Catholic identity in higher education
The University of Notre Dame is, perhaps, the nation’s most prestigious Catholic university. Because of this, she faces unique pressures from both the Church and the world. According to the Church—to whose teachings Notre Dame claims to adhere—the pursuit of the truth can only be finally realized through the lens of the Catholic faith. This leaves Notre Dame situated for true academic excellence, should she choose to pursue it.
But the metrics of excellence provided by the world do not recognize the value of the unfailing truths of Christ. Notre Dame is under constant temptation to seek affirmation from the world: many pressure her to secularize in order to garner worldly respect.
Beginning fall 2020, Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda served as provost for the university. After she stepped down, effective December 2021, the search began for a new chief academic officer.
In this world of opposing secular and religious pressures, the provost position is pivotal in determining the direction of the university’s academics. The provost must understand the mission of the university and apply that understanding to all decisions made for the university, especially the faculty hiring process.
Notre Dame’s mission embodies both the pursuit of the truth and the formation of students in the life of the Church. She seeks to form the “mind, body, and heart” of individuals.
Among elite universities of today, such language of formation of character and truth rooted in the divine is unique to Notre Dame. This can be seen on a surface level simply through comparing the language of such schools’ mission statements.
The mission statement of Rice University, where Dr. Miranda served as provost prior to her appointment to Notre Dame, goes as follows: “As a leading research university with a distinctive commitment to undergraduate education, Rice University aspires to pathbreaking research, unsurpassed teaching, and contribution to the betterment of our world. It seeks to fulfill this mission by cultivating a diverse community of learning and discovery that produces leaders across the spectrum of human endeavor.”
The language of this statement closely echoes that of nearly all elite institutions. For instance, Yale’s self-proclaimed mission is to “improv[e] the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.” Harvard states that its mission is to “advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge.” And Columbia University seeks “to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.”
Notre Dame is different.
Her mission boldly states, “A Catholic university draws its basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and from the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame wishes to contribute to this educational mission.”
For Notre Dame, research, promoting ideas, and advancing knowledge are only valuable insofar as they are a piece of this pursuit of the truth—a pursuit aided and enabled by the truths held by the Catholic Church. This makes the position of provost of Notre Dame particularly challenging and important.
The language which the university uses is uniquely Catholic. However, simply co-opting religious phrasing onto secular goals is not fulfilling the mission of a Catholic, research university. These words must not be uttered emptily.
Former Provost Miranda spoke often about the necessity of forming students’ minds, bodies, and hearts, but it is not clear that there was anything particularly Catholic about her vision of this commitment.
As cited in a previous Rover article, when asked the meaning of the phrase, “forming the mind, body and heart,” Miranda answered, “So I’ve only been at Notre Dame for a little over a year, but I think that means something a little bit different depending on who you ask. I encourage you to ask that question of any number of people. For me, it is about getting students to think about a life framework. We certainly want to help students figure out what they’re going to do—what they’re intellectually interested in and everything like that—but what we also want to do is help them figure out not just what do you want to do, but who do you want to be in this world, and how do you want to be in this world. There can be all kinds of answers to that.”
When asked further whether there is any vision of the good which the university is striving towards, Miranda responded, “So, I think it’s an interesting question. I don’t think so, but you might talk to some other people.”
Dr. Miranda displayed many admirable aspects of her character during her provost, including demonstrating a commitment to open conversation with students and offering regular open office hours during which any student could personally voice their concerns to her.
But, the next provost of Notre Dame must be something more. He or she must have a clear vision of how to attract academics who will come to Notre Dame because of the university’s Catholic commitment, not despite it: professors who will seek to educate their students through their academic excellence but also through their commitment to Christ.
If all Notre Dame faculty were not only excellent academics and teachers but also committed to seeking and relaying the truth by first accepting the truths of the Faith, this university would truly become the preeminent Catholic research institution which she longs to be.
Notre Dame has something to offer which the other top 20 universities in the nation do not. Her goals are not limited to secular prestige. In an elite intellectual landscape dominated by widespread atheism, relativism, and materialism, the administration of Notre Dame is situated to continue to assemble the greatest intellectuals of our time who wish to do more than bow to the secular intellectual currents of the day.
Notre Dame need not try to compete with Penn, Harvard, and Yale. Rather she should fully embrace the Catholic faith upon which she was founded, and hence fulfill her mission of forming the mind, body, and heart of its students. A provost who understands this mission of academic excellence through a spiritual understanding of the world is an important piece to becoming the great Catholic university which Notre Dame could be.
It is up to Notre Dame to decide which direction she will take with the forthcoming provost appointment: she can either try to compete with the Ivy-league schools on their terms of secular prestige or remain faithful to her mission of spreading the gospel of Christ and—by developing the great Catholic intellectual tradition—pursue true academic excellence.
W. Joseph DeReuil is a sophomore from St. Paul, MN studying philosophy and classics. He can often be found daydreaming about winter in Minnesota or reading Tolstoy’s depictions of winter in Russia (preferably during peace rather than war). You can contact the Provost Search Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org and contact him at email@example.com
Featured art: Unknown artist, “La Martiniere College, Lucknow”, appears in “Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré”, Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1885-1891