What Makes a University Catholic?

An Exchange on Mission & Hiring
Commencement day, 2016, at Catholic University of America / CNS photo

John Garvey

The blueprint for building a great university is fairly simple. It’s like the plan for building a great baseball team: hire great players. In a fundamental sense, the faculty are the university. Students pay to learn what they profess. If the faculty are great scholars and teachers, the university will be great.

The blueprint for building a Catholic university is also simple. It was laid out in 1990 by John Paul II in the apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesiae. John Paul was himself a university professor, so he knew how universities worked. Ex corde runs almost fifty pages in the English translation; but the kernel of the document is four short lines near the end. In Part II, a section titled “General Norms,” John Paul says that in order for a university to be Catholic, a majority of its faculty must be Catholic. 

What I most admire about this prescription is its modesty. John Paul did not say that he and the other bishops should superintend the Catholic character of Catholic universities. On the contrary, he began his observations about the university community by conceding that “the responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the University rests primarily with the university itself.” Bishops are not academics. (John Paul and Benedict XVI were exceptions.) Ex corde says to university faculties and administrators, in effect, “We don’t know how to run a Catholic university. That’s your job. The only thing we insist on is that you choose Catholics to do it.”

This is, as I say, a fairly simple plan. If a university follows it, it will be Catholic. If it does not, it won’t. But it has met with resistance in the academy. I want to discuss one line of argument against it that I find both powerful and well considered, but wrong.


HARRY KEYISHIAN WAS was an adjunct English professor at the University of Buffalo in the 1960s. The university was once a private school, founded by Millard Fillmore (this was before he became president) in 1846. But in 1962 it merged into the New York state university system. That made Keyishian a state employee, subject to something called the Feinberg Law, which required him to sign a certificate saying he was not a Communist. I’m not sure whether he was or not, but Keyishian was at least scrupulous about signing the certificate, and so his contract was not renewed. 

He sued the New York Board of Regents and won. The Supreme Court held that the Feinberg Law and several earlier New York sedition laws that it enforced were inconsistent with the academic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.  Here is how Justice William Brennan put it:

[T]he First Amendment...does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.... The classroom is peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas.” The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth “out of a multitude of tongues, (rather) than through any kind of authoritative selection.”

Let us be careful in parsing this. It’s not a postmodern argument. The Court does not say that all ideas deserve equal protection because one is as good as another, that there is no such thing as truth. It argues for a free market of ideas on instrumental grounds. If we want to discover the truth, Brennan says, we should prefer “a multitude of tongues” to “orthodoxy” and “authoritative selection.”

The most famous version of this argument is made by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill had this in common with Keyishian: when it came time for him to apply to college, he refused to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and so was ineligible to attend Oxford or Cambridge. He went to University College, London. 

On Liberty, the best known of Mill’s political writings, was published in 1859, a little more than a hundred years before the Keyishian decision. Chapter 2 of On Liberty is an extended defense of the liberty of thought and discussion. Justice Brennan assumed that free trade in ideas was the surest path to truth. Mill offers three reasons why this may be so. 

First, the opinions we suppress may turn out to be true. “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” Think about Galileo and Urban VIII. Turns out the earth really does revolve around the sun. Second, it may be the case that “conflicting doctrines, instead of one being true and the other false, share the truth between them.” Chemists in the nineteenth century debated whether inanimate catalysts or living cells caused fermentation. Turns out they were both right. It’s caused by enzymes (inanimate bodies) pressed out of living cells. Third, suppose that the received opinion is entirely true. Unless we are forced to consider objections to it, Mill says, our reception of it will in time become a mindless and reflexive attachment. “Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

You can probably see where this leads, in the discussion about Ex corde ecclesiae and building a great Catholic university. Some people draw from Mill and his disciples the conclusion that a great Catholic university is a contradiction in terms. If we hire a majority of Catholics (instead of a multitude of tongues), we will have a harder time discovering truth than schools that reject “orthodoxy” and “authoritative selection.” Without dissent and disagreement, without the intellectual give and take that characterizes a free market of ideas, we are bound to lose our way and have no one to call us back.


OR SO THE  argument goes. The funny thing is, it is easy to find examples of great universities that contradict Mill’s thesis. Consider the University of Chicago. The Chicago School of Economics developed around Milton Friedman and George Stigler in the 1950s. It embraced a neoclassical approach to economics based on rational expectations. The Chicago School spun off parallel movements like Law and Economics and public-choice theory. The university’s website lists twenty-eight Nobel Prize winners who spent some part of their careers at Chicago as faculty, students, or researchers. 

In building up this great school Chicago preferred people who shared its peculiar orientation rather than Keynesian economists. They wanted faculty who believed in markets and worried more about government regulation than they did about private monopolies. Chicago was the very embodiment of free-market thinking, yet it did not seek a multitude of tongues for its faculty. Paul Douglas, once a professor at Chicago and later a U.S. senator, wrote that he left the university because economist Frank “Knight was openly hostile [to me], and his disciples seemed to be everywhere.”

Here’s another example. The Bauhaus School was an art school that operated in Germany from 1919 to 1933, when it was closed under pressure from the Nazis. It featured faculty like Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe. Painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky joined in the 1920s. Bauhaus gave birth to architectural modernism, a style that features simple forms, a stress on function and rationality, and an effort to infuse mass production with artistic spirit. Think of the Pan Am building (Mies) or the Whitney Museum (Breuer) in New York. Or the Lake Shore apartments in Chicago (Mies). 

In building this school the directors sought faculty who shared their passion for newness. They did not want classical architects and painters. They were not interested in a baroque revival. They would not have hired Bernini. They liked flat roofs, right angles, and minimal ornamentation. They used dull colors—a lot of white and black. Bauhaus was a revolution that influenced a century of architecture. But the school was not assembled from a multitude of tongues.

I could add other counterexamples: the Yale School of literary criticism, the Cambridge School of political thought, the Frankfurt School of critical theory. What they all have in common is a dedication to a common project, usually a departure from some academic orthodoxy, and a sense that the group is working on its own to build something new. They all laid the foundations of great intellectual movements. And yet they were built up on principles that seem inconsistent with Mill’s idea of academic freedom. In building their faculties, they did not seek out a multitude of tongues. How can this be?


BUILDING A GREAT university is a complicated thing. There is some truth in Mill’s thesis. But there is more to the project than that. Let me illustrate the point with a brief account of another of my intellectual heroes.

Michael Polanyi was the fifth child born into a family of secular Jews in Hungary in 1891. His father built railroads. His mother’s father was the chief rabbi of Vilnius. He got a medical degree, then a PhD in chemistry. (His son won the Nobel Prize in 1986.) In 1919 he converted to Christianity. In the 1920s he taught at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s he moved to England, where he taught at the University of Manchester until his retirement. 

Though he was a pretty famous scientist, he is better known for his writings about epistemology and social science. In 1962 he gave a lecture at Chicago’s Roosevelt University titled “The Republic of Science,” about building intellectual communities. During and after World War II there were efforts in England to direct the progress of science into channels that would better serve the public welfare. Polanyi compared these to Soviet schemes for having the Academy of Science guide research, the better to support that country’s Five-Year Plans. 

Consider the case of Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet biologist who worked at improving wheat-crop yields during the Depression. Lysenko rejected the developing science of genetics as a product of bourgeois capitalism. He believed that acquired traits could be inherited. If this were true, it would allow fairly rapid reengineering of plant and animal life. So the theory appealed to the Soviet leadership. Lysenko became a protégé of Joseph Stalin. Scientists who disagreed with him were sent to the gulag. The result was the essential destruction of a branch of science in the Soviet Union for several decades.

Though Polanyi appreciated the sentiments that inspired these British and Soviet efforts, he found their aim misguided. Science is a particular kind of joint task that requires the spontaneous coordination of independent initiatives, not central control. Imagine, he says, that we have a very large jigsaw puzzle, and we are trying to put the pieces together in the shortest possible time. We can speed things up by hiring more helpers. 

Notice, though, how this is different from hiring a dozen people to shell peas. There each worker can tend to her own pile. The total number of peas shelled won’t vary if the workers are isolated from each other. With the jigsaw puzzle the helpers must work in sight of each other, so that each time one fits a piece in, the others can see what further steps become possible. This is what we mean by saying that their work is coordinated. 

But it is also independent. If we try to organize the helpers’ behavior under a single authority, we lose the benefit of their individual initiatives and “reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre.” This is what happened with Lysenko in the Soviet Union.

This is a powerful argument for academic freedom. But I want you to notice three interesting things about it. First, it is implicit in the jigsaw-puzzle analogy that there is a correct solution. The pieces don’t fit together any which way. There is one right arrangement. Polanyi was no postmodern; he did not subscribe to epistemological and moral relativism. He believed that truth is real. But how do we know when we have found it? Who’s to say? 

This is the second interesting thing. If truth is real, there are right and wrong opinions, an “orthodoxy of science,” as Polanyi puts it. And if there is an orthodoxy, there is an authority to judge about it. It can’t be any single person. (That again is the lesson of Lysenko.) Rather, it is to be found in the scientific community, which is responsible for maintaining professional standards. 

Though each scientist is competent to judge only about his own small corner of studies, he will have some sense about standards in immediately adjacent areas. If we consider the larger community of scientists, we will find a network of overlapping competencies that together generate uniform standards of scientific merit. Consider again the helpers working on the jigsaw puzzle. It wouldn’t work if each person had a different understanding of the job (if, for example, one person believed that puzzle pieces ought to be stacked rather than fitted together). The community of scholars must share the same idea of what problem they are working on, and what counts as a good solution.

This is the third point. For the community of scholars to be authoritative, there must be standards for admission to it. In Polanyi’s view “the authority of science is essentially traditional.” It is transmitted from one generation to another the way artistic, moral, and legal traditions are transmitted.  Scientists learn their trade by apprenticing with people who have already mastered the tradition. To be accepted into the trade, they must submit to “a vast range of value-judgments exercised over all the domains of science.” 

Universities play a uniquely important role in the creation of this republic of science. The “justification for the pursuit of scientific research in universities,” Polanyi says, “lies in the fact that the universities provide an intimate communion for the formation of scientific opinion, free from corrupting intrusions and distractions.”

YOU CAN SEE where I am going with this. Ex corde ecclesiae takes a similar approach to building a Catholic university. The encyclical does not undertake to regulate, Soviet style, the teaching of theology, or physics, or literature. It does not prefer or condemn particular theories or schools of thought. It does not say that an undergraduate curriculum must include twelve hours each of philosophy and theology. It says instead that:

[t]he responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university rests primarily with the university itself.... [T]his responsibility...calls for the recruitment of...personnel, especially teachers and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote that identity.

The central thing John Paul insists on is that the people who build the university community be apprenticed in the Catholic tradition, as Polanyi’s scientists were formed in the scientific tradition, and committed to the common project of building the Catholic intellectual life. 

Building a Catholic faculty is not tribalism, any more than building a republic of science is. It is a recognition that, in order to create a distinctively Catholic intellectual culture, we need to build an intellectual community governed by a Catholic worldview. A shared commitment to Catholic ideas about Creation and Providence, of human beings made in the image of God, will spur creativity and the development of a culture that expresses these ideas. 

Let me close the circle by returning to Mill’s arguments. There is a distinction between embracing the Catholic tradition as a constitutional principle and regulating particular activities in research and teaching. Polanyi wrestled with this issue too. There is an internal tension in science between the need to adhere to orthodox professional standards and the demand for originality in research: “The professional standards of science must impose a framework of discipline and at the same time encourage rebellion against it.” Kepler’s theory of elliptical orbits grew out of an effort to defend Copernicus’s ideas about uniform motion. Newton relied on Copernicus and Kepler to find answers unthinkable to them. The defense of originality does not demand the rejection of orthodoxy. On the contrary, it is impossible without it.

This is why Ex corde ecclesiae can include a stout defense of academic freedom alongside its insistence on hiring a predominantly Catholic faculty. It says: “The church...recognizes the academic freedom of scholars in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper methods[.]” This is not mere lip service to an ideal the secular academy prizes. The church really means it. The process it favors for keeping the faith is not compulsion and censorship, but building up the body of Christ.


Mark W. Roche

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. 

Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: 

John Garvey is president of the Catholic University of America. Mark W. Roche served as dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame from 1997 to 2008.

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