Brodhead To Notre Dame: “Don’t Mess Up”

On November 4, 2014, Richard Brodhead, the President of Duke University and the former Dean of Yale College (1993-2004), delivered a remarkable address in the University Forum series, “What Do Notre Dame Graduates Need to Know?”  Brodhead’s message to Notre Dame needs to be taken seriously.

A distinguished scholar and an educational reformer with a record of local, national, and international leadership, Brodhead oversaw a major curricular review of core requirements at Yale University.  His signature innovation at Duke University has been DukeEngage, a program of immersive service that involves more than 300 students every summer in on-site learning projects in the United States and overseas.

One might wrongly have expected Brodhead, as an impeccably credentialed, remarkably successful agent for curricular change at other elite universities, to voice support for major changes in the core requirements at Notre Dame too.  He did not.

Instead, both in his prepared remarks and in the discussion after his lecture, Brodhead stated his great admiration for the current core requirements at Notre Dame.  The current core and the rationales given for it “deserve high praise,” he said.  Describing the stated rationales for the requirements as “excellent,” “eloquent,” and “full of spiritual aspiration,” Brodhead opined that students and faculty should “read and reread” them.  The current core at Notre Dame is, in Brodhead’s frankly stated view, “way better than Duke’s and Yale’s.”

He told the members of the core curriculum review committee to keep in mind that “You are starting from strength.”  And he warned them, “Don’t mess up.”

“Don’t mess up.”  To this admonition, Brodhead added the obvious reminder: “It’s possible, after all, to do that.”

How might the University of Notre Dame “mess up”?  While the ways are perhaps countless, Brodhead suggested two that I would like to underscore.

First of all, Notre Dame might undermine the Catholic character of its education, depart from its inherited ideal of “educating heart and mind,” and betray its Catholic mission for the Church and society.  As Brodhead emphasized, Notre Dame’s “differentiator” is its Catholic character.  That’s what makes the University of Notre Dame “distinctive” among the great universities.

Rather than weakening the university’s Catholic character in order to resemble more closely its secular counterparts, Brodhead urged, the University of Notre Dame should remain true to itself.  It should resist the impulse to copy other universities.  Citing the examples of the core curricula at Brown University, Yale, and Duke, Brodhead noted their manifold differences.  Such differences mark the greatest universities and their particular traditions of education, he said.  The result of any desirable change in the core curriculum here at ND should therefore be “to make Notre Dame more, not less, Notre Dame.”

When asked specifically about the current requirements (two courses each) in philosophy and theology, Brodhead did not answer directly, but he repeated the need for Notre Dame to remain distinctively Catholic.

In this regard one might strengthen Brodhead’s response by observing that requirements in philosophy and theology are essential hallmarks of Catholic higher education, which aims at the knowledge of God to the extent that God can be known through reason (philosophy) and revelation (theology).  Every major Catholic college and university in the country—Boston College, Fordham, Georgetown, CUA, Marquette, SLU—has requirements in theology, and virtually all have requirements in both philosophy and theology.

As Professor Cyril O’Regan argued in the University Forum lecture that preceded Richard Brodhead’s, the study of theology is so intrinsic to Catholic higher education that Notre Dame’s Catholic character as a university is inconceivable without it.  “The burden of proof [to the contrary] is entirely on the side of anyone who would dispute that claim,” according to O’Regan.  The rationale approved in 2005 by Notre Dame’s Academic Council states: “No Catholic university can give an account of itself as an intellectual endeavor apart from theology.”

The University of Notre Dame is currently the flagship Catholic university in the United States and perhaps in the world.  It has an internationally renowned Department of Theology.  Notre Dame could “mess up” by renouncing its claim to leadership in Catholic higher education through the elimination or reduction of undergraduate requirements in theology.  It could fail to recognize, protect, and enhance the unique place that theology currently occupies in its curricular requirements.

How else might Notre Dame “mess up”?

It could set aside its current core curriculum, which is “way better than Duke’s and Yale’s,” and replace it with a new core curriculum based on isolated “skills” and “competencies” detached from the disciplines of learning represented in Notre Dame’s different Departments and programs.

Brodhead was not asked his opinion about such a curriculum, but he explicitly distanced himself from Duke’s own current core requirements, which were already in place, he said, when he became president there in 2004.  Brodhead echoed the word of students at Duke who refer to Duke’s core requirements as a “bingo” sheet of overlapping “areas of knowledge” and “modes of inquiry.”  No matter how the core curriculum is defined, Brodhead noted, students will tend toward the “false motivation” of simply fulfilling requirements.

Against such a mentality, against “the empty chatter that passes for thought,” and in opposition to the “increasingly impoverished view of the value of higher education,” Brodhead called for an energetic defense of education in the liberal arts in keeping with a “philosophy of education” aimed at the cultivation of “deep and enduring habits of mind.”  Precisely such “habits of mind” belong to intellectual formation within the academic disciplines.

Notre Dame’s current core curriculum has 10 content areas, for which designated departments and programs are responsible to provide course offerings in keeping with the university’s Catholic mission and the rationales for each area.  The attachment of undergraduate study to the different academic disciplines is thus ensured, making it possible for students to discover and to choose their major(s) and minors, while becoming familiar with a range of different possibilities.

The integration of knowledge across fields takes time, as Brodhead argued.  It requires personal synthesis and often includes surprising moments of self-discovery when students suddenly realize that they like a subject, feel drawn to a kind of work, possess a talent for X or Y.  In this creative process of integration, students frequently switch or combine majors.  Brodhead cited Dr. Paul Farmer, MD, a Catholic graduate of Duke University and of Harvard Medical School, as an example of someone whose process of intellectual integration led him from biology to anthropology to liberation theology and finally to his present work as a global humanitarian.

Dr. Farmer’s Catholicism is telling.  If Notre Dame preserves and enhances its current core curriculum through a new, firm decision for what is best in its own Catholic tradition, it will continue to be and to become the flagship university not only for other Catholic universities, but also for other institutions of higher education.  If it “messes up” by copying others, it will no longer lead.

“Don’t mess up.”


Sister Ann Astell is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where she was appointed in 2007, after serving as Professor of English and chair of Medieval Studies at Purdue University.  Contact her at

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  • Larry Didier

    It’s always wise to be cautious about allowing your curriculum to be adjusted too much to the current “fads” in education, but to this point I am not worried that ND will “mess up” in this regard. It is esp. important that faculty in Theology and Philosophy, including the good Sister, continue their solid work of educating students in these two disciplines. These foundations will provide a solid foundation for the widely respected volunteer/comm’ty srvc programs in which ND students have been so remarkably involved in the past decades, and will provide direction for all students who move into other fields of endeavor after graduation. I still find my 12 hrs. each in both Theology and Philosophy to have to have great relevance for me. Admittedly, most of my work career was spent in secondary education and then human services, but those programs have also had a tremendous impact on my personal life, as well. I will be forever grateful to ND for preparing me to work and live in a changing and sometimes very challenging world.

  • Harry Schwartz

    Twice recently I’ve read this nonsense about “the flagship Catholic university in the United States”. Such self-importance. Let it be known that this designation, while apparently widely believed on campus and maybe among alumni, is virtually unknown outside of that insular group.

    While ND has generally offered excellent educational opportunities, it’s reputation among the general public in the US is built on football and Irish-ness not theology or even education. Just as a reminder: ND is not even run by the flagship Catholic male religious educational order. And the first Catholic university in the US – a more likely contender for the claim to being a flagship institution if such a claim isn’t just plain silly – was educating Catholic men before ND’s founder was born. That university is still going strong – with, it must be pointed out, a much less sheltered and parochial view of what a required theology education looks like.

    The fact that ND is a destination, located geographically in the midst of absolutely nothing else known for intellectual endeavor, may contribute to this arrogance (a decidedly un-Catholic value). After all, being an isolated enclave devoted to education and sports, can create a sense of community and, absent something to ground the community in reality (such as losing in competition), a shared sense of superiority. This sense of superiority ironically arises in part from ND’s failure in the area of fully involving its students in the rich cultural and intellectual life of a major city such as Washington, D.C., New York, or Chicago.

    ND is undoubtedly important in the lives of those who learn, live, and work there. It is far less important to anyone else (with the possible exceptions of diehard sports fans and Irish-Americans sufficiently ignorant of their heritage to believe that ND somehow represents something about being Irish).

    Given this more grounded view, it may improve or degrade the curriculum but changing the theology requirement is hardly an event of veil-rending importance.

    • Joseph Pio

      Perhaps people have differing interpretations of the word “flagship” than you do. Notre Dame is a university with extraordinarily high name-recognition throughout the country, an academic ranking that consistently sets it among the top-20 in the US, and a respectable religious tradition rooted in the charism of its founding congregation (the Congregation of Holy Cross). These reasons, among many others, make Notre Dame a standout school; many people do actually affiliate Notre Dame with being both academically strong and Catholic. Whether or not it is “the premier” Catholic institution is a fruitless debate.

      I implore that everyone who cares about Catholic higher education should be interested in how, or whether, Notre Dame is adhering to its Catholic Identity. Personally I would hate to see it go the route of the many other universities that drop their religious affiliation, or retain it in name only. Discussions about accomplishing this goal would actually be beneficial; I’d argue much more helpful than bantering about whether it is a “flagship.”

      • Harry Schwartz

        Why should it matter to “everyone who cares about Catholic higher education” that ND tinkers with a couple undergrad theology courses? (1) Doing so does not mean that ND is abandoning its Catholic identity – all the wailing and gnashing of teeth is a bit early on that score. (2) And it simply does not affect anyone outside of ND’s walls.

        There will always be fine Catholic universities of equal or – heresy – greater academic authority and Catholic orthodoxy. (The Catholic University of America somewhat notoriously fired Fr. Charles Curran, a respected theologian, for not toeing the Church’s party line.) That ND toes that line or doesn’t, simply doesn’t matter to most of the rest of the world. In fact, it matters to far fewer people in the world at large than the point spread on any given fall Saturday.

        As a matter of curiosity, which are the “many other universities” that retain their religious affiliation in name only?

  • NDaniels

    It is difficult to”mess up” if you begin with truth and end with truth. Knowledge is never based upon a false assumption. In fact, even recognizing a false assumption is, in essence, a false assumption, is based upon truth.

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