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Research is not the enemy

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Regarding Prof. Rice’s editorial in Monday’s Observer (“Catholic identity,”?Jan. 19):

I generally enjoy the articles by Prof. Rice, as he brings a good Catholic point of view to the editorial pages. However, as a practicing Catholic and a grad student, I must disagree with his opinion that increasing Notre Dame’s research initiatives and academic stature will only decrease its Catholic identity.

When Prof. Rice claimed that Notre Dame and other schools have funded research mainly through increases in undergraduate tuition and fees, I had an awful vision of myself – a mosquito of a grad student, fattening myself on the blood and sweat of unfortunate undergraduates and their parents! I must protest at this portrayal.

Graduate students in my discipline (mechanical engineering) generally receive a tuition waiver and a stipend. I could not find exact percentages, but I know that much of this money comes from external grants. According to an April 16, 2008 press release, Notre Dame has received over $90 million in external research funding. My own advisor’s research is funded from sources as diverse as the Indiana 21st Century Fund and the U.S. Army.

It’s true that tuition increases have hit everyone hard in the past few years. However, with the abundance of external funding, I feel it is unfair to blame tuition increases on ND’s research initiatives. Call me an idealist, but I believe that Notre Dame’s Catholic identity is not doomed by its goal to become a great research university. I was most saddened by the way that good scholarship and strong faith are portrayed as inherently conflicting.

Prof. Rice bemoans the lack of Catholic professors at Notre Dame, but Catholic professors don’t exactly grow on trees. I for one appreciate Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, especially since academia can sometimes seem like the sole province of committed skeptics.

According to a July 2007 article in Harvard Magazine, 37 percent of professors at “elite research universities” are atheist or agnostic. It doesn’t take a math Ph.D. to figure that of the remaining 63 percent, there are probably a small minority who are Catholics, and an even smaller minority who are actually practicing their Catholic faith. This gives Notre Dame a fairly small pool of candidates to choose from. However, I think Notre Dame is in a unique position to help remedy this situation.

By increasing research funding and recruiting Catholic graduate students, Notre Dame can create a pool of talented Catholic academics who could become the ND professors of the future. It might take some time, but Notre Dame could actually reverse the trend of fewer Catholic professors by increased research funding. I envision a cooperation with other Catholic universities to build up this talent pool of Catholics in academia. Idealistic, I know, but not impossible in my opinion.

Research at Notre Dame is also beneficial to undergraduate students. In our research group we have a number of undergraduates doing their own research. This gives them hands-on exposure to science as well as major advantages in applying to graduate and professional schools. I’m impressed by their smarts and initiative, and I wish I had had the same opportunities at my undergrad alma mater. But without funding, undergraduate research would be impossible.

In closing, we graduate students, beneficiaries of Notre Dame’s push to become a top research university, are not the enemy. Not all of us are die-hard secularists bent on destroying ND’s Catholic identity. Some of us do appreciate ND’s uniqueness and the opportunities she offers to grow in our faith.

I agree wholeheartedly with Prof. Rice when he says, “the false dichotomy between faith and academic quality distorts reason as well as faith.” He might be pleasantly surprised to find that he does indeed have support for preserving the Catholicity of Notre Dame among the graduate student population – and many of us would not be here without Notre Dame’s increased commitment to research!

Christina Merrill

grad student

off campus

Jan. 19