The Catholic Vision

Hiring for Mission: More than ‘Counting Catholics’
The University of Notre Dame / ADAWSON8
The University of Notre Dame / photo by ADAWSON8

It is time to demystify “hiring for mission.” Faculty and administrators can be understandably uncomfortable about overt efforts to hire for mission. Faculty candidates applying for positions at Catholic colleges can receive conflicting messages about what “mission fit” means. All parties—candidates, hiring committees, and university administrators—deserve help in reflecting on how a prospective employee can engage, support, and advance a Catholic college’s mission.

Recent reflections in Commonweal make a solid case for the need of Catholic universities to hire Catholics. John Garvey sensibly explains that a Catholic scholarly culture presumes a population of Catholic scholars, and that, far from being contrary to academic freedom, this is analogous to many other examples of building excellent academic culture through selective hiring. Mark W. Roche offers practical advice, based on admirable firsthand experience, about effectively recruiting “mission hires.”

One obvious criticism of all this was well articulated in a response by David O’Brien (“Mission before Identity”): “hiring Catholics” seems like a glib answer to a complex question about discerning, articulating, and embodying the mission of a Catholic university. O’Brien’s criticism doesn’t so much undermine the arguments of Garvey and Roche as point to a different question: With or without “hiring Catholics,” how can a Catholic university genuinely hire for mission?

In fact, it is widely agreed that Catholic colleges don’t just want to “count Catholics.” Current and prospective faculty members, whatever their religious convictions, can contribute to the mission of a Catholic university in diverse ways, and different institutions will have their own ways of articulating mission fit and their own strategies of “hiring for mission.”

One thing is sure: institutions that take their mission seriously should do more than ask candidates vague questions like, “Are you comfortable with our Catholic mission?” or “How would you support our Catholic mission?” It’s only somewhat better if candidates are asked to engage with a Catholic college’s mission in a written statement, or at a designated stage of the interview process. Ideally, attention to mission should be thoroughly integrated with the entire process of recruiting and hiring. Instead of making sure to include “a mission question” somewhere in the interview schedule, hiring committees and administrators should use every stage of the hiring process to evaluate, at least implicitly, a candidate’s ability to contribute to mission.

A prepared candidate will find ways to display thoughtfulness in engaging mission even when that is not explicitly solicited. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish three areas of discernment about potential to contribute to Catholic mission, and how that can best be articulated in the application process. Because this is a matter of discernment, I formulate them below as questions from a first-person perspective—that is, as questions that candidates can ask to help honestly evaluate, and effectively articulate, their capacity to contribute to mission. But these questions could easily be reformulated from the perspective of a hiring committee or university administrator—not necessarily questions to pose directly to candidates, but at the very least questions for interviewers to pose to themselves about candidates, to help notice and appreciate relevant qualities in the process of interviewing and recruiting.

How well do I understand the fundamental relevance of Catholicism to a university’s academic mission? This is a general question, but it is important to reflect seriously on the ways in which Catholic mission can’t be thought of as something merely superadded to a university mission. Of course, every institution will have its own ongoing conversation about mission, and a suitable hire will be someone willing to join this conversation, learn from it, and help advance it. So a prepared candidate will understand first of all that there are different models and expressions of Catholic identity, that healthy Catholic colleges sustain ongoing conversations about mission, and that it is important to learn more about this particular school’s distinctive character.

Attention to mission should be thoroughly integrated with the entire process of recruiting and hiring

No matter what a school’s particular culture, however, Catholic mission has distinct intellectual content and thus academic relevance. It is a mistake to think of Catholicism as a strictly moral phenomenon or a matter of personal spirituality. The Catholic vision of the person is often summarized in terms of the imago Dei, which means at least that human beings have an intrinsic dignity, with the gifts of free will and intelligence; that we are creatures instilled by God with a natural orientation to truth, goodness, and beauty. Such a conception of human nature is at the heart of the Catholic worldview, and has consequences for every dimension of human culture, politics, and society. A discerning candidate can thus ask further: Do I understand that Catholic mission cannot be limited to particular moral or practical issues, or just to matters of “personal faith”? Do I understand the mission of a Catholic university in terms of engagement with a tradition of deep reflection on fundamental questions about the human condition?

It is not uncommon that a candidate’s entry to Catholic mission is through the church’s social teaching. This is well and good, but Catholic social teaching is only one manifestation of the broader Catholic intellectual tradition rooted in a distinctive view of the person. At a healthy Catholic university, mission will never be reduced to social teaching, and the institution will look for ways that the intellectual work of teaching and research are informed by this whole tradition. A discerning candidate can thus also ask: Do I recognize that the social teaching of the Catholic Church is rooted in a rich, comprehensive vision of the human person? Do I appreciate the Catholic intellectual tradition, not as a dead canon, but as a living conversation about deep and universal questions? Am I eager to engage with other faculty in advancing the institution’s ongoing embodiment of Catholic mission through learning from, engaging, and enriching the Catholic intellectual tradition?

This last question leads to the next main area of discernment: Does Catholic mission animate my desire to collaborate with faculty peers and engage the research community? The particular ways in which Catholic mission can enhance the academic work of a Catholic university will vary by institution. For an undergraduate liberal-arts college, it may be primarily through collaborating in core-curriculum development and teaching. For a research university, collaboration, especially interdisciplinary collaboration, may seem more difficult, but (as Garvey argued) the Catholic mission can inspire distinctive research questions and projects, and even highly specialized research can show awareness of the Catholic notion of the unity of truth. A discerning candidate can thus ask: Do I have a strong desire to be part of an intellectual community that takes seriously the project of pursuing greater integration of knowledge, motivated by the ideal of the unity of truth? Do I have a desire to converse with faculty both in my own discipline and across disciplines about how our work is part of a common project? Do I see how the Catholic intellectual tradition can help me pose more interesting research questions and pursue more interesting inquiry as a scholar?

One proof of the richness of the Catholic vision of the person is its relevance to any academic field, not just philosophy and theology. Humanistic disciplines most obviously pose questions about the human person, but even disciplines like mathematics and chemistry can help us appreciate the role of rationality, order, and beauty in human life and knowledge; and practical disciplines like business or social work make assumptions about human nature, human motivation, and human fulfillment. An obvious question for discernment is therefore: Do I appreciate how the Catholic vision of the person is particularly relevant to my discipline, its methodology, and its relation to other disciplines?

Likewise, different disciplines—and trends within disciplines—can make methodological (and sometimes metaphysical) assumptions about human nature, which may highlight or occlude different dimensions of the Catholic vision of the person. Examples include: materialistic assumptions in physical sciences, determinism in psychology, social constructivism in sociology and communication studies, Marxism or post-structuralism in history or literary studies. We should expect well-trained scholars not only to be familiar with the trends and assumptions of their discipline, but to be aware of how these might conflict with, or could be complemented by, a Christian anthropology and the narrative of redemption from sin. While every discipline is responsible for finding its own way of addressing such questions, a candidate might ask: Do I recognize the assumptions and limitations of my own discipline, or of trends within my discipline? Can I help model how the discipline can be complemented by, and integrated with, other disciplines, especially in light of the Catholic vision of the person?

Of course the ultimate manifestation of Catholic mission is in service to students. Thus a third general question to help discern potential contribution to mission: Can I advance Catholic mission in the teaching and mentoring of students?

Personal attention to students is often a hallmark of Catholic universities. This personal attention needs to be informed not only by goodwill but also by formation in a certain kind of intellectual culture. It is rare that a discipline does not have some area that touches on Catholic teaching, and Catholic schools should nurture especially those students eager to integrate their faith with their academic interests. Someone who would teach at a Catholic college should thus ask more specifically, Can I help students appreciate the reasonableness and relevance of Catholic teaching? Could I help a student understand and appreciate the relationship between his or her faith and my academic discipline?

Beyond these intellectual questions, there are even more personal ones. Whether we intend to be or not, teachers are mentors and models. Even apart from important, overt occasions where faculty can exemplify Catholic mission (prayer before class, attending weekday Masses with students, or even a non-Catholic’s demonstrated commitment to religious observance), all our interactions with students will model—incarnate—ideals and commitments. So a discerning candidate would also do well to ask, Can I personally model, and share with students, an integrated understanding of human nature and the universe? As a mentor and model, can I help students grow in faith and spiritual maturity?

These three general areas of discernment, and the example questions I’ve proposed, are not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of qualities that contribute to mission. Nor is it expected that any new faculty member would necessarily embody all the characteristics suggested by these questions. Different candidates will bring different personal and intellectual strengths. The point is that faculty contribution to mission means that the work of faculty is recognized as having a fundamental significance, contributing to a larger and noble project. Just insofar as faculty are informed by and serve the Catholic mission, a Catholic university fosters a more coherent and robust academic endeavor than most secular schools can boast.

At a healthy Catholic university, mission will never be reduced to social teaching

Notably, one does not have to be a Catholic in order to address such questions well. Indeed, once a campus community gets used to discerning mission fit in terms of questions like this—instead of the more vague and abstract questions that can either seem like meaningless formalities or threatening litmus tests—it becomes clear that very different kinds of people, of various faith backgrounds, can be excited about and contribute to Catholic mission. At the same time, such questions can help recruit very high-quality candidates, including but not limited to well-formed Catholics. Such people, who may have opportunities to teach at different kinds of schools, will take keen interest in a Catholic college confident enough to take its mission seriously.

Finally, while many of these questions are quite specific to faculty hiring, with appropriate adjustments and elaborations they could also apply to other areas of university employment. Suitably reformulated, such questions could be used for discernment in hiring coaches, student-life professionals, development officers, marketing and admissions staff, diversity officers, student-services staff, and others. Indeed, analogous questions can be used to assess candidates for any management and leadership position, including president and trustee.

Personnel is policy. Hiring is of utmost importance for the health and integrity of an institution. At a Catholic institution, discerning who will occupy positions will always involve asking what characteristics candidates bring to help their areas of responsibility achieve distinctive excellence in light of Catholic mission. This doesn’t mean just hiring people who can “check the Catholic box.” It means hiring people able and eager to engage some dimension of the Catholic worldview and thereby enrich their work and their institution.

Published in the May 19, 2017 issue: 

Joshua Hochschild is Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy and former dean at the College of Liberal Arts at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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