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Professors discuss hiring

Marcela Berrios | Thursday, November 8, 2007

A report from the Office of the Provost on the hiring of Catholic professors and the faculty’s response to the document were at the center of the Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday.

Senate chair Colin Jessop said after the meeting that the report – which was released last week by University Provost Thomas Burish – addressed the steadily decreasing percentage of Catholics teaching at Notre Dame and the University’s possible actions to ensure a healthy supply of Catholic professors in the long run.

And while he said the Senate will work to develop mechanisms to gauge the faculty’s in-depth opinions on the report, Jessop, a physics professor, said there is already a broad sense of disquiet surrounding the idea of hiring with religious affiliation in mind.

“The University is worried about the decline in the percentage of Catholic faculty members and the faculty members, in turn, are worried that in trying to rectify this situation, the University will move away from hiring solely on academic merit,” Jessop said.

Burish created an ad hoc committee to explore the issue and produce the report, asking the group – which was made up of 13 professors and administrators – for “help and guidance in developing strategic thinking and in proposing actions we might take” to identify and recruit Catholic faculty.

The University’s percentage of self-identified Catholic faculty has dropped from approximately 64 percent in 1986 to about 53 percent in 2006, Burish said in his charge to the ad hoc committee. The group met from January through June this year and determined that any practices adopted to recruit Catholic scholars “should not compromise the University’s academic quality.”

“The Catholic faculty members recruited by these initiatives cannot be perceived as – and must not be – academically inferior to other hires,” the report said.

But the committee’s report acknowledged that among qualified candidates and on a case-by-case basis, “mission fit may well be determinative” when hiring a new professor.

And weighing the faculty’s diverse opinions on the sensitive subject may be tricky. On Wednesday, senators struggled to come up with proper systems to poll current professors.

Many senators immediately proposed hosting a forum where the faculty could gather to openly discuss the report and the issue. But some senators were skeptical of a town-hall meeting, saying the topics at hand are of a sensitive nature. Many faculty members – especially the non-Catholic and untenured – might be unwilling to speak freely in such a public setting, they said.

“I think that in order to get a full scope of what the faculty is really thinking we will also need some kind of anonymous outlet to go with the forum,” said senator Sarah McKibben, professor in the Irish language and literature department. “The Senate needs to develop a mechanism through which faculty members can voice and submit their concerns and thoughts to us, anonymously.”

Many senators agreed on the need to allow anonymous opinions, but they were unsure how the Senate should collect that information.

Senator Dan Lapsley, a psychology professor, suggested all senators focus on gathering opinions in their respective departments and constituencies.

“We each need to take a leadership role in this issue that is so important to every faculty member,” Lapsley said.

The report had already expressed fears of “misunderstandings and damaging rumors both within the University and outside about any distinctive policy of recruiting Catholics in all departments because of their Catholicism.”

Professor Seth Brown, chair of the administrative affairs committee and a member of the ad hoc committee that produced the report, proposed the Senate’s scheduled meeting with Burish next month be strictly limited to an in-depth discussion of the issue. The Senate agreed by a voice vote.

In other Faculty Senate news:

u Jessop told senators the seven proposed revisions to the Academic Articles, discussed during the Senate’s October meeting, were forwarded to the Academic Council ad hoc committee and the executive board of the Academic Council for their consideration.

u Jessop said he presented Burish with the idea of a club for faculty members that could replace the University Club, which closed its doors earlier this semester to give way to the construction of a new Law School building. He said Burish told him the administration would be receptive to the idea of building a faculty club if faculty members demonstrate demand.