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Faculty, administrators discuss hiring

Marcela Berrios | Monday, December 10, 2007

A series of discussions between faculty members and administrators on the hiring of Catholic faculty will continue Wednesday when University Provost Thomas Burish attends this month’s Faculty Senate meeting.

Burish will hear its recommendations on a recent report addressing the issue of the steadily decreasing percentage of Catholic professors at Notre Dame.

The private report – which the Office of the Provost sent to the entire faculty during the last week of October – specifically addressed the administration’s concerns that “without a critical mass of Catholic faculty, the distinctive identity of Notre Dame would waver, perhaps be lost,” the report said.

Burish created an ad hoc committee of 13 professors and administrators, who met from January through June 2007, to produce the report.

“If Notre Dame is to be a truly Catholic university, the faculty must include – as [University President] Father [John] Jenkins has said – a critical number of devoted followers of the Catholic faith,” Burish said in his charge to the committee. “Indeed, the University’s mission statement explains that ‘the Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.'”

The percentage of Notre Dame faculty who identify themselves as Catholics has dropped from approximately 64 percent in 1986 to approximately 53 percent in 2006, Burish told the committee.

Father Robert Sullivan, who chaired the committee, said the steady decrease in those numbers became the cause of widespread concern among the trustees, alumni and administrators charged with preserving the University’s Catholic identity.

And if “persons of other faiths and none [within the faculty] contribute decisively to forging and advancing Notre Dame’s identity,” as the report said, then their concerns could be justified, said Sullivan, a history professor.

He said the 1968 book “The Academic Revolution,” by sociologist David Riesman and Christopher Jencks, posed the theory that since universities compete for outstanding scholars and professors, the faculty that are in a strategic position to influence policies. In other words, the faculty really steer a university’s course, the book says.

“If this book has any single message,” Jencks and Riesman wrote, “it is that the academic profession increasingly determines the character of undergraduate education in America.”

Sullivan said Riesman and Jencks visited Notre Dame while they were writing the book for their specific analysis of the faculty in Catholic schools.

“[Riesman and Jencks] determined that the only thing that could actually give a Catholic school a religious identity is having brothers, sisters and priests teaching and running the place.”

But Notre Dame has changed a lot since Riesman and Jencks visited.

While the University’s president is still a Holy Cross priest and many residence halls are run by priests and nuns, the percentage of Catholics in the faculty has eroded considerably.

“It was almost inevitable,” Sullivan said. “As the University expanded, hiring could no longer be centralized in the Main Building, as it was during the [University President Emeritus Father Theodore] Hesburgh era.”

He said each growing department and discipline began hiring professors as it deemed fit and some fields – like psychology and biology – slowly became secularized.

But the administration will put forth policies to fight that erosion of Catholic professors, including “indirect information gathering” techniques to identify Catholics in a pool of potential hires, the report said.

“Some committee members think it fair and helpful to use information available in the public domain… for evidence that an academic is or may be Catholic,” the report said.

Some committee members, however, thought searching public sources for evidence of an academic’s possible Catholicism is “an improper intrusion on individual privacy.”

So the report recommended all advertisements for faculty positions state that the University is especially interested in hiring “women, minorities and scholars interested in teaching at a Catholic university” as this kind of phrasing “invites individuals to self-identify as Catholics.”

Moreover, the committee urged all schools and colleges at Notre Dame to ask potential hires during interviews, “How you think you might contribute to the Catholics mission of the University?”

But before these recommendations become University policy, the Office of the Provost will continue to hear suggestions from the faculty on the report. Sullivan will accompany Burish when he attends the Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday to hear its assessment of the faculty’s reaction to the document.

During the Faculty Senate’s meeting Nov. 7, Chair Colin Jessop, a physics professor, said he sensed disquiet among the faculty about 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 after the meeting.

He and the senators have spent the last month collecting feedback from the faculty on the report’s recommendations to increase the number of Catholic professors, Jessop said Friday. But he couldn’t comment on the content of the feedback because the Senate, the administration and the committee agreed to keep all discussions about the report confidential until January, when the Office of the Provost will be finished collecting suggestions from the faculty.

Sullivan and Executive Assistant to the Provost Brandon Roach also said they preferred not to comment on the report or the ongoing dialogue between the Office of the Provost and the faculty about the issue.

But Sullivan did say he expected many faculty members – especially those who are not Catholic – to be “scratching their heads, thinking, ‘Is there a place for me here?'” after reading the report.

The document, however, through all of its recommendations, reiterated that “it is imperative that the University maintain an environment where faculty of other faiths and none are included as full members of the community.”

But some of the report’s recommendations might make achieving that goal complicated.

The report, for example, said the University “must of course” appoint leaders who believe in the necessity and value of Catholic hiring, both as deans and chairpersons.

While Sullivan could not comment directly on that recommendation, he did say a person’s religious affiliation “has no bearing in getting tenure or promoted to higher positions.” But the people appointed to these positions, he said, should support the University’s Catholic mission.

The report also suggests funding a program that would bring to campus more academics that combine their scholarly, scientific or artistic work with Catholicism as lecturers, short-term scholars-in-residence or as visiting professors.

“Departments that have identified multiple outstanding candidates might be permitted to make simultaneous offers for a given opening. This practice can increase the probability of hiring Catholic faculty,” the report said.

But the committee made it clear throughout the documents that any faculty recruited by these initiatives should not be perceived as academically inferior to other hires. Among qualified candidates and on a case-by-case basis, however, “mission fit may well be determinative” when hiring a new professor, the report said.

The report also 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.