In the January 16, 2016, bulletin from the alumni group Sycamore Trust, Sycamore discusses faculty hiring practices at Notre Dame. Emphasizing the sharp decline in standards over the last 20 years for maintaining a “preponderant number” of “Catholic intellectuals” on the university faculty, Sycamore reports that the university “administration has effectively transformed the Mission Statement standard from one ensuring Catholic identity to one ensuring its loss.”
It is a bleak picture indeed.
Many scholars, commentators, and Catholic intellectuals have preached the importance of a vibrant and faithful faculty. In Pope Saint John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as Sycamore cites, the charge for Catholic universities to maintain a faithful majority of professors and administrators figures prominently.
Overwhelmingly, the material I have considered regarding Catholic faculty (and trust me, I have read plenty) focuses on liberal arts faculty. This is not surprising given both the centuries-old tradition of the humanities and the way liberal arts command a different intellectual posture than STEM fields and more vocational degrees like those in business.
Sycamore reports that from 1986 through 2007, the university Fact Book, which ceased publication in 2007, has documented a decline in Catholic faculty across the university from 67 percent in 1986 to 53 percent in 2007. The breakdown by college is as follows: Arts and Letters is down from 72 to 54 percent; Science is down from 49 to 37 percent; Engineering is down from 63 to 52 percent; Law is up from 72 to 83 percent; Architecture is up from 44 to 53 percent; and Business is up from 63 to 64 percent.
Reading this report—however outdated the numbers may be—stunned me. Why did Arts and Letters show the steepest decline in Catholic faculty? What does the observed decline in Catholic liberal arts hiring say about academia more broadly? What about Catholicism is perceived as not meshing with liberal arts scholarship, but works with business and law?
Before I continue, let us pause to make some important distinctions. Simply “checking the box” as Catholic when being hired at Notre Dame does not, as Sycamore emphasizes, always indicate that a professor mixes faith and professional life. But many professors who are not Catholic are devoted to other faith traditions that not only inform their own scholarship but also contribute positively to the religious character of Our Lady’s University. There is plenty of room for uncertainty in the numbers, and it goes both ways.
Now, back to business.
Let’s look specifically at the College of Business, which was second only to the Law School in the university’s 2007 report for the most Catholic faculty with a total of 64 percent. Mendoza, voted the number one business school several times over the last several years, has been such a popular choice for students that the university announced a cap on business admissions in 2014.
I cannot help but suspect that the appeal of Catholic social teaching is contributing to both the success and the religious makeup of Mendoza. With teachings like the preferential option for the poor and emphasis on sustainability, secular society can readily find value in a philosophical framework that, although Christian, upholds human dignity and aims to promote the common good rather than just turn profits. (Of course, this is moot if the Christian baker turns down baking a cake for a same-sex wedding or Hobby Lobby makes a public stance against covering employees’ contraceptives and abortifacients, but that is for another column.)
This is not to suggest that other colleges have cowardly faculty or that being a business professor of faith is so much easier. Rather, select Church teachings on social justice are palatable to secular society because their good fruit is often readily visible and superficially in line with secular humanist standards.
I am cautiously thrilled that Mendoza houses so many Catholic faculty members, some of whom I had the pleasure of working with on the Rover, others whom I would often see at daily Mass on campus, and others who received glowing recommendations from my friends and brother. I hope and pray that these professors continue to attract more faithful scholars and inspire their students to be conscientious, Christ-loving leaders.
Turning to liberal arts fields, the place for faith—if there even is such a thing in the contemporary academy—is harder to locate. So many professors with whom I have worked have spoken candidly about the politics of faith in academia. One expressed frustration and concern about how in most fields, he observed that the broader academy does not take seriously most scholarship that includes expression of faith. Surely this is not just limited to the liberal arts, but perhaps it is felt most sorely in classrooms studying Dante, the Reformation, or Renaissance art without calling upon the history and teachings of the Catholic Church to inform discussion.
Scholars much smarter than I—folks like British thinker Christopher Dawson and Notre Dame’s own Alasdair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen—have much to say about the Western university’s loss of vocation. Elizabeth Corey laments in her essay, “Learning in Love,” from the April 2014 issue of First Things, the same utilitarian and careerist approach to education at the heart of much of their criticism. She notes the overuse of empty buzzwords like “mental empowerment” and “the creativity to think outside the box,” in addition to the deluge of “skills” language that is invoked so often in weak attempts to convince students that their studies in the liberal arts will help in future careers.
But as any student who has spent time with an impassioned professor can attest, there is something greater than the cultivation of an amorphous skillset happening in the classroom. Corey expounds on the importance of what she calls “the who question”: Who was the first to show us that there is something missing from our lives that we can begin to recover through study? To show us that love permeates all aspects of study, from one’s love of subject to the love that grows between student and professor, and that in that love we can glimpse the eternal?
The popularity of such departments as Saint Thomas’ Catholic Studies or Notre Dame’s philosophy, theology, and Program of Liberal Studies is a testament to this. Humans are by nature seekers looking for truth and beauty, and it is in liberal arts at a Catholic university that students and professors can journey together towards something grander and more lasting than secular study allows.
Students in business have a public arena in which to witness at least part of their faith. Where ought liberal arts students to look? If faculty as a whole struggle—or fail entirely—to integrate faith and scholarship in their classrooms and subsequently hire other like-minded professors to their departments, students will miss out on precious opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually. New generations of faithful scholars will continue to dwindle if students lack brave and passionate mentors.
I do not know what the solution is—do we ask professors in all kinds of universities to martyr themselves and risk their jobs and reputations? Do we continue to pressure places like Notre Dame to demand more Catholic hiring and hope they respond favorably? Do we groom graduate students to teach at small but faithful Catholic colleges and create a large network of tiny strongholds? I do not know. University politics are ugly and complicated. But if most of the numbers are indeed dwindling as Sycamore reports, something needs to change.
As an aspiring academic, I am fortunate to have the example of many devout professors and current graduate students who will, God willing, go on to be fantastic professors in their own right. The question is whether there will be a place for such folks at Notre Dame in the years to come.
Lilia Draime is a 2015 graduate of Notre Dame and is currently a first year graduate fellow in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, MN. She is and always will be the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes, and the dreamer of improbable dreams. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.