The Heart of the Matter – Rank Over Religion

NOTRE DAME, IN – What’s more important, Catholic identity or pride of position in the U.S. News & World Report hierarchy?

Some, perhaps many, will argue that it’s more important to pursue scholars with the most impressive academic credentials than it is to maintain a Catholic majority on the faculty. They regard Father Jenkins’s goal of boosting Notre Dame into the top ranks of research universities as more important than his goal of ensuring its Catholic identity. Father Jenkins insists that the goals are compatible. Maybe so in the long run, some will say, but maybe not in the short run. Hasn’t Notre Dame’s rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings been largely due to adding mostly non-Catholic scholars with degrees from elite secular universities? Why stop now, the argument goes. In short, hire on the basis of credentials only, as they are judged by secular academe. There will always be enough Catholics in the mix to staff a Catholic studies program for those who want it.

So goes an argument that appears to have considerable support among the faculty. As a 2003 Baylor University Study discloses, most of the faculty oppose taking an applicant’s Catholicism into account in any way in the hiring process. But this is the road to full secularization. As Note Dame scholar George Marsden reported in The Soul of the American University, “Once a church-related institution adopts the policy that it will hire simply the ‘best qualified candidates,’ it is simply a matter of time until its faculty will have an ideological profile essentially like that of the faculty at every other mainstream university.”

That’s why this insidiously appealing “hire on merits only” policy is fundamentally at odds with Notre Dame’s storied history and tradition as a sturdily Catholic institution, a heritage that is repeatedly invoked by its spokespersons today. Notre Dame’s declared mission in substance has been to be the best truly Catholic university in the world. Father Jenkins and his top associates reconfirmed this goal in their interview in the current Notre Dame Magazine (though they did not discuss how the radical change in hiring necessary to meet it is to be accomplished). Measured by standards proper to a Catholic institution, if Notre Dame achieved this goal it would then in fact be the finest university in the world.

Moreover, I suggest that this is really the only goal within reach in the long run. As Dean Roche said in the Winter Notre Dame Magazine, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity “was by far the strongest” reason cited by a group of outstanding new faculty members for their coming to the University. One of them who left a tenured position at Stanford, Dr. Brad S. Gregory, told The Wall Street Journal that Notre Dame’s Catholic character was decisive for him, adding, “By any ordinary measure, you’d be crazy to leave Stanford for Notre Dame.”

In sum, the most likely result of subordinating Catholic identity to secular recognition would be the worst of all: a second rank, weakly Catholic university.

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