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Students debate faculty hiring policy

Claire Reising | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Three students debated conflicting opinions on the importance of hiring and retaining Catholic faculty at a town hall meeting convened by the Student Senate Monday.

Senior Brian Boyd and sophomore Kathleen Donahue argued in favor of increasing Catholic faculty, but senior Amy Meyers cautioned of the negative consequences of preferential hiring.

Student input has been lacking so far in the discussion about preferential hiring of Catholic faculty, said Carol Hendrickson, chair of the Student Senate Academic Affairs Committee.

Boyd said about two-thirds of retiring professors are Catholic. If current trends continue, he said, the University will lose its Catholic majority of faculty for the first time in its history.

He added that a lack of Catholic professors would quickly impact students’ experiences and formation at Notre Dame. In addition to being effective teachers, Boyd said, professors should be “models of lived faith” and should present some disciplines, especially humanities, from a Catholic perspective.

“We have to have people who we genuinely look up to, not just as scholars, but as people who know how to integrate their academics with their faith life,” Boyd said.

While Boyd deemed Catholic professors necessary for students’ moral formation, Meyers said she fears preferential hiring could have “unintended consequences.”

Meyers argued that University President Father John Jenkins’ goal of maintaining Notre Dame’s Catholic identity might conflict with his other goals of being an “excellent undergraduate university” and an “outstanding research institute.”

“My fear is that this particular initiative will actually undermine our status both as a research institute and an undergraduate university,” she said.

She said that hiring a Catholic-majority faculty may be difficult because only about six percent of faculty from the nation’s leading universities are Catholic. In today’s globalized world, she said, universities may draw professors from regions with traditionally low Catholic populations, such as Asia and the Middle East.

“By actively privileging people who are Catholic, you risk being labeled as unfriendly or unwelcome to people from these rich applicant pools,” she said. “I think that label would be very un-Catholic, and it wouldn’t show our values of inclusion and respect of diversity at Notre Dame.”

Additionally, faculty who list themselves as Catholic may not practice their faith, she said.

Donahue, however, said that a Catholic-majority faculty would enhance – not inhibit – students’ academic experiences, educating “not only the minds, but the hearts of students.” She asserted that the faculty is more important for the University’s identity than the campus’s religious symbols.

“Even if you tore down Touchdown Jesus tomorrow, our Catholic identity would still remain,” she said. “Because this is an institute of higher education, we must look first and foremost to the classroom, and by extension, to the faculty.”

The faculty can shape the University’s Catholic character, Donahue said, by influencing the curriculum, giving academic lectures and advising students.

She cited the removal of the CORE program as an example of a loss of courses with a Catholic tradition.

“The secularization of religious universities in the past, whether they are Catholic, Baptist or Lutheran, has all begun with the faculty losing interest in the religious identity of their institution,” Donahue said. “This is precisely the current case at Notre Dame.”

Students showed mixed opinions about the issue, both through answers to Hendrickson’s questions and responses to straw polls. Although most students supported the maintenance of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, they disagreed on whether the preferential hiring of Catholic faculty was necessary to achieve this goal.

Freshman Soeren Palumbo said Notre Dame’s Catholic history and tradition are too strong for the composition of the faculty to have a large impact.

“I don’t think a university like Notre Dame is ever going to lose that Catholic character that is so engrained in the school,” he said.

When Hendrickson asked how having Catholic faculty would impact both their academics and faith, the audience gave a variety of responses. Several science students said their professor’s religion does not matter, and some students said they could not even identify their professors’ religion. Others, however, emphasized the importance of integrating different components of one’s life, such as faith and academics.

“I think we fall into a very grave error when we try to compartmentalize our lives and ourselves so much. Our academic life and our faith life have a lot to do with each other,” senior Mary Elizabeth Walter said. “Your faith life should influence, in some way, the way you perceive your thought and your academics.”

Donahue added that one’s years at Notre Dame are important preparation for building a faith foundation for life after college.

Hendrickson said the Senate will summarize the meeting’s result into a report and send it to the Faculty Senate and administrators. She added that the faculty are interested in students’ opinions and that a polarized student opinion may have influence.

“The kind of questions we asked about the impact in the classroom really are something that [the administration] wouldn’t be able to measure unless they asked us, versus the professors,” Hendrickson said. “So I think those responses will be important.”