How to build Catholic identity at a Catholic college

ASK FATHER: How to build Catholic identity at a Catholic college?

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

From a reader…

I am a dean at a Catholic college in the US. The majority of faculty and administrators are not Catholic. How does one work to make progress on Ex Corde Ecclesiae when there is passive / semi-active resistance against strengthening Catholic identity and a disheartening air of indifferentism on campus?

Ah… Ex corde Ecclesiae… nearly as ignored as Veterum sapientia!

GUEST RESPONSE from a priest friend in college level admin:

The first rule of war is “Know your enemy.”

In this case, the enemy is legion. It’s all of the academic administrators, deans, and tenured faculty who are objectively hostile to and reject the Church and Her teaching. This enemy takes the form of search committees intentionally formed to reject those candidates who take seriously the Church and Her teaching, the departmental hierarchies intentionally put in place to hire those made in their image and likeness, the college hierarchies and deans intentionally hired to further ensure that only those candidate who are make in their image and likeness are recommended for hiring, and the academic administrators who intentionally hired those deans and department chairs to ensure this outcome. All the while, the enemy claims that “At XYZ university (or college, it matters not), we hire for mission.”

That is the enemy.

The second rule of war is “Disarm your enemy.”

In this case, disarmament comes through the judicious and wise use of power, meaning, “the ability to get people to do what otherwise they ordinarily wouldn’t do.” It took decades for the enemy to build institutions of Catholic higher education in their image and likeness; therefore, to seek to overturn the system that is currently in place would be a fool’s errand, one causing a palace revolution and rendering the one seeking to wage war dead. Instead, the one seeking to wage war must disarm this enemy slowly but ever so effectively, with intense focus, patience, and persistence. In this regard, academic administrators and deans can be most effective if the measure of success they use to assess themselves in waging war is building a small nucleus of sympathetic senior faculty who mentor junior faculty and who themselves will form a larger nucleus of senior faculty, perhaps only long after those academic administrators and deans who hired them have departed the institution.

The third rule of war is “Have a serious strategy that will strike at the enemy’s heart.”

To disarm this enemy effectively, those academic administrators and deans who seek to wage this war must consider themselves “interim servants” of the mission of Catholic higher education. Their role is not to mount a direct, frontal assault, only to be surrounded on all sides and be decapitated. No, the strategy is to leave the institution better off as Catholic than if those academic administrators and deans hadn’t been there. Any academic administrator or dean who seeks to decapitate and eliminate the enemy in this war will fail, leaving the institution no better off as Catholic than if this individual hadn’t been there. This strategy will slowly strike directly and effectively at the enemy’s heart by sapping it of power as that small nucleus of junior and senior faculty replicate and form a community of professors who, as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “think as Catholics do.” From this group will emerge the academic administrators and deans who will slowly surround the enemy, rendering it irrelevant in the institutional decision-making process and begin the process of freeing the liberal arts from the prison in which the enemy has interred them for at least several decades.

The fourth rule of war is “Provide the necessary tools to wage battle.”

The tools that nucleus of faculty require include: a clear and articulate vision of where they’re headed; a sound strategy to guide their decision-making processes; encouragement as well as the freedom to make decisions; and, challenge to hold themselves and one another accountable for their successes and failures. Administrators and deans are perfectly positioned to provide all of this—to serve their warriors—while they battle on in the trenches. What those administrators and deans need to keep in mind:
• Success in this endeavor requires character not money…the exact opposite of what the enemy offers its warriors.
• Their clarion call is to serve the Church not to change the church…the exact opposite of the enemy’s clarion call.
• Prestige is measured in terms of conversions to the Truth not aversion from the Truth…the exact opposite of the enemy’s measure of prestige.

In sum:

“Rome wasn’t built in one day” and, it should be added, “Rome wasn’t destroyed in one day.” No, the barbarians knew their enemy, disbarment the enemy, and had a serious strategy that struck directly at the enemy’s heart.

As this observation concerns Catholic higher education, “Catholic higher education wasn’t destroyed in a day” and “Catholic higher education won’t be rebuilt in one day.” Academic administrators and deans who seek to reconstitution Catholic higher education must keep that in mind, as it constitutes their primary mission.

I’d commend the reader to consider carefully von Clausewitz’s “On War” inserting “Catholic higher education” where applicable.

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One comment on “How to build Catholic identity at a Catholic college

  1. [A more hands-on and short-term treatment of the subject, although I question its effectiveness in view of the institution involved]

    What Makes a University Catholic?

    On Mission & Hiring

    By Mark W. Roche: Served as dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame from 1997 to 2008
    January 26, 2017

    John Garvey cites John Paul II’s prescription that for a Catholic university to be truly Catholic a majority of its faculty must be Catholic. Garvey, a distinguished legal scholar as well as president of the Catholic University of America, calls this “a fairly simple plan.” The plan may be simple, but its execution is complex. I would like to flesh out Garvey’s somewhat abstract reflections by discussing the struggles and strategies I had as dean at the University of Notre Dame in trying to hire outstanding Catholic faculty.

    Long before the publication of Ex corde ecclesiae, Notre Dame had already declared in its mission statement that the university’s Catholic identity “depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.” When the university had modest academic ambitions, it could easily hire a majority of Catholics. As Notre Dame raised its standards, the challenge became greater. The university was no longer simply looking for qualified Catholics; it was competing with the world’s most outstanding universities for the best scholar-teachers.

    So how has Notre Dame’s faculty nonetheless remained more than 50 percent Catholic? Here are some of the lessons I learned and practices I advocated in dealing with several hundred faculty searches.

    The best strategy is to articulate a compelling vision for the place of Catholicism in the university, such that everyone in the community supports the idea of hiring Catholic faculty. Space limitations prevent me from articulating such a vision here, but it should include wanting faculty members who can participate in reciprocal dialogue with the church, who are willing to roll up their sleeves in supporting a distinctive mission, and who offer diverse models of lived Catholicism. Such an ideal will certainly motivate some faculty members and surely motivated John Garvey when he was a faculty member at Notre Dame’s law school.

    But vision alone does not suffice. Faculty members tend to identify more with their academic disciplines than with their institutions. The gulf between disciplinary standards and the idea of Catholic hiring can border on the grotesque. The Modern Language Association, one of the world’s largest scholarly organizations, publishes a list of dos and don’ts for interviewers, including the following: Don’t ask questions about religion. Interviewers are not obliged to follow the prescriptions, but it is a bit awkward to preface a question by saying, “You probably think this question is inappropriate, perhaps even illegal, but…”

    HOW DOES ONE get faculty search committees to support potential faculty contributions to mission when such criteria are not part of their background or mindset and viewed by many as illegitimate? Here are five principles I advocate.

    Never compromise on quality. No one is interested in a Catholic university that is mediocre—not other faculty, not students, not donors, and certainly not policy-makers who turn to universities for scholarly guidance. However, when faculty focus only on disciplinary standards, two potential dangers arise: a faculty that has an insufficient number of Catholics or a dean who must veto proposed faculty hires. The former means mission drift, the latter wasted political capital and the ugly specter of quotas. I am not suggesting that quality Catholic scholars are not available. I am stating, based on experience, that in almost any pool of candidates, conflicts will arise. How then does one ensure high quality and Catholic numbers?

    Be creative and strategic. As with hiring for racial or gender diversity, one needs incentives, guidelines, and support structures when hiring with the Catholic identity of an institution in mind.

    Search committees sometimes fear that if they do not find a faculty member in a given year, the faculty position will be taken away. As a consequence, they have an absurd incentive to hire less-than-ideal candidates. The appropriate response is clear: the dean should guarantee that the search can continue across several years. A failed search is not when you don’t hire a person. A failed search is when you hire the wrong person. Patience increases the chances of success.

    Positive incentives are also helpful. Because in any one year, some positions are likely to remain unfilled, the dean should have temporary funds to make “pre-hires.” In other words, upon the recommendation of a department, the dean hires someone in advance of a future retirement or departure. In short, a department may temporarily receive an additional position while it waits for an established position to become available.

    Searches should not be for narrow academic specializations; instead, they should be wide enough to ensure a larger pool. The pool can be expanded also in professorial rank. For example, in the case of a superior Catholic candidate, an assistant-professor opening might be elevated to a senior position to attract the right scholar.

    Competitive searches are another innovative strategy we employed. Invite more departments to search than you have positions available, telling them that you will hire only the best candidates. That quickly motivates departments to satisfy an institution’s vision for itself and an administrator’s expectations. Depending on where faculty end up, you can raise or lower various departments’ expected contributions to the common curriculum, and you can challenge departments to compete more efficaciously for hires in the future. This encourages departments to search for candidates, instead of simply sifting through applicants, raises the bar on faculty quality, and avoids the politically awkward situation where the dean must veto a candidate. In this case, the dean simply states that the candidates in other departments are stronger.

    We also conducted interdepartmental searches and placed on the search committee persons who were attentive to Catholic hiring. Such searches are ideal in interdisciplinary areas that resonate well with mission, such as religion and literature.

    Finalists for a position should be approved at a higher level before on-campus interviews are scheduled. If the finalist pool does not include any Catholics, the department must answer the question “Who was the strongest Catholic in the pool, and why did she not make the cut?” Canceling searches midstream, because of inattention to mission, is more effective and efficient than vetoing potential hires.

    To send a message about Notre Dame’s support for recruiting Catholic faculty, we created an office to identify the greatest possible number of Catholic scholars of high quality at all ranks and in all disciplines as well as excellent scholars of the Catholic tradition. The goal was to have resources available to help departments. The database greatly increased our capacity to identify potential Catholic candidates from around the world.

    Development offices find mission more an opportunity than a challenge. Many donors want to give specifically to a university’s distinctive mission. At Notre Dame, for example, donors have endowed chairs for faculty members who are Catholic or for faculty members who work in fields central to our mission, such as religious history or sacred music. Such positions certainly help with Catholic hiring.

    Move beyond the Catholic numbers. A preponderance of Catholic faculty may or may not be necessary to protect and advance mission. It is certainly not sufficient.

    We insisted that not only campus visits but interviews at academic conferences include questions on mission. How might candidates contribute to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, broadly understood? What about Notre Dame’s distinctive identity attracts them? The goal was to ask an open-ended question that allowed for an almost inexhaustible number of possible responses, but an inability to engage the question in any meaningful way was a sobering sign.

    Although I kept track each year of Catholic hires, I also recorded what I called “mission hires,” persons who, irrespective of faith, worked on topics that were a superb fit for a Catholic university or who exhibited a deep understanding of, and an unusually rich desire to contribute to, our distinctive mission.

    Mission hires often contribute more in advocating for mission or in developing distinctive programs than faculty members who simply happen to be Catholic. After interviewing a candidate, I once called a chairperson to say that the candidate had done poorly on the mission question, and I could not imagine hiring him. The chairperson said, “But he’s Catholic.” If incentives are oriented toward the percentage of Catholics and not candidates’ general capacities to contribute to mission, administrators may end up hiring Catholics who fail the mission question over superb mission candidates who are not Catholic. What one can unambiguously count and easily report is not always what matters most.

    Make faculty hiring one piece of a larger puzzle. New faculty, even Catholics, often need help in understanding a school’s distinctive mission. Orientation begins with interviews, inviting candidates to reflect out loud on their potential contribution to the Catholic character of the university. New faculty members need to be integrated into the continuing conversation about how to understand mission, and the institution needs to allow the mission to be enriched by their voices.

    Socializing faculty members is important. New faculty are usually eager to learn about a college’s vision, history, and customs. The first year and the year after tenure, when faculty are especially curious about their newly permanent home, offer wonderful opportunities for a college to articulate its vision and priorities, to cultivate solidarity with that higher purpose, and to benefit from the ideas of faculty members.

    Ideally, one has a year-long series of events, including time with the president and common readings. Similar events can be planned for those who are embarking on administrative roles. Besides ensuring that faculty meet colleagues from other disciplines, thus widening their horizons, such an orientation fosters loyalty and community. It ensures that faculty understand how the missions of their current and former educational institutions differ.

    Faculty seminars can be helpful: summer seminars, compact seminars, reading groups, lecture series, or sets of discussions. At Notre Dame we sponsored an annual yearlong seminar on topics such as the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Catholic social tradition. Recognizing that many faculty members could not give the requisite time to such a demanding initiative, we also sponsored each semester single-afternoon workshops on aspects of Catholicism. Each workshop offered an introduction to Catholicism, explored a classic work in the Catholic tradition, or engaged a topic involving Catholicism and contemporary society.

    Incentives can be introduced for new courses and scholarly projects that bring disciplines into contact with Catholicism. We also offered to reduce course loads for teachers to study the Catholic intellectual tradition. Faculty members could enter a competition to receive a one-course release from teaching in order to take a course or independent study in philosophy, theology, or another discipline on aspects of the Catholic intellectual tradition. These experiences were designed to enrich their teaching, scholarship, and connection to the university.

    Do not underestimate language. Academic leaders need to articulate why one should emphasize, rather than hide, a distinct identity, what its advantages are for faculty members, how it can give an institution focus and foster community, and how it can be used to attract faculty. When articulating the ideal of a Catholic university, leaders need to find language that, on the one hand, appeals to persons of diverse backgrounds and faiths and, on the other, ensures that distinctively Catholic dimensions are fully integrated into a university’s intellectual culture.

    Even if one agrees that a majority of the faculty should be Catholic, speaking of quotas is counterproductive. It alienates faculty who are of other faiths or nonreligious, and it raises concerns about quality. The language of goals works better. For Catholic hiring I introduced a minimal goal of 50 percent, an expected goal of 55 percent, and an aspirational goal of 65 percent.

    When departments prominently described Notre Dame as a Catholic university in job ads, they discovered that more candidates self-identified as Catholic or gave reasons why they wanted to work at a Catholic university. We therefore moved from recommending to requiring such language.

    With respect to students and their parents, mission is almost always an advantage, but faculty, too, can be attracted to a distinctive institutional identity. In many cases, they will leave higher-ranked departments or universities to help create or advance a university with a unique mission. Leaders must be prepared to counter the argument that hiring for mission is too burdensome, that it is difficult enough to hire for quality and diversity; hiring for mission will reduce the number of persons and lower the quality. That bias is simply not true.

    After my first seven years as dean, I reviewed the more than one hundred fifty tenure-track and tenured faculty members hired. I sought to identify what most people would agree were the top one-third of these hires: those who had previously earned tenure at higher-ranked institutions, such as Harvard or Stanford; those who had received multiple offers of employment, including offers from higher-ranked departments; and those whose records had simply been stunning, for example, at the time of promotion and tenure. For each faculty member I sought to identify the most significant factor or, if there were several, the multiple factors that led him or her to choose Notre Dame. By a two-to-one margin over the next highest factor, the Catholic mission, broadly understood, was the most significant. The Catholic identity of an institution can be a great competitive advantage. The exercise was useful because mission hiring is often viewed by faculty as a third hurdle after quality and diversity. When one adds Catholicism to the mix, it may seem unduly complex and constraining, but one can take a different view and suggest that by stressing our Catholic mission, we could hire above our academic ranking.

    Faculty members want their universities to become diverse internally. Such diversity, including intellectual diversity, has value, but if hiring for diversity results in Catholic universities’ losing their religious identity, then American higher education as a whole will become less, not more, diverse. The greatest brakes on such homogenizing tendencies are a distinctive vision and effective hiring.

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