Notre Dame’s Faculty Misadventure Chapter I


“The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” (Notre Dame Faculty Senate)

NOTRE DAME, IN — Notre Dame has recognized that its character depends ultimately upon who’s teaching and what they teach. It has declared: “The Catholic identity of the University depends upon the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. But in its relentless drive for recognition by secular academe and ranking organizations, Notre Dame’s hiring of Catholics has fallen off so badly that the proportion of committed Catholic faculty has plummeted well below this marker.

mary-blindfoldedThis has both deprived many students of the Catholic education to which they and their parents were entitled and also produced the seedbed for the jarring actions that we have highlighted in our bulletins — the Vagina Monologues, the Queer Film Festival, the honoring of President Obama, the recognition of same-sex marriage in providing employee spousal benefits, the triggering and funding of the provision of free abortifacients and contraceptives to students, to name just a few.

Sadly, the administration has set a hiring policy designed merely to maintain the failed status quo. If those in governance do not change course, Notre Dame as an authentically Catholic university will be lost to history. Because of the surpassing importance of the issue, we discuss it in some detail.  

The central document is the university’s mission statement test of Catholic identity: a “preponderant number” of “Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. That criterion is rooted in a similar standard in Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the United States bishops’ Application of Ex Corde. All agree that “preponderant number” means a majority, and since the “Catholic intellectuals” are those who contribute to the Catholic identity of the school, they cannot be merely nominal Catholics. They must be “dedicated, committed Catholics,” in the words of former president Rev. Edward Malloy, C.S.C.

The percentage of nominal Catholics on the faculty has plummeted from 85% in the mid-1970’s to 54% today. These are “check-the-box” Catholics, faculty who check the “Catholic” box on a personnel form when hired. No one would claim that the “committed, dedicated” Catholics among them constitute close to a majority. Notre Dame no longer passes its own test of Catholic identity.

To be sure, as we have often noted, Notre Dame is still Catholic in many ways: a solid core of fine Catholic faculty who provide a first rate Catholic education to students who seek it (and whom Sycamore Trust assists through; some excellent Catholic faculty institutes and a number of splendid student organizations; multiple Masses and liturgies and retreats and other opportunities for spiritual development, and the like.

But as a university, Notre Dame has lost its Catholic identity. It tells us so itself.

Here are the pertinent facts in detail:

The Standard

  • The Mission Statement: “The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. (Italics supplied in quotations throughout.)
  • Ex Corde Ecclesiae: “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University…the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic.”

The Meaning of  “Preponderant Number” and “Catholic Intellectuals”

  • Rev. Edward Malloy, C.S.C., the university president when this criterion was adopted: “A predominant number refers to both more than 50 percent and not simply being satisfied with 50 percent. It’s an effort, without specifying a specific number, to take seriously that numbers and percentages make a difference.”  (Observer 10.11.06)
  • Father Malloy: “It remains our goal that dedicated and committed Catholics predominate in number among the faculty.” (Strategic Plan Final Report)
  • Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., the current president: “[W]e must have a preponderance of Catholic faculty and scholars, those who have been spiritually formed in that tradition and who embrace it.” (2005 address to the faculty)
  • Dr. Timothy O’Meara, fomer provost: “If Notre Dame is to remain a Catholic university, dedicated and committed Catholics must clearly predominate on the faculty.” (1983 P.A.C.E. report)
  • Dr. Thomas Burish, the current provost: “It’s to have a majority of faculty who are Catholic, who understand the nature of the religion, who can be living role models, who can talk with students about issues outside the classroom and can infuse values into what they do.” (ND Magazine Summer 2007)

The Shrunken Catholic Faculty

University data respecting Catholic faculty include all who self-designate by checking the “Catholic” box on a personnel form at the time of hiring. Here are key figures respecting tenured and tenure-track faculty:

  • Over forty years: The percentage of Catholic faculty has fallen from “near 85 percent in the 1970s” (Father Jenkins 2005 address to faculty) to 54% in 2014, the most recent available figure (ND spokesperson Dennis Brown to Bill Dempsey).
  • From the Fact Book, 1986 through 2007: For two decades the university published the Fact Book, a compilation of information that included detailed data on the proportion of Catholics on the faculty of the various schools of the university. After Sycamore Trust published these data for several years, the university stopped producing the Fact Book. Inferences may be drawn. In any case, this made inaccessible the data respecting individual schools after 2007. As we show, these data are significant.

During this period, overall Catholic faculty representation fell from 67% to 53%. There were notable variations within the schools even as the overall Catholic portion plummeted:

Arts & Letters: Down from 72% to 54%.
Science: Down from 49% to 37%
Engineering: Down from 63% to 52%
Law: Up from 72% to 83%
Architecture: Up from 44% to 53%
Business: Up from 63% to 64%

In sum, in the course of an overall collapse, the Law School ended in strong position and  the business school did pretty well, while the other schools are all in about the same weakened state, with Science far the worst. (Architecture, though, did improve.)

  • From 2007 to 2014:  The decline leveled off with a slight upward tick — from 53% to 54%. But it is now impossible to know whether there have been significant shifts among the schools, e.g., a further strengthening of the law and business schools and deterioration in Arts and Letters.

Notre Dame Fails its Own Test of Catholic Identity

With 54% of the faculty “check-the-box” Catholics, the Mission Statement requirement would be met only if 93% of the them are “dedicated and committed” Catholics. We are confident no one at Notre Dame would make such a transparently infirm claim, or anything close to it. As Dr. Walter Nicgorski said at a Sycamore Trust gathering during Alumni Weekend:

Along with the steep decline of the percentage of faculty who are Catholics to about 50 per cent, there is the widely shared recognition that a large number of those who list themselves as Catholics are not inclined to be involved in any concerns about the religious character of this university.

Along with the steep decline of the percentage of faculty who are Catholics to about 50 per cent, there is the widely shared recognition that a large number of those who list themselves as Catholics are not inclined to be involved in any concerns about the religious character of this university.

Professor Alfred Freddoso makes the same point in his indispensable essay introducing the late Professor Charles Rice’s book “What Happened to Notre Dame?”. While, he wrote, “[T]here are a number of professors” who can “in combination” provide a Catholic education to students who “choose courses very carefully…they constitute only a small percentage of the total faculty, and their conviction that a Catholic student’s intellectual life should be fully integrated with his or her Catholic beliefs and practices is very much a minority view.”

Dr. Nicgorski describes the consequences:

So it is increasingly the case today that a young person going through the critical and questioning formative years of an education at Notre Dame might not encounter a practicing Catholic informed and engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition…. One might say that beneath the large symbols of the University as a Catholic institution, there is reason for concern that the day-to-day struggles for learning and intellectual and professional development are not notably impacted by the Catholic tradition.

The Administration’s Abandonment of the Mission Statement

When Father Jenkins took office, he signaled his concern about the faculty situation in a number of ways that we have catalogued. This had an impact. As we have indicated, the downward trajectory leveled off.

The challenge then became restoration, and at that point he chose the path most easily traveled. He appointed a committee and the result was a Catholic hiring goal that’s met with anything over 50%. Naturally, 50.1% has been rounded down to 50%. Dr. John McGreevey, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said to his faculty in their fall 2011 meeting: “We begin each year with demographic targets of 50% Catholic, 40% women, and 20% diversity hires.” This is substantial retreat. In his 2005 report, Dean Mark Roche explained: “Our minimal goal in the hiring of Catholics is 50%, with an expected goal of 55% and an aspirational goal of 60%.”

Certainly the administration can’t believe that every “check-the-box” Catholic is the sort of “dedicated and committed” Catholic who will advance the school’s Catholic mission. By its action, the administration has effectively transformed the Mission Statement standard from one ensuring Catholic identity to one ensuring its loss.

The alternative was, and is, a hiring goal calculated at least to begin restoration. We do not underestimate the difficulties. Hiring has devolved to the faculty, and resistance would be strong. Purporting to speak “for the entire” faculty on the basis of discussions and comprehensive survey, the Faculty Senate expressed “concern” over a “goal of hiring over 50% Catholic faculty” — that is, concern over the Mission Statement — and opposed any “numerical target for hiring Catholics.”

The Senate’s leading policy prescription, one that a predominantly Catholic faculty would never adopt, was:

“The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.”

In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to estimate the shortfall and set a goal designed to close it. The numbers are too daunting and the opposition would be too strong. Dr. Nicgorski cited a “distinguished educator” who studied Notre Dame and concluded that “only about 20%” of the faculty “were engaged with or cared about the Catholic aspect of the University’s mission;” Dr. Freddoso refers to a “small percentage;” the estimates we get are in the 25% range.

But what is necessary is a goal that at least evidences an intention to honor the Mission Statement and to restore Notre Dame’s Catholic identity over time. Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., in an illuminating article in America, declared that Notre Dame “must hire at least two-thirds Catholic faculty.” Even 60% would be encouraging, coupled with commitments by deans and department chairs and the President matching the intense diversity campaign now underway at Notre Dame.

What we have instead is the unmistakable message that those in governance, for whatever reason, are satisfied with a Notre Dame in which “committed and dedicated” Catholic faculty are in a decided minority and no longer “predominate.”  Indeed, they will be satisfied with a further decline in nominal Catholics from 54% to 50%.

We have implored the boards of trustees and fellows before to examine this issue. We will do so again.

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