‘The hidden labor’: Hugh Page reflects on a career filled with service vocations
Bella Laufenberg | Monday, February 27, 2023
Hugh Page, current vice president for institutional transformation and an advisor to the president, described his life as “a call to service” in an interview with The Observer. Page was raised as a member of the Baptist church while growing up in Baltimore. He went to a Presbyterian seminary first but ultimately discerned a call to be a minister in the Episcopal church.
Before his life as a minister began, Page went to Hampton University, where — because he was planning to go to law school — he began as a political science major.
“As an undergraduate, I went to college intending to be a lawyer and was a political science major for, maybe, a year, and then I had a very interesting and impactful relationship with an advisor who was in the history department,” he explained. “[He convinced me that] being an historian provides me with a much more nuanced understanding of the law and circumstances that led to the evolution of our legal system.”
When he was a senior, Page felt the call to be a minister because it was well in-line with his talents. He spent a year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which is Presbyterian, before becoming an Episcopal reverend through the General Theological Seminary. After working in parish ministry for about a year and a half, Page realized he was more suited to the world of academia.
“I really thought that the scholarly evocation was one that was resonating deeply in my soul. So, that led me to go to graduate school,” he said.
Page attended Harvard University and graduated with a master’s and doctoral degree in Near Eastern languages and civilizations — which took six years. He also received a doctor of ministry degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation in 2006.
“[My Ph.D.] was fascinating because as an historian, I was really interested in origins and really [interested] in antiquity. And so, going from the study of history to the study of languages and their history and the history of the ancient Near East and the cultural background of the Bible, it was a good choice of program and a good experience,” he noted.
He also added that a Ph.D. tends to be narrow in scope, with the student becoming an expert in one area — which Page noted was a very different mindset than that of a professor.
“You go off into academia, and you have to become, in a sense, a generalist in your overall discipline again, while not losing the passion for that narrow area that you spent a couple of years doing intensive research on,” he explained.
Page continued speaking on how it is essential to cultivate motivated intellectuals to create a culture of clear communication of large ideas to the public.
“There’s also an important role for translational endeavors to uphold in other venues and in other settings because we really need to plant the seeds for intellectual engagement and the general public in ways that we’ve not done so before,” he said.
From Harvard to California, from California to South Bend
After graduating from Harvard, Page took a job at California State University in Sacramento, California, which he said was a “good offer, because it was the only offer.” There, he was an assistant teaching professor in the department of humanities, and he taught an introductory, required history course. Approximately one year into his job, Notre Dame reached out and offered him a tenure-track position in the theology department.
“It was a tough choice at that point because I had just moved from Connecticut to California and thought I would be there for life. But the offer to come here and to be a part of a really nationally-renowned theology department with a number of colleagues who worked in liberal studies and were very well-known, that was too good to refuse. So, I moved here in in 1992, and have been here ever since,” he explained.
Page joined the theology department as an assistant professor on the tenure track. Soon after he started, the dean of the College of Arts and Letters asked him if he would become the director of the African and African American studies program. Page said he realized this opportunity would be in service to a cause greater than himself.
“That’s not my area of expertise or training, but I agreed to do it because I felt that it was an important thing to do at a really critical time in professional development,” he said. “Faculty of color at universities where they are often underrepresented, frequently are asked to take on service obligations that may not be within their area of expertise but represent opportunities to do something that would be of benefit to students, to their colleagues, to alumni … it would be a chance to do something that was of greater importance than the pursuit of tenure.”
Page emphasized that he felt he was carrying on the legacy of others who came before him and those who would come after him.
“I was very conscious of standing on the shoulders of other colleagues across a series of generations from 1970 until 2005, when the decision was made for it to be a department, and of being a steward of their dreams and their aspirations,” he said.
This position was Page’s first experience working with the administration. He then served as an associate dean, a dean of first-year studies from 2005-2019, vice president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs from 2013-2022 and now, his current role. With each position, Page said he gained more insight.
“In each of those capacities, I got to learn more about the decision-making process, about budgeting, about the larger ecosystem in American higher education and how things function,” he said. “It’s all a call to service.”
Throughout his career, Page specifically made it a goal to always be involved in the lives of students at the University.
“I decided at the very beginning that I would not do administration or be involved in administration in a way that took me out of the classroom and away from students. Because if I did that, I would lose a sense of what the institution’s core mission was,” he said. “If you don’t have a sense, a visceral sense, in personal experience, in multiple areas of university life, then you’re kind of blind to some of the things that go on.”
He explained how valuable this connection has been to him — how those relationships are sometimes the reward themselves.
“At the end of the day, if people say that they trust or feel a connection to the work that I do, because they know that I stand in solidarity with them, that’s a huge reward in and of itself,” he reflected.
Throughout his time working at Notre Dame, Page commented how he has realized the sheer amount of work that is done, emphasizing “the hidden labor that goes into making a University like this an open, welcoming space.” Page also mentioned how he felt his view as an outsider arriving to the University is a real asset at times.
Looking toward the future, Page noted the 10-year timeframe outlined in the University board of trustees’ task force report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“The first thing for me is to take seriously the charge that the trustees have given all of us in its report, ‘advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in Notre Dame — strategic framework,’ and ensuring that those principles within the report are my North stars for anything that I do in this role,” he said. “Thinking of ways that we can synergize our efforts over the next decade and help the University become the very best version of itself, that’s work that we all have to assume responsibility for.”
Specifically, Page emphasized his mission of helping Notre Dame reach its true potential in providing a welcoming environment for people of all races, ethnicities and genders.
“Helping to build a beloved community in the sense that Martin Luther King Jr. imagined it and doing so, one person at a time, one dream at a time, one loving and compassionate act at a time … this is what will have to be top of the University’s agenda for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Undoing injustices ingrained in society is the driving force behind his motivation in coming to work every day, Page said.
“It’s taken us, as a country, more than 300 years to create the circumstances that promote social inequity and injustice. I think it may well take us multiple generations to undo that work, but it can be done, and I remain hopeful about it,” he noted. “That’s what keeps me up at night. It’s what energizes me every day, and it’s what makes these new goals so incredibly exciting.”