Thirteen years ago, Notre Dame witnessed the founding of the Erasmus Institute, the goal of which was “to foster original research that brings Catholic intellectual traditions into the mainstream of ‘secular’ life today.” Eleven years later, in 2008, Notre Dame witnessed its closing, which has been attributed to insufficient funding. The university has since developed a similar initiative under the name of the Institute for Advanced Studies, or NDIAS, to support “research that is directed toward, or extends inquiry to include, ultimate questions and questions of value, especially as they engage the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
In a 2003 proposal entitled “A Strategic Plan Notre Dame 2010: A Quest for Leadership,” the Erasmus Institute stated three objectives:
- Augmenting Catholic influence on academic research and thus on the culture at large
- Deepening the thinking of the Church by bringing it into closer contact with the best secular research
- Increasing Notre Dame’s stature as a research university by demonstrating that its Catholic character advances, rather than restricts, its contribution to academic research
In order to effect their mission, the institute implemented five initiatives, namely, residential research fellowships, conferences, summer seminars, regular lectures, and publications.
The summer seminars enjoyed a unique status, which NDIAS does not provide. According to the director of NDIAS, Vittorio Hösle, “given [their] primary aim and [their] means, unfortunately [they] do not have the possibility of running summer seminars, at least in the near future.”
Father Joseph Wawrykow, professor of theology and former director of the summer seminars, thinks it “unfortunate they were discontinued,” as do many students who attended the seminars. Emily Barry of Thomas Aquinas College has “nothing but the highest praise for [her] time at the Erasmus summer seminar.” She stated that her “two weeks discussing Faith and Reason, the Catholic university, academic freedom and Ex Corde Ecclesia, and the importance of philosophy and theology within the liberal arts were exceptional.”
Another student, Jon Butacci ’09, expressed disappointment at the discontinuation of the seminars. Buttaci took a seminar on humanities and the social sciences, enjoying the “breadth of the seminar.” Its purpose “was undoubtedly to encourage motivated undergraduates to pursue a career as a Catholic scholar in the humanities and social sciences, and to give us a kind of moral support – not hiding the challenges that face Catholic academics, but being honest about the Church’s real need for orthodox Catholic scholars.”
At the time the institute’s strategic plan was written, its authors expected the flourishing of the institute in the coming years. They noted within the plan that “given the rapid growth and success of the Erasmus Institute, certainly far exceeding original expectations, it would make no sense for the Institute to plan a radical change of course.”
Instead, the institute’s leaders hoped to adhere to the original program, but even at that time it expressed concern regarding the financial status of the group. According to the strategic plan, less than 20 percent of their one million dollar annual budget came from university funds; the majority came two foundations and three grants, two of which were non-renewable grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
This financial uncertainty proved fatal to the institute, which officially shut down on July 1, 2008. According to Father Robert Sullivan, a former director of the institute and current associate vice president for academic mission support, as Trustees later began to allocate funds “for Father Jenkins and Provost Burish to fund strategic research initiatives, a group decided to craft a proposal for the NDIAS.”
The creators of the project hoped that, following the closing of Erasmus, “a similar institution even more closely identified with the university would, unlike Erasmus, be able to attract large donations.” As a result, “the assets of Erasmus were transferred to the NDIAS.” Hösle informed The Rover that he was made director without being involved in the creation of the NDIAS. He found his experience insufficient to give more information on the relation of NDIAS to Erasmus.
The NDIAS also offers both residential and graduate student fellowships. The website describes the residential positions as open to “scholars in all disciplines…with projects that are creative, innovative, or align with the intellectual orientation of the [NDIAS].” The graduate positions similarly market toward those whose work addresses “ultimate questions and questions of value while a member of the [NDIAS’s] academic community.”
For the 2010-2011 academic year, the program has 11 residential fellows and three graduate fellows. The group represents such universities as Princeton, Marquette, Yale, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Notre Dame. The international representation conforms to the goals of the NDIAS, which, under the direction of Vittorio Hosle, “aspires to be an internationally recognized center for research,” as stated on the website. This center functions as one of Notre Dame’s Strategic Research Investments (SRI), an initiative that “represents the first steps in a bold commitment to excellence in research” at the university, according to the SRI website. Funded by both internal allocations and external grants and gifts, other SRIs focus on energy, imaging, the environment, global health, and nanotechnology.
According to Notre Dame philosophy professor Alfred Freddoso, the research goals of the NDIAS in some sense compete with those of another campus organization, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture (NDCEC). Its mission, as stated on its website, is similar to those of the Erasmus Institute and the NDIAS: to promote “scholarly reflection within the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition.” The CEC aims to “carry out this mission by supporting appropriately focused scholarly research in ethics and its dissemination in the classroom and the broader culture.”
Freddoso put forth the possibility of NDIAS being meant as an “eventual replacement for the NDCEC,” as NDCEC faces “widespread faculty opposition for its ‘conservative Catholic’ agenda and in part because of the central role it played in the anti-administration protests of spring 2009.”
Freddoso supported this speculation about the opposing goals with a quote from the NDIAS website that read: “At the NDIAS these and related questions, including their broad reach and moral import, are based in a vision of Catholicism that full-heartedly accepts the basic ideas of modernity as a legitimate step in the history of humankind, while at the same time embracing a moral interpretation of the world.”
Freddoso contrasted this statement with the NDCEC, which is “built around the vision of the Church and contemporary intellectual life…which includes a very strong pro-life component that stands in marked tension with dominant strains of modernity.”
Hosle, of the NDIAS, instead sees the difference between the NDCEC and the NDIAS to be one more of target audiences rather than core missions. He stated that the NDIAS “aim[s] primarily at research that can vie with that done at other institutes of Advanced Study, while tutoring undergraduates is an important part of the mission at the CEC.” Hosle deferred to the NDCEC , however, as the authority on the topic, cautioning that his statement was based on his own understanding of the NDCEC.
In the wake of the Erasmus Institute’s decline, the CEC and the NDIAS appear to continue at least some vein of the mission that the members of Erasmus sought to achieve. The CEC implements initiatives such as its annual fall conference, its Catholic Culture Literature Series and Film Series, and Breaking Bread, a dinner-discussion with students and professors. As mentioned above, the NDIAS runs its own annual conference and awards fellowships with the intent to engage in research that stands with that of other major learning institutions.
Laura Lindsley is absolutely mediocre in most matters, and entirely undeserving of association with Mary Poppins. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.