On Whose Shoulders Then Do We Stand?


Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., files a dissenting opinion from Dean John T. McGreevey’s characterization of yesterday’s Notre Dame as “mediocre,” as we do from his declaration, without visible means of support, that today’s Notre Dame is “more Catholic” than it was fifty years ago under Father Ted Hesburgh

NOTRE DAME, IN – Alumni who tire occasionally of hearing about how Notre Dame today is so superior to what it was in their day – surely they wouldn’t be admitted today! – will welcome the letter to the Irish Rover from Father Bill Miscamble that we reproduce below.

The trigger for Father Miscamble’s letter was Dean John T. McGreevy’s assertion in a recent talk about the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement that Notre Dame’s “mediocrity” was the “biggest obstacle” that Father Hesburgh had to overcome.

The 50th anniversary of Land O’Lakes has spawned a wave of essays and comments about its relationship to the weakening of the Catholic identity of almost all Catholic colleges and universities in subsequent decades. That is scarcely surprising, since it opened with a declaration by the signatory Catholic educators led by Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., that Catholic schools should have “true autonomy” from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.”

Notre Dame joined this conversation in a September 5 symposium at Notre Dame on “Land O’Lakes and its Legacy.” Father Jenkins presided, and four other Catholic university presidents participated. Dean McGreevy’s keynote address opened the symposium.

At the start of his letter, Father Miscamble said he would return later to what Dean McGreevy said about the impact of Land O’Lakes on the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, something, Father  noted, “only the gullible will accept.”

We will follow suit and consider Dean McGreevy’s transparently infirm absolution of Land O’Lakes in a future bulletin. Enough to say now that he simply declared that Notre Dame is “more successful in maintaining a small ‘c’ and a big ‘C’ Catholic identity today than it was in 1967. Flat out!” This, he said, “is easy to demonstrate.”

But easy or not, he didn’t try his hand at it. He simply moved on to something else. It was an astonishing “who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes” episode. Defenders of Land O’Lakes do so on several grounds, but not on the whimsical notion that the displacement of religious governance has promoted religious identity.

We will soon continue the analysis of Land O’Lakes that we began in a recent bulletin, but now read Father Miscamble on the “mediocre” Notre Dame of earlier times — to which we add simply Amen!

John McGreevy and Mediocrity at Notre Dame

Originally published in The Irish Rover, September 22, 2017 

I was unable to attend the recent symposium on the Land O’Lakes Legacy planned by the Office of the President and well-hosted by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. Subsequently, however, I watched the two sessions of the symposium. The panel of the five presidents was a rather shallow exercise with each participant singing from the same song sheet—so much for ‘dialogue’ at the contemporary Notre Dame. The first session featuring Dean John McGreevy was more interesting.

McGreevy gave a typically adroit address in which he notably focused much more on the context of Land O’Lakes rather than its questionable content. Toward the end of his address McGreevy admitted some of the limitations of the Land O’Lakes statement, but cleverly skated by them in order to contend—without any supporting evidence whatsoever—that Notre Dame was stronger in its Catholic identity today than it was in 1967. Only the gullible will accept that contention, and I plan to address it at a later point.

But I must discuss a different matter here. Dean McGreevy argued with obvious approval that the “biggest obstacle” Father Hesburgh tackled through his efforts at Land O’Lakes was the “mediocrity” of Notre Dame.

This assertion that Notre Dame was ‘mediocre’ prior to Land O’Lakes is now regularly bandied about by vapid administrators and the tribe of their public relations associates who constantly inform us of how “great” Notre Dame is today compared to how it was a half century ago. The charge of mediocrity is usually made without any serious qualification, and on its face, against all, or almost all, who taught and studied here in the 1960s and before. This capacious charge slanders some of the terrific faculty who helped build Notre Dame. They should not be labeled as mediocre in any way, shape, or form.

Let me illustrate the point by referencing the department to which both John McGreevy and I belong––namely the Department of History. In 1967 the History Department at Notre Dame had approximately 20 faculty members, compared to today’s department of over 40 faculty. The faculty in the 1960s taught at least three courses per semester and had little of the research support that faculty enjoy today. One might expect that faculty in the contemporary Notre Dame, which so emphasizes research, would be dramatically superior to their forebears of a half century ago. However that may be, let me ask fair minded readers to judge whether members of the History Department in 1967 should be labeled as mediocre.

The department at the time had recently been led by a terrific historian of Colonial America named Marshall Smelser. Smelser had studied at Harvard with Samuel Eliot Morrison, and he had established a national reputation for himself such that he was invited to write the New American Nation Series volume on the U.S. during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815.

Smelser was succeeded as Chair by Vincent DeSantis, my own mentor. DeSantis’s 1959 book Republicans Faced the Southern Question had helped reorder how historians thought of American political developments during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. His fine reputation led to his being enlisted to join a wonderful group of scholars like David Potter, Carl Degler, and Arthur Link in producing The Democratic Experience, a renowned textbook that went through five editions after its initial publication in 1963.

Among the rising young scholars in the department was Philip Gleason. Gleason is a giant in American religious, intellectual, and cultural history. He wrote and edited books that would have been part of John McGreevy’s own intellectual formation. Anyone who thinks Philip Gleason is mediocre needs a deep reality check.

Gleason had been taught at Notre Dame by the legendary Holy Cross priest Thomas T. McAvoy who was still teaching in the department in 1967 as well as serving as Director of the Archives. McAvoy helped shape the field of American Catholic history with his important books, including The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 1895-1900 (1957).

Another notable teacher on the U.S. history side of the department was the great U.S. diplomatic historian Julius W. Pratt.

The History Department also had a noted Latin American historian in its ranks. Frederick B. Pike already had written important books on both the history of Chile and Peru by 1967 and would go on to write and edit other major works including his opus The United States and Latin America: Myths and Stereotypes of Civilization and Nature (1995). If there is a Latin Americanist on campus at the moment who is as intellectually gifted as Fred Pike, I would request that John McGreevy identify him or her.

On the European side, Notre Dame benefited enormously from the presence of one of the most wise and learned scholars ever to grace this campus— Matthew A. Fitzsimons. Fitzsimons edited the Review of Politics and also produced important books on British foreign policy in the mid-20th century. I have benefited from these works in my own research and can testify to their quality.

Notre Dame also had the great Church historian Msgr. Phillip Hughes teaching here at this time. Hughes trained talented historians like his successor, Fr. Marvin R. O’Connell, and additionally was a noted historian of the Reformation and indeed of Church history in general. McGreevy might complain about the popular nature of some of Hughes’s writings, but he was actually a historian who connected with a broad public and deepened their appreciation for both history and for the Church. Would there were more like him today. In medieval history James Corbett had helped Notre Dame build up its distinctive record for excellence, and he warranted his own repute as the capable editor of important medieval texts.

Sadly, men and women who contributed much to the growth and development of our university can be quickly forgotten upon either their departures or their deaths. This is especially the case at Notre Dame at the moment when the place is filled with inflated vanity and excessive self-regard. Individuals succumb to the temptation to congratulate themselves on their “impressive” present accomplishments. Yet we should acknowledge that we build upon the efforts of those who labored here before us. Surely we should not denigrate those who worked hard at Notre Dame, and did so without the substantial research support and many of the material benefits that faculty now enjoy.

Rev. Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble, C.S.C., Professor of History, University of Notre Dame.

Perhaps we might also recognize that while there was undoubtedly mediocrity as well as excellence at Notre Dame in 1967, there remains much that is mediocre here today. This recognition is especially needed by those who bear responsibility for the recent curriculum changes that weakened the Catholic education offered to our fine undergraduates.

In any case, at least one might hope that especially historians, who should know something of the history of both their own department and the university, would speak of them with more respect. The incessant self-congratulations of the present moment should not be undertaken at the expense of the many able faculty and students who preceded us here. Their significant contributions, faithful service and deep love for Notre Dame should always be properly acknowledged.

ND WRAP Week 2017

October 22-27

SCOP (Students for Child-Oriented Policy) will be participating in  a national campaign against pornography next week October 22-17, 2017. Campus-side events include a panel of three speakers impacted by the pornography industry; a dinner discussion led by Rev. Terrence Ehrman, C.S.C.; and an interactive presentation focused on hyper-sexualized images that have become normalized in the media. The Tuesday and Thursday evening events are open to the public. For more information, please visit SCOP at for details.

Media Kit

Click on the images below to enlarge them or download the set as a pdf here.


Sycamore Trust is a contributing sponsor. Should you wish to contribute, send a check payable to the University of Notre Dame and marked “for Students for Child-Oriented Policy” to “University of Notre Dame, Development Office, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556.” Tell the president of SCOP, Shaun Evens (, that you have made the gift and ask him to verify and let you know.

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9 Responses to “On Whose Shoulders Then Do We Stand?”

  1. Tim Danielson '69 October 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you Fr. Miscramble for setting the record straight

  2. A Catholic University, first and foremost exists “to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.” – Father Robert Araujo, S.J.

    To be a Catholic University, a University must be “in communion with the correct and true teachings of The Catholic Church”, and thus The Word of God as He Has Revealed Himself to His Church in the trinitarian relationship of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching of The Magisterium.

    The erroneous notion that private and public morality are not complementary is a grievous error in both Faith and reason, that has reached even into the Magisterium of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

    “Page 117, of the pope’s book, On Heaven and Earth, in regards to same-sex unions
    “If there is a union of a PRIVATE NATURE, THERE IS NEITHER A THIRD PARTY NOR IS SOCIETY AFFECTED. Now, if this union is given the category of marriage and they are given adoption rights, there could be children affected. Every person needs a male father and female mother that can help them shape their identity. – Jorge Mario Bergoglio

    “The magisterium of the Catholic Church is the church’s authority or office to establish its own authentic teachings. That authority is vested uniquely in the pope and the bishops, under the premise that they are in communion with the correct and true teachings of the faith.”

    One cannot be autonomous and in communion, simultaneously.

    “It is about the Marriage, in Heaven and on Earth.”

    Spiritual adultery, without repentance, and the acceptance of Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy, will leave one autonomous, and no longer in communion with God.

    “Today, as never before, the hour has come for reparation, for rousing the conscience of the world from the heavy torpor into which the drugs of false ideas, widely diffused, have sunk it.”-Pope Pius XII

    Pray for Holy Mother Church; Pray for Notre Dame.

  3. John McNamara '86 October 20, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Most people are aware that former President Clinton is a graduate of Georgetown University and Yale Law School and that Abraham Lincoln was taught how to read and write by a fireplace in a log cabin in the wilderness by his stepmother and that George Washington never went to college and studied surveying as a young man. As academics are measured today, William Jefferson Clinton had the most “excellent” education of the three men listed, but in the total picture of things, aren’t Washington and Lincoln, the better, more complete men, based on their inner strength and moral character? Isn’t Lincoln’s Gettysburg address more memorable than any speech given by former President Clinton, the person who had the more excellent education? Why is that? John F. Kennedy was a very intellectual man, a graduate of Harvard University and was three years older than Pope John Paul II. Few people know where Pope John Paul II went to the seminary or did his graduate work. I would argue it’s debatable who was the greater intellectual, but no one has accused Pope John Paul II of having a ghost writer for any of the books he wrote, though none of them have won a Pulitzer Prize. Consider in the greater scope of things, who the greater man was, and both did great things. Is the thing that makes St. John Paul ii greater his Catholicism and his faith and character? Then why would any sensible person at Notre Dame say we need to water down teaching moral theology in order to produce greater graduates? Where should we be focused at a Catholic university, on the worldly material honors or ultimately serving God as best we can, to lift the living status of those around us, and eventually go to heaven? How can that be mediocre?

  4. John McNamara '86 October 20, 2017 at 11:16 am

    I agree with the spirit of Fr. Miscamble’s noble essay, but I think his second essay ought to be prepared to address national awards, national test scores and national rankings as a means of comparing today’s Notre Dame and the Notre Dame of the 1960’s. I want Fr. Miscamble to win, but if I were Dean McGreevy, I could easily dissolve Fr. Miscamble’s arguments by citing that today’s students average higher SAT scores, than those of the 1960’s; that today Notre Dame has more Rhodes Scholars and Fullbright scholars that the ND of the 1960’s; and that many of todays professors have won more national awards or endowments, than professors of the past, particularly in science. I want to support Fr. Miscamble, but his next essay better be prepared to address those issues, and why they are, or are not, accurate measures of academic success, if he wishes to persuade those outside of the community of graduates who think that turning away from Catholicism towards secularism, is a bad idea. He has the hearts of those of us who think the Catholic identity and knowledge is very important, but how is he going to persuade the secularists who will quote the tests scores and awards as support for their argument? I liked Fr. Miscamble’s trip down memory lane in the history department, but those of us who are not history professors or history text writers won’t have a true appreciation of what he wrote, any more that most of us would have a true appreciation of who the great collegiate fencers or collegiate wrestlers were of the 1960’s, even though most of us are sports fans. I hope this is taken in the spirit in which it is given, helpful encouragement and suggestion from a lay person, rather than being an angry bomb thrower trying to blow up Father’s essay. Maybe comparing the Notre Dame of the 1960s and the 2010’s isn’t the proper measure, maybe it’s the quality of the content of the education and moral development of the students that ought to be measured, for strength, or being steadily watered down into moral and ethical ambiguity. Do parents still send students to Notre Dame to build character and morals and knowledge of their Catholic faith, or do they send their kids to Notre Dame State University because of the high test scores for admission? If you can’t learn the Catholic faith and philosophy at Notre Dame, what university is left that your student can attend for such information? Why would strongly teaching Catholicism endanger whether a university is great or mediocre? Isn’t that a false premise, that Catholicism waters down academic achievement? Isn’t that what Fr. Jenkins was arguing to Senator Feinstein in his recent letter to the Wall Street Journal about a Notre Dame professor being appointed as a federal judge? We have to keep our eye on the ball, that Catholicism is not anti-academic and a sign of mediocrity and that the Land o’ Lakes paper, and its line of thinking, seems to undermine that premise. All the best and lots of respect to Fr. Miscamble.

    • Father was not comparing the Notre Dame of 1967 with the Notre Dame of today but simply giving the lie to the canard that the Notre Dame of those earlier years was “mediocre.” Those who attended in those earlier times can testify to their experience. For my part, if the Political Science faculty of today — which is quite good — is superior to those who taught me, it is a lot better than just quite good. Stanley Parry was the best teacher I ever had at Notre Dame or Yale Law School — consistently ranked tops in the country — and professors Gurian, Kertez, Bartholomew, and others composed and exceptional group. (Three ND graduates were admitted to a class of a little over 100, I think more than from any other school except Yale, including Princeton, Williams, Amherst, Dartmouth and the like.) Faculty awards and grants and the like come to research universities, which deteriorate as teaching institutions as they ascend as research universities, as Bill Sigler points out below and as Dr. Christian Smith has stressed in his recent book warning about the path Notre Dame is on. A warning from one of the country’s leading sociologists that those in governance are most unlikely to heed.

      The relationship of Catholicism to learning and teaching in a university is surely a critical issue, which Father Miscamble and many others have discussed elsewhere.

  5. Dennis Malinowski October 20, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Thank you Father Miscamble for honestly and bravely speaking out regarding the self congratulatory mindset of some of the present administration, faculty and students of our University. Another example relates to the honoring President Obama, while not extending the same honor to President Trump, and showing dishonor in walking out of Vice President Pence. Snowflakes appear to be falling at our beloved campus in May as well as December.

  6. William Sigler '58 October 20, 2017 at 10:30 am

    And another thought occurs: Frank O’Malley, one of the great Bachelor Dons and teacher of English composition and Catholic literature had only a BA and yet I think is considered by most who studied under him, as I did in Freshman Composition, a truly great teacher who cared passionately about his students and the university’s Catholic character. His course Modern Catholic Writers was always over subscribed. Today he would not even be considered for a position at Notre Dame

  7. William Sigler '58 October 20, 2017 at 10:24 am

    My father, who graduated in 1931 with a degree in foreign commerce from Notre Dame, read deeply and could discuss philosophy and theology with his two sons who studied under Otto Byrd and his impressive colleagues in the Great Books program in the 1950’s. I doubt that many Mendoza graduates today have the same foundation in Catholic thought my father had. I think McGreevy is guilty of buying in to Notre Dame’s headlong commitment to becoming a great research university while apparently downgrading its early commitment to being a great undergraduate Catholic university. How many of his current colleagues are great teachers as well as great researchers?

  8. Thanks for this, Fr. Miscamble. The “superiority” song is one I am heartily sick of hearing. The term “mediocre” angers me, both as a former student (not for myself, but for my predominantly fine fellow students), and for the tremendous professors I had the privilege of learning from. I am proud to hold an undergrad degree from the University. And frankly, I have the sense that current students might indeed get a “superior” education were the clock rolled back some 40-60 years or more. As to student caliber, when students today have prep classes and multiple runs at standardized tests; where opportunities for pre-college college credit abound, where the nature of the standardized tests themselves have changed, where high school grades are notoriously inflated and grade points beyond 4 added to most high school GPA capacities, how do you legitimately compare today’s oranges to yesterday’s apples?