Mark William Roche, photo by Chantelle Snyder


Realizing the Distinctive University
Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture

Mark William Roche
University of Notre Dame Press, $25, 288 pp


The late Ted Hesburgh, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, was often quoted as saying that the university is the place where the church does its thinking. A colleague of mine has quipped that one would hope the church does some thinking elsewhere, too, but Hesburgh’s point seems to me well taken. In my experience at least, it’s at universities and colleges that the intellectual vitality of Catholicism is kindled.

As many readers of this magazine will know, this claim invites, however, an immediate objection. Roughly put, how many of the two hundred fifty or so Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are really, substantively Catholic in their curriculum and student life? How many, more precisely, are distinctive, in the two senses Mark William Roche uses this term in his critically important new book: both different from their secular peers and excellent in themselves? The jury’s still out, but in the meantime it’s imprudent to be Pollyannish. Consider in this regard merely the subtitle of the impressive study by Melanie Morey and John Piderit, SJ, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford).

Roche’s book is relevant to the discussion of the ways and woes of Catholic higher education over the past fifty years, but it has ambitions beyond this discussion. Roche was dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. More recently, he played an important part in the revision of Notre Dame’s core curriculum, which attracted attention, remarkably, in the national press. (Full disclosure: he was also a keynote speaker at a conference I organized a few years ago on “The Idea of a Catholic College.”) Though differences between the works abound, the book that Roche’s most calls to mind is Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, which, as it happens, Roche cites. Realizing the Distinctive University is an informative, accurate title for what Roche has written. The Dean would be less informative, but accurate all the same.

To begin with the differences, unlike Machiavelli, Roche is not seeking to return to a position he has lost. Instead, he is candid about his own mistakes and limitations as a dean and evidently happy to be back among the faculty. Further, Roche’s book will not provoke charges of amorality or atheism. Unlike Machiavelli’s prince, Roche’s dean is thoroughly Christian in seeking power only to serve for the good of the institution rather than for himself. Roche is in fact scathing about administrators who are not also teachers and scholars and who are loath, accordingly, to make difficult, unpopular decisions, lest they be unable to hold on to power or climb the ranks elsewhere.

What makes Roche’s book reminiscent of Machiavelli’s is Roche’s ruthless attention to what Machiavelli called the “effectual truth”: how things really work, as opposed to how we might imagine they would ideally. Notre Dame is Roche’s principal example of a distinctive university, though he means his book “to appeal to administrators and faculty at a diverse array of colleges and universities.” When he arrived at Notre Dame, a year before he became dean there, he saw in it, in his words, “too much self-approbation and not enough honest assessment of genuine weaknesses.” Upon becoming dean, he “stressed that we were not nearly as good as we should be.” And so what he did was to introduce changes that provoked controversy and vehement resistance, but became over time the normal operating procedures of the institution and worked toward transforming its culture. He took away hiring lines from departments, split underperforming departments, instituted merit raises, penalized poor teachers with the maximum allowable pay reduction of 2 percent, varied teaching assignments according to research productivity, established a merit-based sabbatical policy and peer-review of sabbatical requests, and overturned recommendations for insufficiently strong hires and weak tenure and promotion cases. About difficult tenure decisions, he affirms the advice of a colleague: “When in doubt, say no.” For “low standards weaken an institution for generations, as faculty tend to perpetuate” the standards to which they were held.

How many of the 250 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are really, substantively Catholic?

This is called playing hardball, so predictably Roche took some heavy hits himself. In retrospect, he confesses that he overestimated “the value of engaged intellectual discussion” and “radically underappreciated the importance of the social and emotional elements of change.” The lesson he draws, however, is not that he should have pursued different policies, but that “one needs to think of strategies to embed change within continuity and collegiality.” He also reflects that an administrator ought “to cause a rupture only when it serves an important and targeted purpose,” just as he or she should know “never to take an important vote when the outcome was not already certain.”

All this also might be called insider baseball. It is, but the stakes are higher than those of any game, and especially at present for Catholic colleges and universities. If, as the historian David O’Brien has written, the Roman Catholic Church is “in some struggling sense the very presence of Christ in our history,” then the service of Catholic colleges and universities to the church is important indeed. But too many have paid too little attention to hiring for mission, and very many badly need to innovate in order to thrive, if not merely survive, in today’s challenging economic circumstances. James Heft, SM, formerly provost and chancellor at the University of Dayton, now president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, has claimed that many Catholic colleges and universities have a twenty-year problem going forward. That’s how long it would take for these institutions—with visionary and strategic leadership—to become distinctive in Roche’s two senses: different from their secular peers and excellent in themselves. Roche proposes, in this regard, that “the challenge is to articulate a conceptual ideal that is intellectually compelling and attractive to people who are not Catholic and, at the same time, is deeply Catholic.” For principles and strategies for moving from vision to implementation, read this book.

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.

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Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: View Contents
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