Within recent years, the number of Catholic members of Notre Dame’s faculty has been the subject of scrutiny. As noted by the Sycamore Trust, an association of Notre Dame alumni dedicated to promoting the university’s Catholic identity, Notre Dame encounters the risk of failing its own Catholic identification test by no longer meeting the qualification outlined in its mission statement.

Notre Dame’s mission statement, authored by former University President Father Edward Malloy, CSC, stipulates, “The Catholic identity of the university depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the university leadership throughout its history.”

Shortly after writing the mission statement, Fr. Malloy clarified that a “[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.”

Father Robert Sullivan, professor of history and Associate Vice President for Academic Mission Support, observed in his 2008 white paper “The University of Notre Dame’s catholic and Catholic Future:  Professors, Teaching, and Scholarship” that “[p]rofessing—even practicing—Catholicism or any other faith is no guarantee of the religious seriousness, ethical responsibility, good sense, and support for the University’s religious identity that human education requires.  A particular faculty member’s declaration of Catholicism does not necessarily entail support for Notre Dame’s distinctive mission.”

Concerns about faculty composition

Certain Notre Dame faculty members have in recent years questioned the university’s commitment to its mission statement in this regard. Distinguished philosophy professor Alfred Freddoso, describing the intellectual atmosphere of Notre Dame’s academic Catholicism in his introduction to law professor emeritus Charles E. Rice’s 2009 book What Happened to Notre Dame?, called Notre Dame “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” Freddoso’s diagnosis generally summates Rice’s argument that Notre Dame has effectively become a secularized institution despite its Catholic trappings.

In 2007, history professor Father Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC, published an article in America magazine article entitled “The Faculty ‘Problem’: How Can Catholic Identity Be Preserved?”  Drawing on his own experiences with faculty hiring and composition, he concluded, “dramatic action will be required to secure the school’s Catholic identity.”

Program of Liberal Studies professor Walter Nicgorski, during a panel discussion on Notre Dame’s Catholic identity in 2009, said 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.”

Law professor Father John J. Coughlin, OFM, wrote in a 2006 letter to the editor in the Observer that “[f]rankly, the University needs to hire more devout Catholic professors who cherish the Catholic approach to reason and are also top-notch in their respective academic disciplines.”

In the 1970s, the percentage of self-identifying Catholic faculty at Notre Dame was as high as 85. In the mid-1980s, that statistic fell to just under 66 percent. By 2006 that number had sunk to about 52 percent. In the College of Arts and Letters, crucial to the university’s Catholic identity due to its scholarship and instruction in the humanities, the percentage of self-identifying Catholic faculty dropped from 71.8 in 1987 to 54.2 in 2007. In the College of Science, particularly important because of the perceived modern tensions and between science and faith, that percentage dropped from 49.2 to 37.4 over the same 20-year period.

In response to this downward trend, University Provost Thomas Burish created the Ad Hoc Committee on Recruiting Outstanding Catholic Faculty in 2007, and appointed Fr. Sullivan as committee head. Burish redirected Rover inquiries for this story to Fr. Sullivan. The Rover interviewed Fr. Sullivan on recent efforts by the university – and by his committee – to stem the trend of declining Catholic faculty.

The nuts and bolts of hiring

Fr. Sullivan explained that “the mission hiring process…is much bigger and more active than my office.” It is important to understand that faculty hire faculty, he said. The provost and the president assist in directing the hiring process, but their assistance primarily takes the form of helping the various deans and department chairs to understand the background–including the religious background–and aptitude of a potential candidate. This background research is compiled in a large database that tracks, among other things, indicators of a candidate’s Catholicism.  According to Fr. Sullivan, unlike most universities, the database also tracks assistant and non-tenure track faculty candidates, who are actively sought by the university.

“The deans have complete access to their school’s or college’s database whenever they want,” Fr. Sullivan explained. “Dean [John] McGreevy [of the College of Arts and Letters] studies and updates his regularly.” McGreevy had not responded to the Rover’s inquiries at the time of this article’s writing.

A conflict of interest?

When asked about the obvious declining trend in recent statistics, Fr. Sullivan acknowledged both the difficulty and importance of the mission hiring project. One such difficulty is the compatibility of the university’s explicit goals of hiring not only more Catholics, but more women and more minorities as well.

“Inevitably, the [goals] can be in tension,” he admitted. “Sometimes, they can fit together quite nicely. We’ve hired a number of very able Catholic women and members of underrepresented minorities – practicing Catholic scholars – those are no-brainers, obviously.”

“The way it works, at least ideally, is we keep alert to the need to do both,” he said.  “It is a balancing act. We believe it’s a creative rather than a destructive tension.”

A similar concern was voiced by the Faculty Senate when it stated in a recent resolution after polling university faculty that “[t]he university should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” Fr. Sullivan addressed this point also.

“I think the principal concern at that point was, quality would be harmed and we would just go hire Catholics without regard to their quality,” he explained. “This plainly hasn’t happened. It is indisputable that the quality has improved. In Arts and Letters, the economics and music departments are obvious examples.”

Analyzing the numbers–and sources

The provost’s office agreed to release normally-confidential data to the Rover for this story. In 2006, 52 percent of tenure and tenure-track (TTT) faculty were self-identifying Catholics; Fifty-four percent of all full-time instructional faculty self-identified as Catholic. In 2011, those numbers had risen to 54 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Furthermore, the actual number of TTT faculty and all full-time instructional faculty had risen by 14.6 percent and 19.8 percent, respectively. The overall number of faculty is steadily increasing, and the total number of Catholic faculty is increasing slightly as well. According to the 2008 issue of the Notre Dame Fact Book, an internet resource wherein university statistics are compiled, over 86 percent of all faculty in 2007 were TTT faculty.

One concern is whether or not the self-identifying Catholic faculty members are what Fr. Sullivan, Fr. Malloy, and others understand as “Catholic intellectuals” who – in the words of University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, and Burish’s joint paper “Notre Dame, Its Mission, Its Faculty” – “contribute to the holistic education of their students and the cultivation of their faith” by “[p]roviding living examples of the legitimate diversity of adult Catholicism.” It appears likely that if only 54 percent of TTT faculty in 2011 were self-identifying Catholics, the number of those who are, in the words of Fr. Miscamble, “deeply supportive of the Catholic mission” and who are actively practicing and non-dissenting, might not exceed 50 percent.

“It’s not just a marking of ‘Catholic’ in the faculty questionnaire, but it must be that folks come committed to living out the mission statement of the university, to building Notre Dame into a distinctively Catholic institution,” Fr. Miscamble said in an interview with the Rover.

Fr. Sullivan responded by saying that common indicators of a candidate’s Catholicism are stored within the research database, but that there is no clear-cut way to determine the exact degree of a candidate’s enthusiasm for the mission statement. Both his office’s database and the hiring process attempt to address the issue, an admittedly difficult one.

“In many cases, [candidates] now apply as people who are known to us as being probably or certainly Catholic,” Fr. Sullivan said of his database’s effect. Additionally, all “prospects are not just asked a question about their personal Catholicism. Rather, they’re asked a question about their mission fit.” To illustrate his point, he described a practicing Catholic, Notre Dame alumnus, and distinguished scholar whose application was turned down because he “fumbled the mission question.” The deans or associate deans of each college and school usually ask the mission question at interviews during the prospect’s campus visit, which generally occurs later in the hiring process rather than earlier.

Fr. Miscamble noted that this mission compatibility need not require a faculty member actually being Catholic. “I want to suggest that some of the strongest supporters of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission are non-Catholics who appreciate fully well what happened in Protestant institutions when they didn’t take their mission and identity seriously,” he said.

Until recently, Notre Dame compiled all its data and numbers on these and other university subjects in the Fact Book. However, the statistics on faculty religious composition within the various colleges has been discontinued since 2008. In a 2009 Rover article, University Spokesperson Dennis Brown commented that “for privacy reasons, we no longer will publish data that would reveal the religion of a faculty member against his or her wishes.”  Notre Dame has continued to publish the overall religious identity percentages for faculty. The same 2009 Rover article reported, “the Rover asked if there were any complaints by faculty about the religious information provided in the Fact Book, or if there was any particular reason for the change at this time. Brown declined to comment on these issues.”

Brown explained the reason rationale for the change in the Fact Book’s online accessibility in an email to the Rover for this article.

“Fact Book has not become private,” he wrote. “We provide information previously published in the Fact Book in a more user-friendly way through customized online reports.  This enhancement was precipitated by a review of the Fact Book by the Office of Strategic Planning & Institutional Research that found the publication’s size (more than 250 pages) and format made accessing the information very difficult for many users. These reports are available online to members of the university community.” Users with a valid university NetID account and password can access the Fact Book’s statistics from 1997 to 2008 via the Office for Strategic Planning and Institutional Research webpage. There, some encouraging numbers can be found.

Between 1987 and 2007, Catholic representation in the law school increased from 72 percent to 83.3 percent, and in architecture from 44.4 percent to 52.9 percent. In the popular and top-ranked business school, Catholic representation is at 64 percent. Fr. Sullivan reports that several “endowed chairs were created to bring eminent Catholic scholars to Notre Dame” and that “excellent scholars, some of international reputation, have chosen to join us at Notre Dame because they’re attracted to its Catholic mission.”

The high ratio of Catholics among retiring faculty will require vigorous efforts to keep the overall percentage above 50, a fact which Fr. Sullivan acknowledged.

Notre Dame’s identity as an authentic Catholic institution of higher learning is an important – and fragile – one. In balancing its aspirations to become a premier research institution and to affirm its Catholic heritage, Notre Dame will continue to address this issue and pursue prudent responses to it.

Michael Bradley can be found around campus spreading good cheer with an impish smile.  Contact him at mbradle6@nd.edu.