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Questioning quotas

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 18, 2008

The hiring of Catholic faculty here at Notre Dame has become quite a touchy subject, tied as it is to the larger issue of the University’s ongoing self-definition. Father Jenkins, some students, and groups of alumni like “Project Sycamore” have called for hiring standards where self-identified Catholic faculty would comprise at least half of new hires. Some call for higher numbers.

I believe most of these groups do in fact have honest intentions: They want to preserve the unique character of Notre Dame, a place defined by its Catholic ethos. Many students find this an environment where they can for once express their faith freely, and the school should proudly continue its unique tradition. Father Jenkins want to maintain that heritage not at the exclusion of non-Catholics, but to the benefit of all.

The thinking of Sycamore, Jenkins and other concerned individuals has a fault, however, in its approach to what they see as a “problem” – the decline in Catholic faculty members in recent decades. I commend efforts to maintain religious identity, but stressing a 50 percent quota of Catholic professors ensures nothing. We should shy away from judging our progress by artificial and largely meaningless statistics and instead focus on real (and yes, less quantifiable) measures.

Regulatory quotas send the wrong message to professors and students. An absolute majority limit basically tells potential faculty, “If we drop below this, you (distinguished professor) may not be hired here in favor of somebody who checked a box on his application.” Forgive me for making it so glib, but that is the tone many students get from the quota.

Many teachers believe departments should hire based solely on academic achievement. Supporters of the hiring measures (and advocates for stricter ones) argue in turn that this attitude sacrifices the spiritual side of student life in pursuit of some kind of gratifying recognition by peer institutions and society at large.

Both sides make valid points. One of Notre Dame’s strengths is its focus on the complete student life, from faith to service to schoolwork, and we should not sacrifice that just to be among the nation’s elite institutions. We should avoid the numbers game with regard to academics, yet we hesitate to compromise academic quality or standards for the sake of religious affiliation by quota. Go too far in either direction and we run into hard questions about the nature of our mission.

Although the school’s mission statement does call for “a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals,” it also carefully stipulates that the school “asks of all its scholars and students…not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character.” Even the source document for all this concern places a greater emphasis on an open attitude to the University’s atmosphere of inquiry than on artificial percentages.

Advocates of the quota often reach their opinions by over-emphasizing the role faculty play in students’ faith lives. Here we must be cautious: There should be no dualism between faith and vocation. I allow that teachers can have a huge impact outside the classroom, and I gladly acknowledge the significant role faculty can play in students’ spiritual inquiries. Nevertheless, such impact should not be a necessary condition of their presence here.

I hate to break it to you, administration, but the core of faith at Notre Dame does not come from the faculty, and never has. They play an important role, but the heart comes from the student body itself, from the dorms, from the rectors and other religious on campus, from the works of faith organizations like Campus Ministry. I reiterate that the classroom ought not turn into a compartmentalized and secularized environment, but we need to look elsewhere to find the essence of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.

This clamoring for quotas also reinforces the University’s tendency, nurtured by the “over-protective parent” attitude of alumni, to infantilize the student body. We are not children who need to be constantly monitored and guided every step of the way. Would it not be better for us, as adults, to stumble and question our faith here on campus, where support structures are plentiful, rather than do so for the first time out in the “real world,” where such support is hard to find? This is not an argument for hiring non-Catholic faculty, just a reminder of the mission statement’s spirit and an enjoinment to look beyond the classroom for the totality of faith life.

The administration should not emphasize artificial percentages, but instead cultivate the school’s Catholic spirit by more productive, less rigid means. For example, focus faculty-recruiting efforts on graduates from other Catholic institutions, stress the University’s religious character in hiring interviews, bolster the already-strong theology department, and encourage Catholic thinkers and intellectuals to give lectures here. The University should seek more organic means of caring for its religious identity, while at the same time understanding that things like the “Catholicity” of Notre Dame cannot be measured. We must look more holistically at both the sources of our faith life and the means of maintaining it.

Nevertheless, we should applaud recent efforts by student government and the administration to involve students in this discussion. Forums and informal talks are good signs that Father Jenkins and others understand the concerns of the community, will treat students as mature intellectuals, and are willing to involve them in a very pertinent discussion: the nature of Notre Dame’s mission.

James Dechant is a senior English and theology major. Questions, comments, and rude remarks can be sent to him at [email protected]

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