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Realizing Fr. Ted’s vision

| Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The services and commemorative events of four weeks ago honored a man of faith, reason, heart, vision and determination. A man who is correctly recognized as having transformed Notre Dame from a school known primarily for football into an internationally acclaimed academic institution. It stands as one more testament to Fr. Ted’s brilliant leadership that he recognized and gave broad responsibilities to colleagues who had the talent and drive to help him realize his ambitious vision for Notre Dame.

In his autobiography “God, Country, Notre Dame,” Fr. Ted recalled that when he assumed the presidency of our University in 1952, he had to deal with a football program that was out of control and an endowment that barely existed. He realized that alongside his own personal engagement on the national and international stage, there had to be a vigorous emphasis on raising Notre Dame’s academic quality and impact. To this end, he extended personal invitations to a number of distinguished Catholic intellectuals to join this effort. Ivan Mestrovic, one of the most famous sculptors of the 20th century, as well as Ernan McMullin, a very distinguished philosopher of science from Louvain University came quickly to mind.

One individual whose influence in this regard merits special attention is Timothy O’Meara. Fr. Ted persuaded the young Princeton Ph.D. to leave his faculty position in Princeton’s math department to join Notre Dame. Tim O’Meara would soon serve as chair of Notre Dame’s math department and was instrumental in building its reputation in the 1960s and 1970s. He achieved this with his research and his lectures. His treatise “Introduction to Quadratic Forms” became the standard work in this difficult area at the interface between number theory and algebra. This “introduction” completed the classification of mathematical constructs that have their roots in Greek antiquity and had been pursued with broad emphasis ever since. The book was reprinted recently as a Springer-Verlag Classic in Mathematics. Here’s an excerpt from one of the reviews:

“Anyone who has heard O’Meara lecture will recognize in every page of this book the crispness and lucidity of the author’s style. … The organization and selection of material is superb. … The author’s relentless pace imparts to the book almost the flavor of a research paper, certainly not of a leisurely textbook. ‘Introduction to Quadratic Forms’ deserves high praise as an excellent example of that too-rare type of mathematical exposition combining conciseness with clarity. It would be interesting to speculate on the subject O’Meara will next choose to unify and expound upon in his own elegant style.”

Anyone who knows Tim O’Meara will realize that this is also very much a biographical assessment of the man. (As Tim’s Ph.D. student at the time, I was one of those who was inspired by both his lucidity and relentless pace.) His appointment to the Kenna Professorship in 1976 came in recognition of his exceptional qualities: penetrating mathematics, clarity and discipline, unbending integrity, a stubborn insistence on quality and a singular ability to communicate and organize. When Fr. Ted was looking for a new provost to realize his lofty goals for Notre Dame, he had his man in Tim O’Meara. Provost O’Meara knew well that national and international recognition for Notre Dame could only come as a consequence of stellar scholarship by prominent intellectuals either already at Notre Dame or those who would soon be attracted to it. At the helm of Notre Dame’s academic enterprise, he made “superior scholarship by a superior faculty” his leitmotif. He pursued this theme with characteristic skill and at full throttle from 1978 to 1996, in striving to bring the vision of Fr. Ted and his successor Fr. Monk Malloy to fruition.

Aware that stellar scholars would command salaries commensurate with their talents, he made salary raises a top priority. When he took over as provost, the average yearly salaries at the assistant, associate and full professor ranks at Notre Dame were, respectively, $17,100, $21,600 and $28,000. Eighteen years later, they had more than tripled at the assistant and associate ranks and almost quadrupled at the full professor rank. Predictably, the quality of Notre Dame’s academic programs rose as well. A comparison of assessments of the competitive landscape of American research-doctorate programs serves to document the progress that was made. A national report in 1980 classified one of Notre Dame’s doctoral departments as strong, seven more as good and two as adequate. The follow-up report in 1993 rated six doctoral programs as strong, nine as good, and two as adequate.

It is clear to all of us who thought, wrote, lectured and taught on this campus during the 1980s and 1990s that Tim O’Meara’s tireless efforts raised the quality of the intellectual environment at Notre Dame dramatically. Tim’s rigorous commitment to “superior scholarship by a superior faculty” provided significant momentum that has enabled the University’s more recent administrations to continue to promote the pursuit of academic excellence effectively.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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