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Decline in Catholic faculty challenges ND

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a three-part series examining the role of Catholic faculty at Notre Dame.

To University President Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s distinctive Catholic mission has three crucial dimensions – grounding education in strong moral character, promoting areas of research like ethics and religious history and fueling a desire to serve the Catholic Church.

None of these commitments, he said in his Sept. 26 address to the faculty, can be realized without a sufficiently Catholic faculty.

“We can succeed in advancing these aspects of the University’s mission only if we have, among our faculty, a critical number of devoted followers of the Catholic faith,” he said.

Forty years ago, schools like Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s were “bursting at the seam with religious and priests,” said Father Robert Sullivan, director of the Erasmus Institute.

But this is no longer the case, he said, and the University now faces the challenge of both recruiting Catholic professors and identifying lay people who can continue Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.

Though the number of undergraduate Catholics has remained relatively consistent at approximately 85 percent, the percentage of Catholic faculty has gradually decreased during the past 20 years. In the 1985-86 school year, Catholics composed 65 percent of the faculty.

That number now hovers around 54 percent, according to statistics from the Office of Institutional Research.

To actively combat this decline, Jenkins announced in his faculty address the creation of an initiative to recruit Catholic scholars to teaching and research positions at the University. Along with these Keough-Hesburgh Professorships – which will be funded by a donation from the Keough family – a new office will be established with the sole focus of identifying scholars who would be eligible academically to teach at the University and will contribute to the Catholic mission.

Sullivan, who will direct this office, said the University “has a commitment in its mission statement to a preponderance, a preponderant number, of Catholic intellectuals on the faculty.”

This is Notre Dame’s first effort, however, “to seek these people rather than sift through applications or maybe hear things by word of mouth,” he said.

Sullivan said his immediate goal is to maintain the University’s current percentage of Catholic faculty. A figure below that, he said, would call into question the maintenance of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.

Dean Mark Roche of the College of Arts and Letters worked with Sullivan over the past year to create a database of names of Catholic scholars who could potentially teach at Notre Dame. Since Roche became dean nine years ago, he has set a goal for new faculty hires to be at least 50 percent Catholic.

But that’s just the minimum. The expected goal of new hires each year is 55 percent Catholic with a desired goal of 60 percent, Roche said.

Last year, the College of Arts and Letters fell below its minimum goal of 50 percent for the second time in nine years, he said. With the creation of the database of Catholic scholars, Roche hopes to increase that figure.

“There is, I believe, an increasing challenge, and if we don’t meet it, it will diminish the distinctive identity of Notre Dame,” Roche said. “That’s why I wanted to be more proactive in trying to meet it.”

How could a university widely regarded as the most prominent Catholic institution in the U.S. have such a challenge in attracting Catholic professors?

In large part, it’s due to significant percentages of Catholic faculty leaving or retiring over the years, Roche said.

Older Catholic faculty members hired when most new hires were Catholic are retiring, he said, and not being replaced by an equal number of new Catholic hires. On average, well over 50 percent of faculty members who are retiring are Catholic.

And attracting professors who are both talented and Catholic is a challenge. In many cases the University is asking these professors to leave departments or schools that are more highly ranked than Notre Dame, Roche said.

“In some cases our biggest hurdle is the quality of Notre Dame,” he said. “There was one Catholic we tried to hire last year who was very tempted to come, but he was at a top-five department and in the end couldn’t get his arms around the idea of leaving that top-five department and coming to Notre Dame.”

While the University has been successful in bringing a number of Catholic scholars from highly ranked schools like Harvard and Stanford, Roche said these professors would not have left their former schools if Notre Dame had not sought them out.

Sullivan said Notre Dame faces a long-term problem in the hiring of Catholic scholars partly because Notre Dame students, as well as students from other Catholic universities, are not entering into academic professions.

“Something around six percent of Notre Dame undergraduates go on to become professors,” Sullivan said. “That’s a pipeline problem. In most comparable institutions the figures would be more like 11 or 12 percent.”

The importance of maintaining a Catholic faculty has been a hallmark of both the Hesburgh and Malloy presidencies. The second part of this series will explore the historical context of attracting Catholic faculty and their role in Notre Dame’s mission.