Dr. Phillip Muñoz is the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion and Public Life in the Department of Political Science at Notre Dame, and also serves as a Concurrent Associate Professor of Law. Muñoz first came to Notre Dame in the Fall of 2009 after serving as a Fellow at Princeton University while on leave from his regular faculty position at Tufts University. Through his founding of the Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and his invaluable leadership at the helm of the Tocqueville Program, Muñoz has advanced the goal of helping undergraduate students grapple with the most important questions of ethics and politics that face the world today.
The Rover interviewed Muñoz to discuss his extensive work since coming to Notre Dame, and to discover where he thinks his efforts will lead in the coming years.
Irish Rover:Why did you decide to begin teaching at Notre Dame?
I came to Notre Dame because…well, because it’s Notre Dame. This university is a special place. We are trying to do something here that has not really been done before: create a world class, modern Catholic research university. It was the Catholic mission that attracted me. Unlike many universities today, Notre Dame still retains her commitment to the reason for her existence. We still seek truth, attempt to reveal the beauty of creation and pursue goodness. Given that so many in higher education deny the existence of truth, ignore the possibility of real beauty, and reject the pursuit of goodness, Notre Dame has a noble calling. To be a part of the Notre Dame mission and to do what I can to make sure she pursues her mission is why I am here.
What led to your decision to take up the challenge of founding the Constitutional Studies minor?
I am the Founding Director of Notre Dame’s Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and the second director of Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life, but it would be a mistake to say that I built these programs alone. The idea for an undergraduate minor in Constitutional Studies came from Don Kommers, a now-retired professor in comparative constitutional law. The Tocqueville Program was the idea of Michael Zuckert, one of Notre Dame’s (and the nation’s) leading political theorists. They recruited me to Notre Dame, in part, to help implement their ideas.
Both programs strive to help Notre Dame, especially undergraduates, confront the most fundamental questions of ethics and politics, questions such as: What is the best way to live as an individual and a community? What is the best form of political community? What are the proper ends of government? What are rights and how are they best protected? Both programs seek to be at the core of the Notre Dame liberal arts experience, especially for those undergraduates who might not be enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters.
Our programs include the Constitutional Studies Minor and undergraduate and graduate classes belonging to it, lectures by visiting speakers and Notre Dame professors, conferences and symposia for the Notre Dame community and the public, and the undergraduate Tocqueville Fellowship Program.
Can you speak a bit to the experiences you have had as the Director of the Tocqueville Program? Whether about events you have helped sponsor, or an overall effect that the program has had on Notre Dame so far?
One of the most gratifying experiences in running the programs is the opportunity to help further our students’ education beyond the classroom. Through the generosity of benefactors, we have been able to bring to campus some of the nation’s leading authors and thinkers. Having our students listen to, learn from and engage with our visitors is a great privilege.
Perhaps a couple of examples might be helpful. Two years ago, the Constitutional Studies Minor set up a breakfast for a handful of undergraduate students with Marta Cartabia, a justice on Italy’s Constitutional Court. Two senior women, both of whom were going off to law school, wrote to me afterward about how much of an inspiration the justice was to them. A few weeks ago, our undergraduate Tocqueville Fellows enjoyed the opportunity to have breakfast with Clarence Thomas. We bought them copies of Thomas’s autobiography for Christmas, and now they had a chance to spend the morning with the Justice. It’s extraordinarily gratifying to help bring about such opportunities for undergraduates.
What do you envision as the future of these two programs?
One of our projects for the immediate future is to further develop our undergraduate Tocqueville Fellows program. This year we selected ten undergraduate fellows. They come to our events, dine with our speakers, and two of our fellows even planned their own “Professor for Lunch” events. The first was the “Can Notre Dame Women Have It All?” Professors for Lunch event that drew over 140 students—on a Football Friday afternoon!—last September. I hope to build the program into something of an intellectual home for those undergraduates captivated by the world of ideas.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a sophomore Political Science major who, as a Constitutional Studies minor, is grateful for Professor Muñoz’s tireless work on the program. Email her at email@example.com.