In the eleventh episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” podcast, Todd Ream interviews John T. McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. John talks about his calling as an historian and as an academic administrator. Then, they talk about Notre Dame’s unique contribution to higher education and the Catholic Church. Part of how they close their conversation focuses on how “Notre Dame 2033: A Strategic Framework,” seeks to position the university well to respond to the challenges and opportunities that face a university on par with, but distinct from the world’s greatest universities.
- John McGreevy’s book: Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Dr. John T. McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Thank you for joining us.
John McGreevy: Great to be here. Thank you, Todd.
Todd Ream: As Notre Dame’s Provost, in what ways, if any, are two days the same?
John McGreevy: You know, uh, it is. So I’m speaking from the experience of a whole 15 months. So take what I say with a little bit of a grain of salt, but that is one of the enjoyable parts of the job. If I think about today, I’m going to meet with a group of faculty to talk about leadership changes. I’m, you know, meeting with a couple of the deans in our regular one-on-one monthly meetings. There’s a development event and dinner tonight. Um, meeting to talk about our strategic framework a little bit later in the day.
So, and I’m talking to you, uh, and, and so it is true that there’s a little bit of a rhythm to the academic calendar, as all of you know. But an appealing part of the job, one reason I was happy to accept it when it was offered, was, is the, you know, the multitude of things you get to do and see. So that is attraction. No two days are exactly the same.
Todd Ream: You come with a considerable amount of administrative experience before this, but until one serves as the Chief Academic Officer, there’s, there’s no way to sort of fully lean into what that may ask. Uh, but what components of your previous professional formation are you now finding most beneficial with your current role?
John McGreevy: I would say and again, I want to exaggerate 15 months, you know, ask me again 15 months later. But I would say, it’s nice to have some curiosity about other intellectual areas of the university obviously. I’m a historian and so know a little bit about our history and historical scholarship.
But one thing I liked about being dean, uh, I was dean for 10 years, was seeing how other fields worked and what were the big issues that back you were grappling with and other fields. And now I have an even wider panorama there, you know, on issues in neuroscience or in chemical engineering, uh, or in finance, that I wasn’t paying attention to before.
Now I get to see a little bit of that. Who are the faculty that we’re recruiting? What kind of curriculum makes sense for our undergraduates? How do we think about graduate professional training? All of that is good training from the vantage point. I mean, this I think I often think historians are pretty curious and like to learn a lot about a lot of different things. And so I feel like my training as an historian serves me well there.
I guess that’d be the main answer. I mean, I was used to being an administrator from being dean. In that sense, it’s similar to being provost, except the, I will say the pace of the provost office is even faster. You know, there’s more going on.
Todd Ream: Notre Dame is one of the newest members of the Association of American Universities. In what way is Notre Dame comparable to the other roughly 70 schools, uh, that comprise that group?
John McGreevy: You know, uh, our, our, our, my little joke is that before we were admitted into the AU, which for us was a pretty big deal, um, we thought the membership procedures were deeply unjust and, and maybe even prejudicial. Now that we’ve been admitted, we don’t want anyone else ever to be admitted, you know? And, and, uh, but it was a nice honor.
Um, we’ve talked about being in the AU for 20 years and, you know, done a lot of the things that we thought would position ourselves for it. But honestly, it was a surprise. It’s a very secretive process. It’s not- and there are some metrics that are publicly available, but a lot aren’t. We were really excited the day we got the call from the AU. The president took the call.
I would say there will be a couple of benefits to us from membership of the AU. They have regular meetings. So I was just at the provost meeting in Washington, D.C. You have to imagine 50 some provosts in a room for three days and talking about issues in higher education. There’s a presidents’ meeting, a meeting for the graduate education deans and the vice presidents of research. So that’s a good thing. And we’ll have access to some data.
It’s also true, though, that we are the only religiously affiliated university in the AU. And Brandeis is kind of a liminal case. Brandeis was founded by the American-Jewish community after World War II, but it’s not formally affiliated with any religious tradition. And Notre Dame is. And, uh, I think that’s good for the AU and good for us, um, for us to be in that company. These are certainly- if you look at the private research universities that we often compare ourselves to, these are the ones we want to compare ourselves to, uh, the best in the world.
At the same time as a religiously affiliated university, we might offer a somewhat different model of academic excellence. And that’s good for the AU and good for higher education. So I, I like to think it’s going to be great for everyone, our being in the AU. Probably most beneficial to us, but maybe even a little bit beneficial to the AU.
Todd Ream: Having just come from that meeting then, if I may ask, in what ways do you estimate your role is comparable to other provosts? And in what ways, as that, you know, sole, religiously affiliated university, is it different?
John McGreevy: Uh, mostly comparable. And, and listen, I was quiet, almost quiet as a mouse at the meeting because I wanted to just pay attention and learn in my first meeting and I’ll have other chances to talk. And so most of the issues were not issues that were in any way particularly religious. They ranged from graduate student unionization, to the influence of China on American universities and actually potential for Chinese espionage, to how does the general public perceive American universities, which is generally not that great. Um, uh, and, and those sorts of topics.
So mostly topics that would be interest to any, any university. There may become a time when some of the topics, you know, rear especially around free speech, rear into religious issues, and maybe we’ll have a special contribution to make there. But right now just trying to learn as much as I can.
Todd Ream: One of the strengths of research universities is their ability to marshal resources that are needed to follow wherever truth may lead. And while often advantageous, those pursuits are often reductionistic in nature, perpetuating what Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California, called multiversities.
Notre Dame is often referred to as a great experiment, uh, when it comes to its place as a research university. And as a Catholic research university, in what ways is Notre Dame oriented to pursue truth when needed in reductionistic ways, but yet also oriented to pursue truth in interconnective ways, reflective of God’s created order as a whole?
John McGreevy: Yeah. I mean, that is something maybe using different vocabulary that we, we think about quite a lot. At the pragmatic level, I think universities are pretty good, and Notre Dame’s not an exception to this, at building boundaries between departments and centers and divisions and colleges and schools, and, and it probably is true that we have to be a little bit more willing to cross some of those boundaries to make a bigger impact, uh, with our scholarship and, and the ways in which we train students.
We’re thinking about that pretty hard here. We have some multidisciplinary initiatives we’ve launched, one in poverty, one on democracy, one on ethics, that we really try and marshal the resources of the whole university around some of those initiatives. And there’ll be more as well.
So at a, at a very pragmatic level, I think universities need to get better at doing that. I’m not new in saying this. It has been set for a long time, but it seems more pressing, uh, given the problems that the world faces. You know, at a more philosophical or even theological level that does coincide with, with a very Catholic vision that that truth is non-contradictory and that, you know, we can find truth in many domains and that the great scientists often have, um, philosophical questions that they need to think about and vice versa. That’s one reason we have a requirement set in Notre Dame for undergraduates in philosophy and theology, a sense that those questions should be part of any undergraduate education.
Uh, and again, we’re not unique there, but I do think at a moment when universities are called on to do more and there’s a lot of public scrutiny of universities, the idea that we can marshal the resources of the university across department divisional lines is appealing. I say that recognizing that expertise is real, right? Disciplinary expertise is real. And the disciplinary expertise of a great molecular chemist, right? Is profound. Uh, and we can’t just substitute that for something else. But how do we get that person, get her to look up and say, okay, and here are the big picture questions that my research raises. That, that’s the alluring part.
Todd Ream: You were an undergraduate at Notre Dame and then did graduate work at Stanford. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but your first appointment was at Harvard and then you returned to Notre Dame. As a historian, how would you describe the emergence of your vocation over time?
John McGreevy: Gosh, that’s a big question as a historian or as a human being. And I should add, I did a postdoctoral fellowship for a year at Valparaiso University.
Todd Ream: It’s part of the Lilly Fellows Program?
John McGreevy: For the Lily Fellows program. Um, just after getting my PhD.
You know, without getting too, you know, highfalutin about it, uh, when I was an undergraduate in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and my parents were great and they said, study what you love, which is advice I always give students to: study what you’re most interested in and we’ll figure out the future. And I would love my history classes. And I actually thought about both teaching in high school and in college, and I thought about law school too, more out of like, I don’t know what to do.
Maybe I would like- I like school. I like school and, um, ended up teaching at high school a little while in Chicago and enjoyed that, but thought maybe the intellectual dimensions of graduate school maybe better suited me. But I had no intellectual agenda when I went to graduate school. I didn’t- I thought I’d like to be a college teacher. That was it. I didn’t have a topic I wanted to pursue. And it took me a little while to figure that out.
But I did fall in love with the work. I happened to go to a great program at Stanford. I always tell graduate students, I applied to like 12 graduate schools and I got admitted at one, you know. And, um, and it was at Stanford and I went and it turned out to be a great fit for me. And there were great faculty and great, and others, you know, in a graduate program you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from anybody else. And other students there were great.
So all of that helped shape vocation where, okay, I could maybe I could really see myself as a college teacher. I found I enjoyed the writing. I liked talking about books and I always knew I’d like to be a teacher that vocation and I fell into the research and gradually came to love it.
So I feel unbelievably fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve had in the career I’ve had. And, um, uh, it was a lot of it was happenstance or providence panning out.
Todd Ream: When you were dean, you did a fair amount of writing for larger public audiences on graduate education. Regardless of the academic area, what advice would you offer to young people today who are considering the academic vocation?
John McGreevy: It does depend a little bit on area. Um, but if we bracket area, it’s a great, wonderful life, um, to be a college teacher or professor. It’s a wonderful life. You get to study things that matter to you. You get the excitement of being in a classroom with young people, often young people or non-traditional students too, and that ,that is meaningful work. And I think it’s very easy to take that for granted.
What are the disadvantages? The disadvantages are in some areas, and again, it depends a great deal on area, the job market is exceptionally challenging. You have to really want to do this because getting- let’s imagine you follow the traditional path and you get a PhD getting PhD is hard and long. And, um, sometimes too long, which I’ve written about and, um, but even when it’s not, it still takes a while. And the outcomes are more uncertain than we would like because of the job market in some areas.
Some areas, if you’re a gaining a PhD in computer science, you have a lot of different opportunities. But in some areas, particularly the humanities, um, you have to be willing to do it knowing that the outcome is uncertain.
The other I think disadvantage is you don’t really have as much control as you would in other learned professions, if I can say that, um, over where you live. You know, you know, there aren’t, you’re going to take a job and you’re going to move for that job, typically, and that can be an inhibition for people with family commitments or other things.
So the advantages are the life, um, where you have a lot of control over your own time. You can pursue projects that you’re passionate about. You get to work and teach young people, work with and teach young people, and hopefully shape and inspire them if you can do that well. That’s really important work.
And I think colleges and universities are fundamentally important institutions in our democracy, not just in our society. Downsides are the uncertainty of the job market, given the time commitment. Um, and the, you need to be pretty flexible with where you wanna live.
Todd Ream: And I would say that flexibility, that that particular component has, uh, come closer to the surface for a number of young people as their sensibilities about those things have changed, uh, too over time.
John McGreevy: People ask me about going to graduate school and I’ll say I think it’s a wonderful, noble vocation. And, um, there are many great things about it. You should, if, if it’s what you feel you, you need to do, you should do it. I have more specific advice for young people. Like don’t, I would always say don’t borrow to go to graduate school, make sure you get into a program that pays your expenses, um, uh, et cetera, et cetera. But there’s other kinds of pieces of advice I give. I’m always interested in giving people advice about this, but those are the fundamental dynamics.
Todd Ream: Turning now more formally to your area of expertise as an American religious historian. In 2012, you published American Religion and the American Historical Association’s, excuse me, American History Now series. After offering an overview of titles published since the mid to late 1990s, you closed by contending that what these titles, and I quote here, “Demonstrate as the promise of contemporary religious history, more fully realized in this scholarly generation than any other and it’s increasingly successful efforts.” If you were to write a comparable work today, in what ways might your argument there become the same? In what ways might it be different?
John McGreevy: Yeah. You know, 2012, I can’t believe that was 11 years ago, but, um, Uh, you know, when I wrote that, what was stunning was just the number of really good books coming out on religious history. Uh, I was writing really about the United States, but, but it was starting to become true a little bit more in a global sense too. And that we wouldn’t have predicted. Like when I went to graduate school from ’86 to ’92, it’s not that no one was writing on religious history, but it was a much smaller field, subfield. And, um, that changed. It changed in one generation.
There were some great scholars who wrote important books that, that inspired people. I think there was a sense that religion remained important in American politics. I mean, we could talk about cultural history and the way it shaped religious history. Um, I think almost all of that is still true. Uh, and so the volume and quality of work on religious history has continued at a pretty high level. It might diminish somewhat over time. I think there’s more interest now, for example, in economic history than there was a generation ago but it’s still at a pretty high level.
Uh, so I might, if I were writing that essay again, I might be a little bit more cautious. I’m not sure it’s, but, but the AHA did a survey of historians and what they identified as their subfields. And I, I can’t remember for reference in the essay, religion came out as number one or number two. That’s unbelievable. You wouldn’t have predicted that, you know, 40 years ago. And so, uh, just these things can sometimes move in cycles. Uh, and, uh, this turned out to be a really good cycle to be studying religion.
Todd Ream: Thank you. You’re the author of numerous articles as well as four books, the most recently being published by Norton just last year, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis. Of all the writing you’ve done, which project to date yielded the greatest sense of vocational satisfaction for you?
John McGreevy: We love our projects in the way that we love our children, you know, equally and, um, uh, I, I, I have to say in terms of reception, this last book, it’s called Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis has probably been the most rewarding.
I, I always, what I say in the book and I’ll say to you now is I wrote it for two reasons. One was: there was all this amazing work on the history of modern Catholicism in various parts of the world, but I didn’t feel at least anybody had put it together in a coherent one volume way. And I tried to do that in the book and it’s gotten a pretty nice reception.
And then second, personally, you know, there’s so much, um, you know, Pope Francis always says we are not in an era of change, but a change of era. I love that. Not an era of change, but a change of era. It seems like it’s a fundamental shift, not just within Catholicism and what’s it going to be in the 21st century, but in our political system, in our environmental, ecological system, we are in an era, as historians often say of speeded up.
If you were living through the 1940s, you thought history was really speeding up. If you were living in the late 18th century in Europe, you thought history was really speeding up. So much was happening. We are in an era like that now. And that was- so the second reason I wrote the book is can we have a good savvy baseline to get us to where we need to be to understand this era that we’re living in.
Todd Ream: As someone who’s written for both academic journals and more popular periodicals, university presses, and trade publishers, what process do you follow when you try to discern how to connect the message, the medium, and the audience?
John McGreevy: Well, I don’t have a formula. I will say I, I have made a conscious effort in a couple of books to go with the trade press, which is Norton, and really try and be deliberate about reaching the largest audience possible. And I have to say, I had an editor at Norton, a woman named Elaine Mason, who’s fantastic, and who was pretty ruthless about, well, I’ll, you know, say one of her big pieces of advice is why don’t historians use their biggest asset, which is chronology. Tell things in the order they occurred. Um, try and keep the book at a manageable length. Keep chapters at 10,000 words. A whole range of things to try and make serious history accessible and readable.
I’m, I’m very passionate about that actually, uh, and the historians I’ve admired in my career, including my advisor, David Kennedy, were unbelievably good at that. Uh, are unbelievably good at that. And so that, that is the kind of historian I always wanted to be. And so I’ve tried to do a little bit of writing for general audiences too.
It doesn’t mean I publish books with scholarly presses too, but even there with a general sensibility, audience sensibility. I think it’s a huge advantage for historians as a profession and discipline that we still can reach larger audiences in a way that more technical areas do not and we shouldn’t lose that so…
Todd Ream: In what ways then, if any, should promotion and tenure processes also recognize work that reaches wider academic-
John McGreevy: Yeah.
Todd Ream: audience members instead of just the guild?
John McGreevy: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. We, we actually debate that a lot. You’d want to demonstrate that you can do the highest level of the guild. It’s not so much that you can’t reach other people, but you want to work at the highest level, you know, in the tenure and promotion process. But I think we probably are moving to an era where more types of scholarship are recognized as valuable.
And so what do we do about somebody who hosts a podcast? That’s probably an important contribution to scholarship if it’s done well. It doesn’t replace some of the core original scholarship, but that’s a, that’s a, that’s a wonderful form of public outreach. And, uh, I think all of us are starting to think a little bit about what that might mean.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. Turning our attention now more formally to the University of Notre Dame, as a tribute to Notre Dame alumni who lost their lives in World War I, the words: God, Country, Notre Dame were etched over the east door to the Basilica of The Sacred Heart. And today those words are often echoed, dare I say, as a concise iteration of the university’s mission. And what way did those words etch themselves into the character of the students who study at Notre Dame and the employees who come there to serve?
John McGreevy: The students and employees of course are different populations, but I’d like to think that almost everyone at Notre Dame, recognizes that the university has a distinctive mission. Uh, and, God, country, Notre Dame is one way to put it. Uh, another way to put it is we want to be the best global Catholic research university, on par with but distinct from the world’s best private universities. And I think both are true. Just a small example about the country part of God, country, Notre Dame, that might sound like kind of jingoistic patriotism, and maybe a little bit after World War I that was there. That’s when it was etched into the wall of the Basilica.
On the other hand, I’ve always been proud that Notre Dame has sustained a commitment to its ROTC programs over a very long period of time when some other universities moved away from that and then it moved back to it. And I think there was always a sense that, not an uncritical loyalty, but a loyalty to service to the nation and a loyalty to service to the Church and a loyalty to service to the university. I see that around me every day. Those are important dimensions of the Notre Dame experience.
Todd Ream: Just last night, ironically, my daughter forwarded me a picture that was sent to her by one of her professors, who’s a Notre Dame graduate, um, of Father Hesburgh and President Eisenhower standing in the driveway of the Morris Inn, reviewing the ROTC contingent.
John McGreevy: Yeah, yeah, sure.
Todd Ream: Yeah, uh, but yeah, and I understand too that the football game that’s scheduled with Navy has, you know, a longstanding roots to this commitment too. And the ways that those institutions have mutually served one another time.
John McGreevy: Well, I mean, there’s some reality to the oral history that Navy helped save Notre Dame during World War II by, uh, sponsoring a significant number of programs at the university when the university was struggling to get students.
Todd Ream: Notre Dame is defined by a commitment to the Church, to academics, and to athletics. In what ways, if any, do those commitments work together? And then in what ways can they, you know, work against each other too?
John McGreevy: Well, we’ve talked a little bit about church and academics. Um, athletics is interesting, right? I mean, this is a university with big time athletics and, um, at its best and Notre Dame is often doing it at its best. It really, uh, I so admire our Division I student athletes. They have extraordinary commitments and schedules. You know, they take the same classes that all the other students take. They live in the same dorms. And yet they have this other commitment where they’re trying to compete at the very highest level athletically. Some of our best students, uh, some of our most ambitious future leaders are Division I athletes. So that’s a wonderful thing.
That goal of a strong student-centered experience, as well as competing at the very highest level. That’s not controversial within Notre Dame. Outside Notre Dame, uh, that has become much more challenging, uh, because of the world of Division I athletics is, it’s an industry that, I don’t know if broken is the right word, but it’s in great flux. And you could name them as well as I could: the transfer portal, name image licensing agreements, conference realignment, all of those things don’t seem fundamentally driven by protecting the student athlete experience. Um, and Notre Dame is one of the institutions, and we’re not alone, really trying to protect that.
I’ve admired the leadership of Father Jenkins, our president, and Jack Swarbrick, who’s the athletic director, on those issues. And let’s hope that we get to a more stable place within college athletics that protects what’s good about it, but also keeps students, students at the center of the student athlete experience.
Todd Ream: A little more particular question then about the religious character of Notre Dame, um, in what way is it the product of the charisms of the religious order that founded the university, the Congregation of Holy Cross?
John McGreevy: Well, a lot, um, Holy Cross was founded in the early 19th century and from the beginning saw itself as an educational order. Um, and, and with a particular focus on, as they say, educating the mind and the, and the spirit and heart. Um, and so that meant a big focus on residential life, which has always been true at Notre Dame.
The Holy Cross priests who are on campus are very committed to that. Most of them live in the residence halls. People can’t believe that, but that’s true. Um, Father Malloy, who’s the past president and president emeritus, has lived in the same residence hall for 50 years. Uh, Father Jenkins, our current president, lives in graduate student housing.
And so that is a deep commitment of the order that is high-level education, but also commitment to community and residential life. So in that sense, from the very beginning, Holy Cross helped shape Notre Dame’s ethos. More broadly, it’s, you know, the, the Catholic mission of the university and everything else, but the Holy Cross presence is, is very significant and continues to be.
Todd Ream: In a recent conversation with Monk Malloy, he mentioned the wholesale renovation that Sorin, one of the buildings on campus, had undergone. And one of the gifts he received, I believe he didn’t know it was going to happen, uh, with the initial plans for the renovation, was he got additional soundproofing in his room.
John McGreevy: Good for him. He’s earned it I think after 50 years, so, uh, good for him.
Todd Ream: Yeah. He’s, he’s very, very committed to the students in Sorin, but he said, I never thought what a difference that would make.
John McGreevy: So that’s, really good. I didn’t know that. So if you were to look out the window, I’m looking out right now, you are about 30 yards from Sorin. That’s where his room is.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Earlier this fall, the university released Notre Dame 2033: A Strategic Framework. And for viewers who haven’t seen it yet, I would encourage them to read it. It’s available for download on the university’s website. The result over two years of over two years of work. The decision was made to develop a strategic framework and not a strategic plan in an effort to convey both flexibility and a commitment to revisit and adapt the document at regular intervals. What do you and your colleagues hope will be accomplished by perhaps say the end of that first interval in relation to the investment in faculty?
John McGreevy: So, uh, I mentioned, you know, there’ll be some university level initiatives coming out of that and I could talk about the details of those in democracy, ethics and poverty and ultimately we hope in environment sustainability and health and well-being and a couple of other areas. Maybe more important just to say it was a pretty interesting process. You know, that was most of my year last year is trying to develop that document and with many, many other people.
But, but it was sort of, I was the person waking up every day thinking about how, how can we get to this? A lot of consultation, a lot of faculty committees, faculty led and staff committees. And I was really pleased by the energy, the sense that Notre Dame’s called to do more, given the resources that we’ve been given. Um, and that kind of, I can almost say unity, if I can say that at a university, around the big picture mission, which is to be every bit as good as the Harvard, Yale, Stanfords of the world.
Those are culture shaping institutions, and there’s a lot to admire about those institutions. But the world doesn’t need another Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern, Chicago. The world needs the best, most distinctive, most authentic Notre Dame. And that’s really what the framework is trying to get us toward.
How do we do financial aid? For PhD, professional, undergraduate students? How do we do these programs I mentioned, but there are others, uh, that cross the whole university and enable us to shape the world through our scholarship and shape the world through the students we train? How do we build a more diverse and inclusive community and see that as actually part of our Catholic mission?
So those are the things that we talk about in the framework. It was kind of an inspiring process for me. We had a kickoff event and- I mean, maybe the provost is sort of paid to say that- but, but we had a kickoff event, uh, where we brought in the former provost from Duke, Peter Lange, then Barbara Snyder, who’s the current president, uh, current president of the AU, was formerly president of Case Western. It was pretty great. We had a, a huge turnout and, um, a lot of good lively discussion about what are the opportunities and pitfalls that might face Notre Dame in the next 10 years.
Todd Ream: In terms of the investments, um, one of the points and you echoed it just a second ago is, uh, Notre Dame’s contributions to global Catholicism. Can you say a little bit more about that?
John McGreevy: Well, uh, one thing we say in the framework, uh, which is empirically correct, is that the average Catholic in the world right now is a woman of color living in the Global South. Okay, it doesn’t, it’s not someone who looks like me. And, uh, if Notre Dame is going to sustain and deepen its Catholic mission in the next generation, which again I think is crucial, that’s how we serve the country in the world.
Uh, we have to grapple with that reality. It means we probably need a more global Catholic community on campus, not just setting our students, which is a very good thing to do, out into the world. It means we want to think about developing research programs around global Catholicism that will enable us to do any more, to do more.
So a whole range of- it’s one reason, given the centrality of poverty to Catholic social thought that we’ve chosen to focus on poverty as a theme in the strategic framework. So that recognition that the Catholic Church of the future is much more centered in the Global South, much more people of color, that does inform the, the, the strategic planning of an institution that has global ambitions like Notre Dame.
Todd Ream: The 1st of the 4 goals identified by this framework is to ensure that our Catholic character informs all of our behaviors. The first threat then listed, in relation to those goals is religious disaffiliation, which I assume is sort of echoing the context in which we live here in the North Atlantic region of the world.
In what ways are you and your colleagues investing in faculty and academic programs so that such a challenge can also be an opportunity, as the language also reads in the framework?
John McGreevy: Yeah. You put it better than I did. I mean, how can that challenge be an opportunity? Various organizations on campus, the Institute for Church Life, others, are looking at the complex problem of disaffiliation, especially among young people. No one institution is going to solve that. There are larger cultural, uh, things at work.
Uh, but we need to better understand it and better know how to react to it. Uh, I do think that’s a threat long term to Notre Dame, but it’s also an opportunity. Uh, it’s a way for us to make a difference in the world to, to better understand it. And even in this period of disaffiliation, of course, the Catholic Church is still a very big institution in, uh, not just the North Atlantic, but the, but around the world, as I’ve just said. And so we have to kind of grapple with that reality.
Todd Ream: To our last question then, and concluding our time, the end of the framework acknowledges, and you’ve echoed this a couple of times in our conversation already, “building the leading global Catholic university on par with, but distinct from, the world’s best private universities has never been an easy or simple task.”
And then it goes on to read, “it never will be.” What kind of theological imagination needs to be cultivated then to envision such a university?
John McGreevy: You know, that’s such a good question. Really. Um, but not many people would ask what’s the theological imagination. Well, if you look at Notre Dame’s history, in a way, there’s the founding with Father Sorin in the 19th century. There’s almost a refounding with Father Hesburgh after World War II, who saw from the beginning of his presidency, he had bigger ambitions for Notre Dame.
It’s going to be, then he would have set a national place. And it’s going to be a top level research university, which if you said that in 1952, it almost seemed implausible, given Notre Dame’s resources and where it was at, and yet that’s come to happen.
I think one shift in the next generation is becoming more global, and that’s a part of building the great global Catholic research university, and that requires a theological imagination, you know, and a sense of what is it to be at once a small community located in St. Joseph County and in, you know, Northwest Indiana, and yet an institution of global influence. What an interesting problem and prospect for us.
The other interesting dimension of it is, I don’t think there’s ever been a road map for what Notre Dame’s trying to do. There isn’t like a model out there, we say, oh, if we could only be like this place, we’d have done what we need to do. Um, there are some distinctive qualities to Notre Dame so that if Notre Dame doesn’t succeed, I think pluralism within higher education and within the Church and everything else is diminished. So in that sense the stakes are high and, and I don’t think it will be easy. And I think we put our shoulders to the wheel and do the best that we can.
Todd Ream: Yeah, Father Hesburgh used to use the phrase, a Catholic Princeton. But if it became Princeton, that would be insufficient. It would need to be an institution with comparable standards but Catholic. And that part demands this kind of thinking.
John McGreevy: We don’t need another Princeton. You know, it’s a great institution. Um, and, uh, but we need to be that good. And yet we need Notre Dame.
Todd Ream: Amongst members of the community, uh, there in particular, uh, those who are part of the educational community, curricular and co-curricular, what kind of virtues need to be cultivated to envision such a university and the reality of its emergence?
John McGreevy: Yeah, I’d have to think about that. Um, a lot of what I’ve said this morning hasn’t been especially humble so, but humility is a great virtue, uh, and a sense of recognition of challenges and flaws. Commitment to the long haul. One thing that’s been very true of the Congregation of Holy Cross, we’ve had three presidents since 1952. That’s an unbelievable thing, an unbelievable level of commitment to the institution. And I think that has served the university well. There are risks to that. There’s risks, right? Of you become embedded in certain ways, but there’s also very good consistency there. Um, so that’s a virtue, consistency, um, humility, consistency, obviously moral integrity, those are the things that come to mind.
Todd Ream: Wonderful. Our guest has been Dr. John T. McGreevy, Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us today.
John McGreevy: It’s been a great pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.