Why Notre Dame cannot ignore the instrumental goodness her secular reputation

In contemporary debates surrounding Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, one often hears laments that Notre Dame sacrifices too much in the name of her prized prestige. The reality of Notre Dame’s failures and the general perception of prestige together make the University’s secular reputation an easy target for those who rightly see that Our Lady’s University often does not have her priorities straight. 

But there is another perspective on prestige worth considering that focuses upon its immense instrumental goodness as a means of bringing bright, talented minds with the potential to be formed to our campus. This goodness of prestige cannot be ignored, because without it, Notre Dame could not attract elite students who lack prior formation in the faith, abandoning them to secular universities.

Of course, this is not as simple as assigning prestige a high value. If there were not a real conflict between a university’s reputation and the pursuit of a Catholic university’s mission,the aforementioned critiques of Notre Dame’s abandonment of her Catholic mission in favor of prestige would not be nearly as compelling and necessary as they truly are. The standards by which Notre Dame’s reputation is judged by outside institutions often include criteria that run directly counter to Notre Dame’s attempts to live out her Catholic calling.

The outgrowths of these criteria’s influence on Notre Dame’s prestige can be seen in many of the deviations from Notre Dame’s Catholic mission upon which the Rover and others consistently report. As Notre Dame allows fear of harm to her reputation outweigh the zeal for her mission in many of the University’s policy decisions, it is easy to see why some who rightly care about her Catholic identity desire to eschew the pursuit of prestige altogether to avoid compromising her true mission.

But the benefits of prestige are too great to entirely shun the consideration of reputation. Prospective students, as a whole, care a lot about prestige, even in its most superficial sense. In a recent study, about two-thirds of college students admitted to caring about the ranking of the school in the college admissions process. Moreover, 85% of students with high SAT scores admitted to considering a university’s ranking in deciding what college to attend. 

The reality that prospective students—particularly high-achieving prospective students—care about prestige means that the group of students who consider attending a given university depend in large part on something as ridiculous as a university’s ranking. Therefore, Notre Dame’s top-twenty ranking lets her compete for a different set of students than several other Catholic universities against which Notre Dame is routinely compared unfavorably in terms of Catholic identity. 

This different reach Notre Dame has because of her ranking—however meaningless it actually is in terms of revealing quality of education—means that the set of students who in general consider Notre Dame are the same high-achieving students who consider the most prestigious secular universities. 

Why is this a good thing?

First, it is a perfectly reasonable assumption that these students who performed very well in certain predictive measures in high school are the sort of sharp and inquisitive minds that are necessary for a university’s truth-seeking goals. 

Secondly and more importantly, the university is not merely a place where people come to begin life based on the priorities they have already formed in their adolescence and high school. It is a place where moral education continues, meaning that one’s priorities in life keep on being molded once one comes to college. A university is not the beginning of independent life, like many conceive of it, but a place where young people continue to be habituated towards what is good. Because of her Catholic character, Notre Dame is unique among the schools with elite reputations in offering plentiful and accessible opportunities for a student to immerse himself in authentic Catholic formation.

If Notre Dame were no longer elite, then students who are looking to attend an elite university would not have any opportunity to attend a school that will give them a good chance of encountering the formation which their hearts need. Of course, one could criticize elite students’ desire for prestige. This critique is correct in that students ought to care more about how a school will form them than how it is regarded when choosing a school. But by and large, they do not. The reality of living in a world that is often hostile to the Faith is that the number of students who have the right priorities in choosing which college to attend is negligible when considered as part of the whole.

Thus, if the misguided, high-performing children of America are to have any chance of receiving a proper formation at college, then there must be an elite university with an authentically Catholic mission. As of now, Notre Dame is the only such option. If Our Lady’s University were to completely abandon the maintenance of her secular prestige, then there would be no such option, consigning a great number of bright students (including many Catholics) to attending a different elite university where they will have very little chance at all of encountering the necessary conditions for flourishing. 

Thus, Notre Dame must tend its reputation, even among the prestige-mediating institutions that stand opposed to her Catholic mission. But of course, this regard for her secular standing can never justify the slightest deviation from her mission as a Catholic university. 

In this way, Notre Dame walks on a tight-rope between secular prestige and Catholic identity—it should not abandon either. Keeping balance in such a situation is difficult, and falls are inevitable. Because Notre Dame’s first mission is to do the work of a Catholic institution, sacrificing the goodness of prestige will always be preferable to any compromising of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. 

But one should not, because of this, pretend that Notre Dame’s prestige does not serve a great role. There cannot be any degree of laxity in holding Notre Dame to her Catholic mission. But in situations where Notre Dame is clearly acting to preserve its prestige in a way that does not clearly contradict its mission as a Catholic university, it is worth remembering what good Notre Dame’s reputation does in forming students who otherwise would be left with a much less certain path to moral development at a secular university. 

Luke Thompson is a junior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. He is enjoying the balmy South Bend winter as opposed to the frigid temperatures and mountains of snow back home in Arizona (61.4 inches in January alone). Reach out with any questions or comments at lthomps7@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rice