As I contemplate graduating from Notre Dame in May, I am beset by memories—memories of how I have changed and of how Notre Dame has changed in my eyes.
For example: I received my first haircut at the age of three in the basement barbershop in LaFun, from Frank. I recently discovered, in a plastic bag in the memory box that I (and my mom) keep under my bed, some locks of my hair that were cut off during that first visit. A couple of weeks ago, I received my who-knows-what-number haircut from Frank in the basement of LaFun. The hair in the plastic bag is blonde; my hair now is brown, and there is less of it.
When I was younger, my mom would often bring my siblings and me to campus to walk around the lakes and feed the ducks. I enjoyed feeding the ducks and was terrified of the geese. Today, I sometimes watch other little kids feeding the ducks as I run around the lakes—but the geese still scare me.
I also remember visiting my older siblings during their time at Notre Dame, beginning in 2000. On rare occasions, we got to visit the dining hall with them. I remember being amazed by the variety of food, and I could not believe that students had access to an endless supply of ice cream and frozen yogurt. Today, I am still amazed by the dining halls (more so now that I live off campus), but the endless ice cream strikes me as more of a mixed blessing.
None of these memories reflect a different Notre Dame than the one I encounter today. Students still get their haircut in Lafun, the campus is as beautiful as ever, and students still gather in the same dining halls to share meals.
When I was young, these things were all that I saw when I came to campus. Notre Dame seemed like a perfect place, and college seemed like the best thing ever—four years of living with your friends, eating nice food, going to Notre Dame football games, and going to class a lot less than you did in grade school.
At that time, I did not see below the surface, and I understood very little about college or Catholic higher education. Now, having spent four years here as a student, I have a better understanding of what has and has not changed at Notre Dame, and a more accurate sense of what is most important about this place.
Something I did not appreciate very deeply as a child but do appreciate now is the religious life that permeates campus. The chapels in every dorm, the ubiquitous opportunities to receive the sacraments, the religious symbolism, the Grotto, and the Basilica: these things are of utmost importance to Notre Dame and to many students’ experience of Notre Dame. These things were present here when I was a child, they are present here now, and they will continue to be present here long after I am gone.
These things, which constitute the “Catholic neighborhood” at Notre Dame, important as they are, do not make Notre Dame a Catholic university.
Some of the things that do contribute to making Notre Dame a Catholic university, however, have changed. Essential to a Catholic university are the makeup of its faculty and the content taught in the classrooms. The latter depends heavily on the former. Between 1986 and 2007 (the last year data is publicly available), the percentage of faculty at the university identifying as Catholic declined from 67 percent to 53 percent. The decline in the College of Arts and Letters is particularly concerning: from 72 percent to 54 percent. Given that there is a difference between checking the box “Catholic” on hiring paperwork and allowing the faith to permeate all aspects of one’s life, including one’s teaching and scholarship, this decline is even more disheartening.
These trends in faculty hiring need to be reversed if Notre Dame is not going to continue to become an image (though an imperfect and academically inferior one) of its “peer” schools in the Ivy League. Similarly, ongoing and future assessments of the core curriculum should be focused on producing a coherent core that will expose every Notre Dame student to the essential aspects of the Catholic tradition. The focus should not be so much on “ways of knowing” as it is on “knowing,” plain and simple.
It is still possible for students to receive a genuine Catholic education here, but in general Notre Dame is becoming, as Professor Fred Freddoso said, more and more of a “public school” in a “Catholic neighborhood.”
A common criticism I have received during my time with the Rover, from faculty and students, is that our paper is run by “complainers” who want to find something wrong with the university to whine about. I have encountered this attitude even amongst fellow students who are generally sympathetic to our concerns; they feel that some efforts are just complaints and do not provide any solutions.
But in response to those who would criticize the Rover, or faculty who sympathize with the Rover, as “whiners,” I would point to some additional aspects of Notre Dame that have changed since I was a child.
When I was born, there was no Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame. The Center, started by Professor David Solomon and now directed by Professor Carter Snead, is a source of vitality for the intellectual life of this campus. Similarly, the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life is a recent addition to campus. Both of these institutes (and they are not alone, but serve as prime examples) play an important role in filling the hole left by the deterioration of the Catholic education provided to students at Notre Dame today.
Similarly, students have brought about positive change at the university during my lifetime. When I was a child, there was no Irish Rover. There was no Identity Project, and there was no Students for Child-Oriented Policy. These groups were founded by students in response to various problems facing the university: Father Jenkins’ approval of the Vagina Monologues, for example, or the legalization of same-sex marriage.
It may be true that these groups began in response to something wrong at Notre Dame, and in that sense perhaps one could wish these groups need not exist at Notre Dame.
I think this attitude fails to do justice to the good that such groups do for this campus. They do not exist simply to complain about what is lacking at the university. Both the projects driven by faculty dedicated to the university’s Catholic mission and those initiated by students of the same mind contribute greatly to the formation of educated and committed Catholic leaders—people who, by their witness, can change our culture step by step and choice by choice.
In indulging in a bit of reflection on my memories of Notre Dame, it becomes clear that some things about this place are not changing—the Catholic neighborhood. It is also clear that some things, those things that might truly constitute Notre Dame as a Catholic university, are changing and changing for the worse. Yet, despite the change for the worse, and perhaps even because of it, some things are changing for the better, and there is much still to fight for.
It has been an honor for me to be able to write for the Rover for the last four years. Thank you, readers, for your support, and thank you to all those faculty, students, and staff who continue to make Notre Dame a place worth fighting for.
Tim Bradley is a senior. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.