Notre Dame’s Faculty Misadventure Chapter II


“Great Catholic colleges and universities have to be great on their own terms, not by the standards of those who do not understand the rationale, purpose, and mission of Catholic higher education.” (Dr. Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology, Notre Dame.)

NOTRE DAME, IN — In our last bulletin we showed that Notre Dame no longer meets its own — and Pope John II’s and the United States bishops’ — test of Catholic identity: “a preponderant number of Catholics” on the faculty. In this bulletin, we look to the future through the lens of a recent book by one of Notre Dame’s most distinguished scholars, Dr. Christian Smith. That future is not bright. Dr. Smith judges that, unless the university tempers its drive to become a premier research university, it will almost certainly sacrifice its ability to offer an excellent Catholic undergraduate education.

Building-Catholic-Higher-EducationThe book is “Building Catholic Higher Education: Unofficial Reflections from the University of Notre Dame,” and can be purchased at Wipf and Stock Publishers or Amazon. It joins Father Wilson D. Miscamble’s “For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a University” and Professor Charles Rice’s “What Happened to Notre Dame?”(with its illuminating introduction by Dr. Alfred Freddoso) as essential reading for all who treasure an  authentically Catholic Notre Dame. The latter two books describe the causes and effects of the attenuation of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity over recent decades, while Dr. Smith explains why the university’s stress on hiring for research, unless restrained, will almost surely undermine the school’s Catholic undergraduate program.

We will quote at some length from Dr. Smith’s book so that you will have his words rather than ours on key points and get some sense of the force of his analysis. This is no substitute for the book itself, but it is the best we can do.

The Thesis

After an opening section in which Dr. Smith reproduces a number of official declarations about the school’s Catholic mission, Dr. Smith focuses on (1) the tension among Notre Dame’s several stated goals, (2) what that means in terms of hiring faculty, and (3) predictably corrosive effects of the university’s drive to achieve preeminence as a research university on the school’s Catholic identity and its education of undergraduates.

“In the words of Father Jenkins,” Dr. Smith relates, “Notre Dame is committed to a ‘three-part mission'” –”‘to become a preeminent research university with a distinctive Catholic mission and an unsurpassed undergraduate education.'” But, Dr. Smith declares, “Realizing these three goals together is nearly impossible, though I refuse to say absolutely hopeless.”

His reason:  “Finding scholars who fit all three of the profiles [Catholic, undergraduate, research] is nearly impossible.” More, “the factors of academic status, prestige, and respect” work against promoting a distinctly Catholic identity.

His conclusion: In order to avoid “los[ing] the ability to offer an excellent Catholic undergraduate liberal arts education,” Notre Dame should “most highly prioritize… excellence in undergraduate liberal arts education and achieving a distinctive Catholic character and education.” It should “be more patient and take more time to develop itself as a great research university.”

Undergraduate, Catholic, and Research Faculty — Conflicting Profiles
Dr. Smith supports his thesis with a detailed description of the types of faculty necessary for, on the one hand, a university that provides an excellent liberal arts undergraduate education that is Catholic in character, and, on the other, a premier research university.

A first rate undergraduate program needs faculty who are “outstanding classroom teachers,” who “love spending time with students,” who “provide extensive feedback on papers and exams,” who encourage students in “big questions involving the life of the mind,” and who “measure their career success by the kind of good, rich, happy, productive lives that their students go on to lead.”

For a school to provide also “a rich Catholic environment and education” it must have faculty who are “broadly educated in the theological and philosophical issues related to the coherent integration of knowledge within an expansive Catholic framework,” who are “conversant with Church doctrine and moral and social teachings,” who “know enough about history and modernity to situate Catholic education within the larger contemporary realities,” who “love the Church” even though they may question some of its teachings, who ideally “participate regularly in campus Masses and are active members of their parishes,” and who “model in their personal and family life” the sort of person the Church “hopes to see in believers.” They measure their success “through their contribution to the holistic formation of generations of students who become well-rounded Catholic adults who live their own lives well and faithfully.”

But filling these roles “typically (but not always) means sacrificing research [and] publishing” — that is, sacrificing precisely what a research university requires. Such a university needs faculty “who are advanced specialists and authorities in their fields, who are dedicated to data collection and analysis, [who] will know how to win generous research grants…[who] measure success by the number of influential articles or books they can publish, who invest in presenting papers and networking with colleagues at conferences, and whose teaching is most focused on training promising graduate students who spread their influence.”

This “usually (but not always) means…reducing undergraduate teaching loads as much as possible…and spending discretionary time in labs and writing alone in one’s office….”

While faculty who fill the bill for both undergraduate and Catholic teaching “are not a dime a dozen,” they do exist and are the ones “who make the best Catholic liberal arts colleges possible.” They are “easier to find” than outstanding research faculty, and the “pool of candidates” suited to all three goals — Catholic, undergraduate teaching, and research — is “extremely thin.”

“In everything truth surpasses the imitation and copy.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

Dr. Smith goes on to discuss a complex of factors that, as we have often observed, center upon the ambition of dominant forces at the university to be thought the equal of its supposed secular “peers.”

Dr. Smith:

Consider, too, how the factors of academic status, prestige, and respect play into the questions at issue here. The big dogs in the world of American higher education are secular and mostly secularist institutions. Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, North Carolina, and Berkeley are the models to emulate. Catholicism for most people in such worlds is something between (at best) a quaint private belief system…and (at worst) a pernicious, benighted, and oppressive hierarchy of power and oppression that should be destroyed. What the Catholic Church teaches about abortion, same-sex relationships, contraception, and other “hot button” issues is deeply offensive at most high-status institutions…where many ambitious Catholic colleges and universities wish to be accepted and respected. So these teachings are deeply embarrassing for many faculty at Catholic universities and colleges who care about the opinions of their not-so-Catholic colleagues. Many try to cover their embarrassment by highlighting Catholicism’s emphasis on “peace and justice.”

“Catholic university leaders,” he continues, “especially those with great financial resources, can be easily seduced by the allure of upward mobility, recognition, and acceptance in the status system of American higher education.” And American Catholics “can be especially vulnerable to becoming willing to pay the steep cost (decreasing their Catholic commitments) of entry into the club of acceptability in mainstream higher education.”

But “Great Catholic colleges and universities have to be great on their own terms, not by the standards of those who do not understand the rationale, purpose, and mission of Catholic higher education.” They “ought not to be groveling before or following the crowd, which is quite confused at present, but instead carving out new and better models for providing the best forms of education possible….”

“Notre Dame has the potential to do this,” Dr. Smith concludes, “but it must not become captive to the dominant values and standards of our higher education.”


The prospects for the major course correction called for by Dr. Smith do not seem bright. This administration is strongly committed to making Notre Dame into a premier research university; and, as we have pointed out, the Faculty Senate, after surveying the faculty, opposed “compromise[ing] the university’s academic aspirations in an effort to preserve its Catholic identity.” Dr. Smith’s book seems to have caused not a ripple, so far as we can tell. He has not been called upon to address students and faculty on the subject nor has his book triggered, say, a panel including Dr. Smith, Father Miscamble, and Professor Freddoso (or any of them).

Still, one can hope that Dr. Smith’s compelling analysis will play a role in awakening at least some of those in governance to their plain fiduciary responsibility. Their obligation under the university’s constituent documents is to maintain “at all times” the “essential character of the University as a Catholic institution.” There is nothing in those documents or the school’s Mission Statement about Notre Dame’s becoming a premier research university, or climbing the U.S News ratings ladder, or earning a place at the table with the secular rulers of higher education.

In an appendix to the book, Dr. John Cavadini provides an excellent essay on the central role of theology in a Catholic university. Dr. Cavadini was a leading opponent of the proposal to reduce Notre Dame’s theology requirement that we described in a prior bulletin. We are pleased to report that the curriculum committee has rejected this proposal, though it took a swipe at the philosophy requirement.  We will discuss the committee’s report after we have learned more about it.

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