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Professors question recruitment approach

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, October 12, 2006

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

Notre Dame may be beginning a heightened push to recruit Catholic professors, but during his Sept. 26 address to the faculty, University President Father John Jenkins was quick to assure the non-Catholics in attendance of their importance.

“Faculty members who are not Catholic are indispensable to the life and success of Notre Dame,” Jenkins said during his address.

The debate generated by the different perspectives of non-Catholic scholars – who now comprise about 46 percent of the faculty – makes Notre Dame a “better Catholic university,” Jenkins said.

But some of those non-Catholic scholars say the University’s new recruitment efforts may have an alienating effect, and other professors warn against taking an overly numerical approach to the project.

Rabbi Michael Signer, a Jewish professor mentioned by Jenkins in his address who has contributed to Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the University, said he found Jenkins’ remarks about increasing the number of Catholic faculty members “chilling.”

“I think that Father Jenkins is absolutely sincere when he indicates that non-Catholics contribute to the Catholic mission of the University of Notre Dame,” Signer said. “However, when one talks about numbers, and special hiring efforts, there is always a shadow cast over those who are not Catholic.”

Signer said Jenkins has set himself up to walk a delicate line – to bring in more Catholic faculty members while at the same time not alienating Notre Dame’s non-Catholic professors.

“I think that the University, under Father Jenkins’ leadership, poses a challenge to itself to seek out what he considers to be a critical number of Catholic faculty and make non-Catholics feel welcome,” Signer said.

Father Robert Sullivan, director of the Erasmus Institute and director of the newly created Keough office – which will strive to help the University maintain a “critical number” of Catholic professors, Jenkins said in his address – said Notre Dame’s mission is primarily to maintain the level of Catholic faculty rather than increase it.

“If it gets below [50 percent], then there are real questions about the maintenance of the University,” he said. Sullivan said his office has no numerical goals or quotas regarding the number of scholars to identify this year and probably will not have set figures in the future.

Quality versus quantity

Even without defined quotas, some professors said they are skeptical of how recruitment of Catholic faculty members will proceed.

Last year, philosophy professor Kenneth Sayre wrote an essay entitled “Assessing Notre Dame’s Catholic Character” that he addressed to Provost Thomas Burish regarding concerns that Notre Dame was losing its Catholic identity.

In his essay, Sayre cautioned against measuring Catholic character quantitatively. He recommended each college perform self-assessments to measure its contribution to the formation of students’ Catholic character.

Sayre said he was suspicious of the University’s attempt to assign numbers to the breakdown of Catholic versus non-Catholic faculty.

“Father Jenkins used a couple of expressions in his address that indicated that he is a little uncertain about what to do with this himself,” Sayre said. “He talked about a critical number of Catholics, without putting a particular figure on it.”

Philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga said he is enthusiastic about Notre Dame’s Catholic mission and its intent to maintain that mission, but questioned whether increasing numbers of Catholics is the way to strengthen its Catholicity.

“It’s kind of a blunt instrument in that some non-Catholics contribute heavily to the Catholic mission, and some Catholics don’t,” Plantinga said.

Another reason not to measure the number of Catholics quantitatively is because not everyone who self-identifies as Catholic practices his or her faith or will help students develop their own, Sayre said. He doubts whether the University has reliable methods for distinguishing between Catholics who live their faith and those who seldom practice it.

But the University is not simply looking for Catholics who can teach Notre Dame level classes, Sullivan said. The kind of Catholics Notre Dame is looking for are those that live out their faith and that are committed to helping students form their own faith lives.

“In some ways the burden of honest falls on the people who self-identify as Catholic, but they also have to identify how they can serve the University in this way,” Sullivan said.

Non-Catholics, however, can often serve the University in developing the faith life of students just as well as Catholics, Sayre said.

Mark Roche, dean of the college of Arts and Letters, recalled an interview he conducted with a prospective faculty hire. The man, a Jewish historian, impressed Roche with his answer to how he could contribute to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission. Every faculty member, whether Catholic or not, can be a model to students, he said.

“In many cases our best mission hires are non-Catholics,” Roche said. “In some cases there are Catholic faculty members who simply don’t integrate their faith into their scholarship or teaching.”

The ‘right kind of Catholic’

Finding scholars who are not only Catholic, but who are also the kind of Catholic who will contribute to Notre Dame’s mission and whose faith is evident in their life and teaching is the real challenge for the University – something Roche said he realizes.

“There are Catholics out there who simply have a separation between their academic life and their personal life as Catholics and don’t have a language to bridge them,” Roche said.

Sayre said the University should not necessarily look to increase the number of Catholics, but rather to hire those who possess virtues valued by Catholicism.

“We ought to have more of a certain kind of people,” Sayre said. “They may be Catholic and they may not be Catholic. … There is in my view a wrong kind of Catholic … and a right kind of Catholic.”

Echoing the concept of paideia that Jenkins discussed in his address, Sayre said professors should be capable professionally, but they must also help students develop moral character.

“Catholic faculty, if they are the right kind of Catholic, should provide examples of what it means to be a Catholic in practical life,” Sayre said.

The wrong kind of Catholic may fall to either extreme – he is lax in his faith and Catholic only in Baptism or he practices on the other extreme and is divisive in is adherence to doctrine and dogma, Sayre said.

When the College of Arts and Letters hires, Roche said, it tries to determine whether the candidate is this so-called “right kind of Catholic” by first asking him to identify his religion. Interviewers also ask the applicants to describe how they can contribute to the University’s Catholic mission.

“It’s not just a matter of hiring Catholics,” Roche said. “It’s a matter of hiring quality again and again so we become an attractive destination for Catholics and non-Catholics.”

Even so, the University places too much emphasis on the importance of the faculty in forming the Catholicity of Notre Dame, Signer said. The University needs to remember there are other aspects – like the residential life system, with chapels in each dorm – that contribute to Catholic identity, he said.

Signer said Jenkins could have approached the issue more diplomatically if he had talked more about the common mission of promoting Catholic virtues, and not focused so clearly on hiring Catholic versus non-Catholic professors.

“I think that wouldn’t be chilling,” he said. “I think that would be exciting to a Jew, to a Muslim, to a Hindu, who would come here then and say ‘I’m participating in something which is central to my religion being in the world.'”