Dame. We had never spent a Saturday watching Notre Dame football on TV. We had lived outside the United States for much of Aahren’s childhood and had to cross the border when we visited campus for the first time.

And yet, that one brief stay was enough to convince Aahren that Notre Dame was the place for him. We were a bit puzzled, but quite pleased, and during the drive home that Sunday after orientation, we rejoiced anew.

At 8 the following morning, just a few hours after we’d arrived, a moving company crew showed up to help us with the hundreds of boxes lying all over our house. Like Aahren, we had decided to come back to the United States, and we were busy unpacking when the phone rang. It was Aahren. He had spent an uneasy night in his Siegfried Hall dorm room. He took some cold medications, but when they didn’t help he figured he should go to the infirmary. He didn’t know where it was, but his roommate Matthew Briel, a hard-working and sincere second-generation Domer who knew the way, took him. They were the first students there.

It was the day before classes started.

Dr. James Moriarity had seen first-day jitters before, and he knew from years of experience that freshmen often wear themselves out with tension and anxiety before moving in. Mononucleosis seemed likely, and he prescribed some antibiotics. As a precaution he ordered a blood test.

It turned out to be a real blessing for us that Notre Dame’s Student Health Center is able to complete a blood test on site. If students have to go into town for such tests they may not get around to going for days. It was after 11 a.m. that same Monday morning when Dr. Moriarity called with the results. Aahren was in the room. He had just turned 18, and the University was acting in loco parentis, but privacy laws meant the doctor could tell us what was going on only if Aahren gave him permission.

“There’s something wrong,” Moriarity said. The blood test showed that Aahren’s white blood cell count was extraordinarily high, and that elevated level might be causing his achiness, and much more. “We could do more tests here, but we think you might want to have him home with you.”

The movers were downstairs trying to push the piano into place. One had a leprechaun tattooed on his calf and confessed to being a die-hard Irish fan but a mediocre student who hadn’t even tried to get in. He was thrilled to hear that Aahren was calling from Notre Dame.

From the moment Dr. Moriarity told me there was trouble, time passed in a distorted way. My mind raced ahead as I tried to understand what he had said. I needed to find a doctor and a hospital and a way to keep my stomach from flipping over. I had to get Aahren on a plane, but I couldn’t find the phone book. I didn’t even know how to reach Aahren.

At the same time, each syllable of the doctor’s message kept replaying slowly through my mind, over and over again. “There’s something wrong.” I tried to picture his face but couldn’t. “We could do more tests here.” I couldn’t visualize where Aahren was sitting while the doctor talked on the phone. “But we think you might want . . .” I didn’t have an idea how to tell Miriam what had happened. “. . . to have him home with you.” I couldn’t imagine.

I couldn’t.

(I have to stop here. Forgive me. You understand.)

Some things blur. I remember thinking about calling my office and asking for help. I thought about calling my mother. But before I could do either, Bill Kirk, associate vice president for student affairs, called to say Aahren was on his way. I hadn’t met Bill during orientation, and I don’t recall his name being mentioned during any session. He was just another face I couldn’t picture, but he had put Aahren on a plane home for us.

As Aahren landed at Newark Airport, Miriam and I trembled. He came through the passageway wearing the backpack he had used in high school. Around his neck was a set of large wooden beads. A classmate from Siegfried, a student from Hawaii, had slung them over his neck as he took off. It will help, he had said. And you’ll think of us.

We took him home, to a house still piled high with unpacked boxes, and we tried to keep from crying.

The next morning a doctor in New York repeated the blood test Moriarity had done and came up with the same results. With sad eyes, and a voice rolled in melancholy, he introduced us to our new enemy and constant companion. Then, on what would have been Aahren’s first day of freshman classes at the University of Notre Dame, he received the initial dose of cough-medicine-red chemotherapy to tame the acute leukemia that had shredded our world.

That day, or maybe the next, Father John Conley, CSC, the rector of Siegfried Hall, called our home again. He had called the first day, and the second, and every day for the first week or so, offering his steady hand, relaying information to and from the other guys at Siegfried. They all are worried and a little bit scared, he said, and they want to know when Aahren will be back. He told me they’d put up the pictures of all the freshmen in Siegfried, and Aahren’s photo was right there among them.

Aahren was glad to hear that. He was even happier when, a week later, he received a package from Notre Dame. It contained the medal and chain that Father Malloy had blessed for each of the freshmen during the orientation Mass but which hadn’t been distributed right away. It also contained a personal note from Father Mark Poorman, CSC, telling Aahren that he was a full member of the Notre Dame family and that everyone wanted him back soon.

Consider that. We had arrived for orientation on Friday night, and left Sunday afternoon. Three nights, that’s all that Aahren had spent in Siegfried. Three nights at Notre Dame. Three nights.

Aahren put the medal around his neck as soon as it arrived. He’s worn it since.

That was just the beginning of the way Notre Dame showed its soul as it responded to our nightmare. There hadn’t been time for anyone to check any manuals, to find out what the regulations required the institution to do or not do. There hadn’t been a review of procedures or even a chance to find out what had been done in the past. They all simply did what they did because that was the only way they knew how to do it. It was a reaction triggered by something deeper than codes or regulations, a response that had to have been bred deep in the bones of an institution as big as Notre Dame. And there would be much, much more.

I could go on for pages about what Kirk, Conley and Poorman did, and how countless others pitched in to help during those first frantic weeks. What is extraordinary is not that they responded positively to our needs, taking care of tuition for the classes Aahren never attended, safeguarding the things Aahren had left behind in his room at Siegfried, hoping to return. It was that they had anticipated so much and did so many things that we hadn’t even thought of asking. As Aahren’s treatment dragged on (it would last two full years plus two more years of painful bone marrow biopsies) Kirk arranged for him to receive the computer we had purchased but hadn’t had a chance to pick up, and he got the technology office to provide access to the Notre Dame internet, even though Aahren wasn’t technically a student anymore. The Observer showed up in the mail one day, and every day after that until he returned to class. Kirk asked if Aahren wanted to attend a football game, then got us press box passes and a room for the weekend in one of the dorms.

It was Aahren’s first trip back. His hair was gone, burned away by chemotherapy, and he was too weak to walk up the stairs. We had to leave early, without ever setting foot in the stadium. But his yearning to return to Notre Dame, to take his rightful place in his class, was strong. I believe it had become so powerful a force that, along with the superb care of his doctor, Peter Steinherz, a specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the constant support of his sister and brother, and, of course, Miriam’s tireless devotion, the spirit of this place called Notre Dame helped save his life.

He missed a full year of school. With Dr. Steinherz’s permission Aahren returned to Notre Dame as a freshman, again, in 2000, on the condition that he live in a single room to ward off infections while his treatment continued. It wasn’t possible to do that at Siegfried, but there was a single room available next door at Knott Hall. It was only a short time before we realized how truthful Father John was being when he said that he and Brother Jerome Meyer, CSC, the quiet, conscientious rector of Knott Hall, were known as “Frick and Frack.” Their devotion is as identical one to the other as Siegfried is to Knott, and those two buildings are mirror images of each other.

It was faith that had helped Aahren, his faith that he belonged to a community like Notre Dame and that Notre Dame, with all its trophies and traditions, with all its fame and good fortune, wanted him back. I’ve thought about why the University did what it did and went so far beyond what it was required to do. No one here really knew Aahren or us. Yet the Notre Dame community reacted to his illness with a ferocity that seemed almost tribal in the best, most human, sense of the word. The University stood by us the way a mother would protect her child, whether the child was 3 days old, 3 years old or 30 years old. There’s no other way to explain it.

* * *

Miriam and I are parents of not one but three students who now attend top national research universities. Laura Felice is a junior at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts; Andrés is a freshman at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; and of course Aahren is a senior here at Notre Dame, majoring in political science and Spanish. Every time a tuition bill or newsletter arrives in the mail at home, or we visit a campus for parents’ weekend, homecoming or freshman orientation, Miriam and I automatically initiate a review of Notre Dame and its peer institutions.

Notre Dame stacks up well against the competition in just about every category, as do they to Notre Dame, at least on the undergraduate level. I might give Notre Dame extra points for the strength of the dorm system here, which cements relationships and provides a natural network of support that the others don’t have so readily available. I’d credit Tufts with an advantage in intellectual vibrancy, in part because of its location in the Northeast but also because of the diversity of its students. Duke has the edge in facilities and in being a younger, more eager institution unburdened by outdated traditions. Each university is about equal to the other in the professionalism of its staff, the quality of its library’s undergraduate resources, and the respect its name commands in the marketplace.

I know that Notre Dame spends an awful lot of time and energy comparing itself to its peers, picking on its old scars of self-doubt about its Catholic heritage. Some grief is probably left over from the days when football was Notre Dame, academics being something to fill the gaps between games. Clearly that is no longer the case, just as Duke is no longer just a basketball program nor Tufts simply a place for those who were wait-listed at Harvard.

That is the education correspondent in me speaking. From the point of view of the visiting scholar, it seems to me that Notre Dame is trying hard to offset the tragedy of its location, making up for its general isolation by bringing to South Bend some of the most vibrant minds in the world. Of course, it’s long been possible to tempt the likes of Seamus Heaney and Edna O’Brien for brief visits, as they did last fall. But the trick is getting them to stay. At the Hesburgh Center, where I lived and worked for four months, scholars from Ecuador, England, Nigeria, Spain and Taiwan as well as a phalanx of academics from the United States whose research has taken them around the globe, have lightened the gray South Bend sky with their ideas during extended stays. More needs to be done. South Bend is not yet as vigorous an academic setting as Medford, nor will it ever be as appealing a geographic location as Durham, but Notre Dame’s reputation is beginning to burn through.

* * *

During my semester here everything has been splendid, a real, unadulterated joy. The library. The lectures. The prevailing sense of academic adventure. But as great as everything has been, nothing beat Thursday mornings when Aahren and I had a standing appointment to meet for breakfast. We talked of everything, and of nothing, and the sight of him walking into the Hesburgh Center’s Greenfield’s restaurant, now healthy and free of the horrid disease, courageous and confident and enthusiastic, filled me with boundless wonder and joy.

He’s regained his life here. He’s made many good friends, like his roommates Joe, Kevin, Liam, Rob and Scott, who will support each other for a lifetime. He’s met a sweet pre-med student named Leanne, who helps him see the beauty in life. And he’s learned that even though the world can seem perplexing, an intelligent man can, with hard work, begin to understand it.

Few parents get to share their child’s college experience the way I have this semester, and that has been both wonderful and heart breaking. Being here constantly pulls me back to those first frightening hours and the overwhelming dread we felt. But being here now also reminds me of how far we’ve come, of the power of the spirit to triumph. It took an extraordinary degree of courage and strength of character to go through what Aahren has gone through and to do it with the style and grace that have become his trademarks. I know that those qualities had to have been in him from the start, and that too awes me. But we also have learned that such feats are not accomplished alone. Although there are no medals or trophies for such personal victories and thus no opportunity to thank the coaches or the pit crew that made such triumphs possible, we know how important it was for them to be there for us.

* * *

This is all to say that while I admire Notre Dame’s aspirations to be ever greater, I believe that there is a part of the university — a truly unique and very fragile part — that needs to be recognized and, in the recognition, preserved and protected.

My stake in Notre Dame is rather large, but because I am not an alum I don’t think I fall into the trap of comparing what exists today to an idealized version of the University that is preserved in the amber of my own memory. I’ve studied the University, I’ve paid lots of money to the University, and the University has paid me. All that permits me to see things as they are.

I’ve been surprised by the degree of introspection that goes on because the place’s identity seems to me to be so firm. But I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything but self-examination, given the University’s goals. I’ve tried to understand better what those goals entail. I read Father Malloy’s address to the faculty, and watched him teeter on the hind legs of a straight-backed chair for several hours as he tried to convince the faculty that there could be a healthy balance between research and teaching.

I have to say I was surprised, as a parent, to hear him say that in order to recruit top scholars, Notre Dame sometimes offers them a sabbatical before a new recruit even starts teaching here, that getting away from the classroom is now considered an inducement for some in the academic world.

I think I know what he was trying to say that day, but Father Malloy seemed to have trouble explaining the specific benefits that derive from combining research and teaching. I doubt he would have won over many of the “benefactors” whose own memories of finding a great professor clash with the frustrations of their sons and daughters who can’t find the classes they want nor understand the muttering of the professors they get.

Father Malloy pointed out that students seem to be quite satisfied with their education, but when I talk to my son and his roommates and to other students on campus, they uniformly distinguish between the experience of being at Notre Dame, which they treasure, and their time in the classroom, where their satisfaction is spottier. It seems possible that the University may have been overly willing to accept a weakening of the undergraduate experience in order to advance its academic reputation.

Something else essential has changed. I’m told that at one time practically everyone who worked at Notre Dame was Catholic and being so meant they embraced a certain set of values — a degree of humility about one’s own accomplishments, a fulsome charity toward the downtrodden and unlucky; a burning commitment to honor the dreams of every man. Now that being Catholic is no longer necessarily a qualification for hiring, that homogeneity is gone and the faculty can be divided into three groups. First are the old timers, some now long in the tooth, who still hold those values and cannot separate Notre Dame from family. Then there are the newcomers, many lured here to pump up the rankings. Such values are not necessarily part of the package that brought them here, and they may bolt for someplace warmer, tonier or more prestigious as soon as the opportunity arises. And then there’s the middle third, who may or may not treasure these same values. They are the ones on whom the University’s future rests, especially as pressure mounts to minimize Catholic identity while highlighting scholarly achievement.

This uncertain formula concerns me. I do not think that Catholics have cornered the market on such values. Taking into account a prospective faculty member’s religion was once considered an easy way of ensuring those values would be preserved. It didn’t always work out to be that way, of course, but I wonder how such values can be assessed now. So much of what has astonished me about Notre Dame derives from the human side of the university that I’d hate to see that exceptional property diluted or, worse yet, lost. But if, as Father Poorman told me, such values cannot be mandated but must be bred in the bones of the people who work here and love the place, how can it be safeguarded, especially with so many outside influences to contend with?

I hope Notre Dame always aspires to greatness. I also am convinced that America’s university system is the envy of the Western world in part because of the great diversity of its 3,000-plus institutions of higher education. 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 as least as much passion as the rankings.

As the semester has worn on and Aahren has come ever closer to graduating, I have spent more time thinking about the future of this most unusual place that has meant so much to us. Doubt has started to flicker in me, but I can’t be certain whether such worries are warranted. So I sought out the one man who’d probably thought more about Notre Dame and its character than anyone since Father Sorin founded the place.

I thought I’d taken the wrong bank of elevators when I got off at the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library and found myself facing nothing but open stacks of books. I walked from one end of the floor to the other and was ready to go back down to the lobby and start again when I spotted the door to the office of Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC.

I entered an empty office, but when I heard a woman’s voice I knew that Father Ted’s assistant was reading him that day’s New York Times because he can’t see well enough any more to read it himself. The old man was wearing a well-used sweater vest with a small burn hole in it and tan slacks that had seen their prime many football seasons ago. His cigar smoldered in the ashtray on his desk, wisps of smoke curling toward the ceiling. I told him that I had come by to let him know what Notre Dame meant to me, and to ask him what Notre Dame meant to him.

He didn’t seem surprised when I related how Kirk, Conley and Poorman had helped Aahren. He used the word fierceness to describe the University’s will to protect its own, and I thought it was a good word. He didn’t quite smile, but he leaned back in the chair and nodded approvingly, as if what they had done was exactly what he would have expected and nothing less.

In the end, I didn’t ask him what Notre Dame meant to him. I realized we were sitting in a building that bears his name, looking out over a campus that bears the indelible stamp of his tenure, and such a question was silly. Rather, I asked him about the University’s future and what, if anything, caused him worry.

Father Ted’s answer was surprising. He said his biggest concern was that it would be so easy for the University to become more like other universities where, in the race for ratings, in the fanatic competition with peer institutions, the human side becomes little more than a trapping. He wasn’t talking just about an institution’s denominational identity. What he feared could be lost is the soul of Notre Dame itself, the very same fierce familiarity with which we watched it respond to us when, barely here a few days, we needed it most.

“At the heart of everything we do here is the faith that anything is possible if you are willing to go in there and work harder,” he said. “I would hate it if we ever lost that common touch, that concern about everyone here as an individual.”

He knew it was difficult for the University’s president to stay up late, as he did in the early 1950s when he took over, to wait for carousing underclassmen to return from town and counsel them one-on-one about the deeper conflicts in their lives. He also knew that Notre Dame now attracts students from a different class than earlier generations. No longer is the campus filled primarily with the sons of immigrants that Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden referred to when he said, after the Florida State game in November, that he first became interested in Notre Dame in the early ’40s “when I started hearing all those foreign-sounding names and wondered what country Notre Dame was in.”

It would be easy to lose the common touch in a University with 11,000 students, and an endowment of $3.1 billion. How is something as amorphous as the common touch to be measured anyway? Father Ted said he feared it would be very easy in such a place to “quit being Catholic,” the way so many other religiously affiliated universities have done, preserving little to identify them as such except their names.

“You can work at religion here without feeling uncomfortable or like your fly’s open,” he said. “I would hate it if this place lost that.” He wanted there always to be room for different faiths and different approaches, including the Theology on Tap session I went to out of curiosity one Wednesday evening at Legends, the new campus pub. I arrived at 10 to find a small clutch of undergraduates milling around the free food and soft drinks. I thought Father Kevin Russeau, CSC, had deluded himself into thinking he could get many more young people out to talk about faith on a Wednesday night at the end of the semester.

But I realized I was the one who was deluded when, at about 10:25 p.m., the clubroom at Legends filled to capacity with more than 100 students who started asking thoughtful, serious questions about faith and religion. One asked for scriptural proof of transubstantiation. One wanted a technical explanation for the Catholic church’s stance on interfaith marriages.

The most heartfelt question came from an undergraduate who said he had just returned from a semester abroad in Ireland. He had found the Irish disillusioned by the banality of the religious intolerance that is ruining their lives, and their disillusionment made him think about life here in the United States. While religion dominated and perverted life in Ireland, he found that at home “nobody goes to Mass, nobody talks about religion.” Faith seemed too abstract, too flimsy. Which was why he said he was glad to be back at Notre Dame. He said that living a life of faith here was easy.

Father Ted would have been reassured to hear that, since it coincided with his views on the University’s most disconcerting dilemma. But I don’t think religion is at the heart of Notre Dame’s crisis of self. It’s impossible to imagine a day when the crucifixes on the walls are pro-forma markings, no more meaningful than a “Made in” tag on a jacket or a shirt. Notre Dame’s Catholic stripes simply won’t change. But Father Ted had it right when he agonized over survival of the common touch that has characterized Notre Dame since it was still small enough, isolated enough and underrated enough to hold compassion as its core value. It remains so today. I can attest to that the way a veteran can attest to the true horror of war. I believe there are many people at Notre Dame who want with all their hearts for that commitment to compassion to continue. But I can’t be certain that the University will be able to do that, and fight the onslaught of rankings, hirings and unchecked aspirations that threaten the common touch, unless enough people here come right out and say it should be so.

* * *

I write these words with just a few days remaining in my stay here, little more than the brief time Aahren had spent on campus before we came to see what Notre Dame was really about. We needed the University then. We treasure it now. There’s been a certain symmetry to our relationship with this place all along, one that seems to be reflected in the balance and equilibrium inherent in the layout and beauty of the campus.

As a runner, I celebrated that beauty and balance each time I observed sunrise slipping in pink and gray behind the dome on the Main Building or caught a glimpse of the Grotto, especially at night or in the snow. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and quiet beauty of the reflecting pool in front of the Hesburgh Library, and I tried to run down the path from the arbor near the stadium toward the golf course whenever an orange-red sun was setting beneath a blazing Midwestern sky.

But now that Aahren has recovered completely and our long nightmare is over at last it is the memory of the trees of the God Quad — the old campus near the Main Building — that I think will most pinch my heart when I’m not here. I’ve come to understand it better as time has gone on. I see the trees as symbols of the University, always the same yet always changing, because both are alive. The biggest of them drop their leaves every year, then create new ones, a cycle that matches the academic calendar and the endless rotation of incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors. The trees themselves, the majestic broad-leafed maples, the whispering European larches, the huge Ponderosa pines and the copper beeches that stand guard before the Main Building, grow tall, and broad, stretching far to grasp the world and touch the sky.

Those are the ambitions of Notre Dame students, and of Notre Dame itself.

And yet, despite that turmoil of constant change, the trees of the old quad seem tireless and permanent. They are the tradition of the place, the soul that remains deep within. For a time, Aahren has lived within this extraordinary community, and we, his family, have shared his relationship with Notre Dame under circumstances I hope no family ever has to repeat.

Every student and every family has the same chance we did to walk for a while among the giants of the old quad, among the greats of Notre Dame’s past. They, like us, can feel that a part of them has been grafted onto that never-changing core, like the five growth rings that have encircled the trunks of these noble trees since we arrived, each one adding to the assembly of years that makes them, and those around them, great.

Anthony DePalma was a visiting scholar at the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies. He has reported for The New York Times from North and South America and Europe since 1986. He is author of Here: A Biography of the New American Continent.