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Provost John McGreevy discusses role, book on history of Catholicism

John T. McGreevy began his work as the sixth provost for the University of Notre Dame at the beginning of July.

McGreevy, a history professor who has served on the faculty since 1997 and previously served as chair of the history department and the dean of College of Arts and Letters, was announced as the Charles and Jill Fischer provost in April, four months after Marie Lynn Miranda stepped down from the position. Miranda’s year and a half as provost was largely defined by the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Identified by a search committee of faculty, students and university president Fr. John Jenkins, McGreevy is cognizant of the fact that many do not understand the job he’s been appointed to.

“No one knows what the provost does,” McGreevy said. “The formal title is chief academic officer… and you’re supposed to guide the academic core; everything from hiring to how do we elevate the reputation of our departments? How do we do cross-college programs? How do we do better with undergraduate education? How do we develop stronger graduate and professional school programs, all that in a general way falls to the provost.”

Notre Dame established the provost position in 1970 under Fr. Hesburgh’s leadership, and the provost is tasked with the overall operation of the academic enterprise, including the faculty, colleges, schools, institutes, centers, libraries and student advising.

McGreevy said that his position allows him to direct Notre Dame’s academic work across programs and colleges, from a twenty-thousand-foot level.

“I won’t get involved in individual ‘we should offer this course this semester’ kind of decisions,” he said. Rather, his role has a larger role in faculty promotion and tenure, developing and strengthening programs and institutionally promoting Notre Dame’s commitment to “really excellent teaching.”

McGreevy said that he is still developing his priorities as provost but he is guided by two overarching goals.

First is a common plan for the academic core, forged from various plans for each of the programs and schools under Notre Dame’s umbrella. He said the goal is to “make Notre Dame better in terms of teaching and learning, in terms of its research programs, all those things.”

Second, McGreevy said he is focused on building strong teams among the leaders that report to him. 

“We have a really great group of deans, great group of provosts, and just to get them really working together and helping me, because I need the help. I can’t do it on my own. And there’s so much wisdom in those rooms,” he said.

McGreevy says that challenges he’s identified moving forward include that the University is “a little bit behind on strategic plans.”

More broadly, McGreevy sees a larger tension at the core of Notre Dame’s path forward, a vision that he says is shared by Fr. Jenkins, and has served as the administration’s project since the 1960s.

“The big challenge for Notre Dame is can it be seriously Catholic and be great,” McGreevy said. “Can we be one of the best private research universities in the world with just absolutely terrific programs at all levels? And can we be distinctly and seriously Catholic? And that’s the big picture mission.”

He says that question comes to the forefront when establishing Notre Dame’s credibility in research, as well as deciding which programs to invest in.

“So we started, a few years ago, a master’s in sacred music and then a doctorate in sacred music, and we’re really good at that. And that’s an example of a program that aligns with our mission, but we become really good at,” he said. “We need more things that everyone unequivocally says ‘okay, yeah, that’s a great program.’”

McGreevy also published a book this month — “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis” is a 528-page volume out with W.W. Norton. A review in The New York Times says that McGreevy has done “a remarkable job of explaining how the epic struggle between reformists and traditionalists has led us to the present moment in the Roman Catholic Church.”

McGreevy has long studied Catholicism and has published three previous books on various elements of the church’s history. This book drew less from primary research, and was written primarily during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really based on trying to distill the secondary literature into a readable format and tell the big picture story. So not much research, but a lot of time spent on the 10th and 11th and 12th floor of the library sitting there looking at things and with my laptop writing,” he said.

McGreevy says the book is an attempt to explore the global dimensions of the church, “recognizing that Catholicism is the most multicultural and multilingual institution in the world. And we need histories that reflect that diversity.”

Since the near-death experience of the French Revolution, the church has evolved and changed in many ways over the past 230 years, according to McGreevy.

“We tend to think especially the church is sort of unchanging. And one thing I want to convey in the book is that a lot of things did change, not everything,” McGreevy said. 

Beginning with the French Revolution, McGreevy explained that the event was transformative for the institution.

“What I really want to convey to people is how devastating the French Revolution was for an older, more aristocratic Catholic model, where the nation state and the church were very tightly allied,” he said. “That didn’t go away. But what came in the 19th century was a much more populist, devotional Catholicism, maybe even more a church of the poor. And a church very tightly tied to the papacy.”

The dramatic shift of the French Revolution is followed in history by another dramatic shift, Vatican II, McGreevy said.

“That form of the church, I argue, really lasts until the 1960s in the Second Vatican Council and we’re still trying to sort out what era we’re in now,” he said. “[Pope] Francis says that we’re in a change of era, not an era of change. It seems throughout politics, culture, religion, that some things are fundamentally changing right now. And I hope the book provides a savvy history so Catholics and non-Catholics can better understand how we got to where we are.” 

As a historian focused on Catholicism for much of his career, McGreevy says that work shapes his approach as provost. 

“There’s a parallel that I think about a lot, that if we’re going to be a Catholic university, we are going to become more diverse at Notre Dame. That means diverse in American categories… but also diverse in international students too. And that will be the only way we sustain ourselves as a Catholic university,” he said.

He added that the day-to-day work of a history professor has also prepared him well. 

“Being a historian is good training, you read a lot, and you read a lot as provost. And you do think about change over time and how institutions change. And I find myself thinking about that all the time: how Notre Dame should change,” McGreevy said.