Baylor and Notre Dame

W. David Solomon
University of Notre Dame

I was an undergraduate at Baylor University in the early 1960s and returned there as a visiting faculty member in the philosophy department for the fall semester of 1994. Since I have spent most of the intervening years on the philosophy faculty at Notre Dame, I had occasion while at Baylor to reflect on the similarities and differences in the approaches of these two great Christian universities to the secularizing influences that have transformed so many formerly Christian colleges and universities in this country. There are lively discussions going on at both Notre Dame and Baylor about these issues, and my reflections here were originally prepared for a group of faculty members and administrators at Baylor who meet regularly to discuss these issues. Since the threat of secularization is clearly much on the mind of administrators and teachers at all of those religiously affiliated universities continuing to maintain strong ties to their founding religious traditions, I thought these reflections might be of more general interest.

It is important to remind ourselves of how few such universities remain. If we restrict our discussion to institutions of higher education with a realistic chance of becoming (or remaining) research universities of the first rank, there are surely only a handful. The processes of secularization, as a number of recent studies have emphasized, have taken less of a toll on Catholic universities. Georgetown, Fordham, Notre Dame, and Boston College have all maintained rich ties to their Catholic roots, but even at these universities much concern has been expressed in recent years about creeping secularization.

Among Protestant universities the picture, of course, is much bleaker. Secularization in the world of Protestant universities arrived earlier and hit harder. The great Methodist universities – Duke, Northwestern, Boston University, Southern California, Vanderbilt – maintain at most symbolic ties to religious traditions which once guided the content of their curriculum. The Ivy League universities were secularized even earlier, and at them not even symbolic ties are maintained to their former religious traditions. At times this process of secularization produces comic moments, as when the recently inaugurated president of Duke was shocked to discover that the university seal made reference in a politically incorrect manner to a Deity. She reacted as if she had discovered that the Duke board of trustees was packed with members of the Klan.

Baylor alone among major Protestant universities has a chance both to become a research university of the first rank and also to maintain rich ties to its Protestant tradition. There are, of course, a number of outstanding Protestant colleges which continue to resist secularization – Wheaton and Calvin come to mind – but none of these is poised as Baylor appears to be to move in the direction of becoming a major research university.

What are the similarities between Baylor and Notre Dame that make it appropriate to compare their approaches to secularization? The most important is that Notre Dame and Baylor have maintained, against the tide of secularization, so much of their traditional religious identity. Unlike Duke and Northwestern, Baylor and Notre Dame have a religious identity; clear steps are being taken to preserve it, and a lively discussion about how to preserve it is going on at both universities.

The schools are also similar in that this continuity of religious identity is coupled with relatively recent moves to loosen the control of their religious or denominational organizations. In 1990 Baylor modified its charter in order to distance itself from certain forms of direct control by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. This change has seemed to some as a threat to Baylor’s continued Baptist identity. In a similar fashion, Notre Dame – along with many other leading Catholic universities – took steps in the mid-1960s to distance itself from direct clerical control. Two events are relevant here. At a famous 1965 conference of leaders in Catholic higher education at Land-O-Lakes, Wisconsin, a number of leading Catholic universities affirmed a commitment to academic freedom which seemed to many persons at the time to threaten the Catholic identity of traditional Catholic colleges and universities. At about the same time, the Congregation of the Holy Cross (the Catholic religious order that founded and owned Notre Dame) turned the university over to a secular board of trustees. Certain forms of control were maintained by the Congregation in this change. The president of Notre Dame, for example, is required to be a member of the Congregation, and the very highest governing body of the university (the seven member Board of Fellows), though appointed by the Trustees, is required to have a majority of Congregation priests on it unless or until this requirement is overturned by the Fellows themselves.

The combination of this handing over of Notre Dame to a broadly secular board and Notre Dame’s strong commitment to academic freedom resulted in a discussion in Catholic circles not dissimilar to the discussion in Baptist circles about Baylor’s charter change in 1990.

Another point of similarity is that both universities are ambitious to become centers of serious intellectual work, recognized nationally and internationally as universities of the first rank. Were Baylor and Notre Dame content to be good regional liberal arts universities, committed to good teaching with a sprinkling of research among those so inclined, issues of religious character would be less pressing. But neither university is so content.

Notre Dame is a very ambitious place. Its endowment has grown from $50 million in the late 1960s to nearly a billion dollars today. In the past two decades we have created and fully funded over 80 new endowed chairs, bringing the total of endowed chairs at Notre Dame to 105. Many of these chairs are now filled by internationally prominent scholars. Serious research involvement is expected of all Notre Dame faculty, and incentives and penalties are deployed with this expectation in mind. The rhetoric of Baylor administrators and supporters is certainly tending in the same direction. And to the extent that Baylor and Notre Dame attempt to hire new faculty and to develop policies to serve their ambitions, it becomes more difficult to preserve religious identity. The best mathematicians, social scientists, and philosophers that Baylor has a chance to hire will not necessarily also contribute to preserving Baylor’s Baptist character.

Baylor and Notre Dame are also alike in that their academic ambition is partly (and perhaps largely) driven by the kind of outsider mentality characteristic of Baptists and Catholics in this country. American Catholics are classic outsiders. The myths and traditions of Catholic social life in America are rooted in immigrant experiences in large city Irish, Italian, and Polish ghettos. Chicago is not only the third largest American city; it is also the second largest Polish and Irish city in the world. Earlier generations of Catholics struggled to succeed in police forces and local government before they turned their attention to higher education. Baptists, similarly, have been in some respects spectators on the sidelines of American culture. Southern Baptists, as southerners, share a kind of cultural marginalization associated with the entire American South. But even within the South, Baptists traditionally occupied a cultural place somewhat further from the center than Methodists and Presbyterians, and much further than the well-turned-out Episcopalians. Baptists are never regarded as "mainstream" Protestants, but always as a large tributary, though a tributary that presently threatens to swamp the mainstream.

This outsider status is complicated, and in many ways transformed, by yet a further similarity between Baylor and Notre Dame supporters – their newfound prosperity. Catholics and Baptists may still be, in certain respects, outsiders, but they are now very prosperous outsiders. Catholics are now wealthier than either Protestants or Jews, and even a casual drive around any Texas town or city will demonstrate that the biggest and most expensive church in town is almost certainly Baptist. The income hierarchy in Texas towns I knew in my youth – Episcopalians the richest, followed by Presbyterians and Methodists, with Baptists lagging behind and leading only the Holiness churches – is a thing of the past. Baptists now dress as well as anyone in town and have to struggle, as Episcopalians and Methodists did in the past, with the moral temptations associated with membership in the local country club.

These similarities should not, however, blind us to important differences between Notre Dame and Baylor. Even in these ecumenical days, there are theologically related cultural and institutional differences that run quite deep. One difference with some relevance to the question of religious identity is the culture of governance at each institution. Baylor faculty, like all faculty members I have ever known, frequently complain about too much centralized and top-down management at the university. They push for more faculty oversight and involvement in administrative decisions. They may be right to make these demands, but to an outsider Baylor seems, if anything, to be too burdened with bottom-up committees. The same faculty members at Baylor who complain about centralized administration also complain about the burdens of committee work. However this may be, governance at Baylor is much more distributed and much less centralized than that at Notre Dame, where decision-making is more hierarchical and paternalistic.

Governance at both schools tends to mimic clerical structure. For Catholics power has traditionally radiated from Rome, bishops, and clergy. Baptist organization is a kind of constrained anarchy. Baptist preachers have to earn the authority they possess in their congregations; priests have authority conferred upon them. Both Nashville and Rome attempt to exert power over their scattered congregations, but Rome starts with a decided theological advantage in this regard over Nashville.

These differences in administrative style are relevant to questions of religious identity in a number of ways, but the most important is the relation they have to techniques of institutional control. Given the more centralized control characteristic of Catholic universities, it is easier to maintain religious identity in secularizing times in such universities. This may partially explain why Catholic universities as a group have been so much more successful at resisting secularizing influences than Protestant universities have.

A second difference between Notre Dame and Baylor – and it would be especially striking to a Catholic visitor to Baylor – is the lack of religious objects and images on the Baylor campus. A visitor who walked around the campus and looked it over would have no clue that it is a Christian – or Baptist – university. Things are quite different at Notre Dame. At the entrance to the Notre Dame campus is a statue of the founder, Father Sorin, in complete clerical regalia; at the entrance to Baylor’s campus is a statue of its namesake, a judge, in full judicial regalia. Bells are played at Notre Dame from the tower of a French neogothic church at the center of campus; bells at Baylor are played from the tower of the administration building. At Notre Dame, the neogothic church is the architectural focus of the campus; there is no church on the Baylor campus. When alums return to Notre Dame, they frequently stroll across campus to visit (and light a candle at) a replica of the grotto at Lourdes; at Baylor, one visits the bear pit where the university mascot is housed. At Notre Dame, there is a crucifix in every classroom, a chapel in every dormitory (where Mass is said several times a week), and religious statuary distributed around campus; at Baylor there are no religious objects of this sort to be found.

A Catholic visitor to the Baylor campus would be immediately struck by the lack of sacred space on campus. Indeed, the building which houses the space with the most sacred aspect is the unrelentingly secular Armstrong Browning Library, a replica of an Italianate villa housing research materials and memorabilia of the Brownings. The Browning Library contains much beautiful stained glass, and its central room, the Foyer of Meditation, has as its focus the altar-like bronze cast of Robert and Elizabeth Brownings’ clasped hands. But the reach of the Browning Library toward the sacred exceeds its grasp. It remains a temple to a dead Victorian poet. The stained glass celebrates the Pied Piper of Hamelin, not the events of the gospels; the statue of the innocent young woman that graces the front of the building is of Pippa and not of the Mother of God. The sign inside the front door of Armstrong Browning Library reminds the visitor that this building contains the world’s largest collection of secular stained glass. One could go on to mention the two most recognizable symbols of Notre Dame to the wider world: the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the golden dome and the ten-story-high mosaic of Jesus on the library.

One might say, of course, that these differences in the physical presence of the religious on the two campuses is the result of deep differences in the religious beliefs and practices of Baptists and Catholics. But that is to make my point.

There are a number of ways in which these differences are relevant to the larger topic of religious identity, but one is of particular importance. Secularization would be more difficult ultimately at Notre Dame than at Baylor, and this would be true just because the religious identity of Notre Dame is embodied in the physical being of the place. The faculty and students might give up any interest in things religious, but the campus would still be laid out in the shape of a cross. And it would be difficult to remove the mosaic of Jesus from the front of the library. There is an old saying at Notre Dame that "the blood is in the bricks" – meaning that the life’s work of the founders and sustainers of the university course through the yellow mud bricks from which the campus buildings are constructed. But in a deeper sense, the religious traditions of the university have left their mark on the physical structure of the place. To render Notre Dame finally and fully secular would require tearing it down and rebuilding it – and renaming it! Baylor possesses no such barriers to secularization.

Another difference: Baylor approaches the question of its identity with a certain fear, I think, that it may be too provincial. Its slogan is, after all, "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana." It is some measure of Notre Dame’s distance from this worry that it is unimaginable that Notre Dame should paint on its seal "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Indiana" (although "God, country and Notre Dame" has seemed to some to bespeak a nascent provincialism). Notre Dame embraces both (big C) Catholicism and (little c) catholicism. Catholics are naturally and primordially "multicultural." Baptists, of course, have always also been moved by a kind of universality, perhaps best expressed in their commitment to "the Great Commission." But this commitment is a commitment to evangelize the world from a particular point in it – a point perhaps some distance from its center. Catholics seem never to doubt that they occupy the center (no matter how much the world may fail to notice this) and that they are working from this center to the edge. Even in these days when it is fashionable among Catholics to disparage their triumphalist past, they remain Roman in more ways than one, taking as a metaphor for their place in the world the role of Rome in its imperial ascendancy. Baptists seem rather to approach self-understanding with the image of an Old Testament prophet before them. They speak from the wilderness but say things of the greatest importance even to those in the center of the most cosmopolitan city. How these differences in self-understanding will play themselves out in the current debate about the religious identity of universities is unclear, but there is no doubt of their importance.

Resisting secularization

I know too little about Baylor to comment in detail on how it is trying to cope with the threat of secularization, but at Notre Dame a number of policies have been adopted to address this issue. The strategies fall into five different categories.

The most visible strategy is administrative and structural, sometimes summarized as "priests in the dorms and dome." The central administration at Notre Dame is housed in the building under the golden dome. Hence, "priests in the dome" means keeping priests (and other "high-profile Catholics") not only in the presidency but in other top administrative positions. The rector of most men’s dorms is a priest, and in the women’s dorms (there are no coed dorms at Notre Dame) priests play large roles both in the liturgical life of the dorm community and also its social life.

A second strategy is broadly curricular. Notre Dame requires that all undergraduates take two three-credit philosophy courses and two three-credit theology courses. Although these courses need not be (and seldom are) doctrinal, they are intended to give students initial access to that rich intellectual culture that informs Christian understanding and faith. Students would not be allowed to take a course narrowly focused on logic to satisfy this requirement, but they might take a course on environmental ethics, liberation theology, or contemporary philosophy of mind.

A third feature of Notre Dame life that is inseparable from its Catholic identity is the commitment of the university to make opportunities for service available to students. The Center for Social Concerns is a well-funded center housed in a large building near the center of the campus that serves as a clearing house for these various service projects. Service projects in this country or abroad, for a weekend or for a year, in a hospital or in a homeless shelter, are made available to students. Special efforts are also made to integrate these service projects with the broader intellectual life of the students as well as their religious life.

The most controversial strategy pursued at Notre Dame for retaining Catholic identity concerns hiring and admission policy. Roughly 85 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates are at least nominally Catholic. University admission policy is aimed at retaining the percentage at that level. The percentage of Notre Dame faculty who identify themselves as Catholic has declined significantly in recent years. Although there is clearly concern among some faculty, administrators, and alumni about this decline, it is unclear at this time how hiring policies might be adjusted, if at all, to counteract what appears to be a continuing trend. A university committee proposed recently that the university aim to maintain a faculty in which a "preponderance" of its members are Catholic. The central administration has more recently, however, seemed unwilling to commit itself even to such a loosely defined target. What is clear is that the university has been prepared to exert effort and provide money to attract a number of prominent Catholic and non-Catholic Christian intellectuals to Notre Dame. In this regard, Notre Dame has been remarkably ecumenical. The university has, for example, collected the largest and most respected group of Protestant philosophers of religion in the world. Also, a number of its most influential administrators (e.g., Nathan Hatch and John Van Engen) are prominent Protestant scholars.

A final strategy Notre Dame has pursued is to build up particular departments and institutes that have special connections to the concerns of contemporary Christians. Given the importance of philosophy and theology in Catholic life, it is not surprising that these two departments are the two largest and best funded departments in the humanities. Notre Dame is, I suspect, the only major American university in which the philosophy and theology departments are larger than the history and English departments. A number of other institutes – the Medieval Institute, the Peace Institute, the Cushwa Center for the history of American Catholicism, and the Jacques Maritain Center – provide high profile centers for research and teaching in areas of continuing concern for Catholics and other Christians.

These various strategies followed by Notre Dame may give the impression that all is well with Notre Dame’s attempt to retain its Catholic identity. But that is surely far from clear. Anyone who has observed Notre Dame closely for the last thirty years would surely agree on two things: It is a much better university than it was thirty years ago, and it is much less Catholic. How these two features are to be explained (and how related) are matters of dispute. All of the strategies discussed above have been attacked by some significant part of the Notre Dame community. Many Notre Dame faculty, for example, regard the university as too Catholic (and consequently too paternalistic in its treatment of students) and too hesitant in engaging contemporary trends in scholarship. Others regard the university as having already lost its Catholic identity and having set itself on a course that will inevitably result, in a generation or so, in Notre Dame’s being another (slightly inferior) Duke or Stanford. One of the most hopeful signs is that a lively discussion has broken out among both students and faculty concerning these questions of Catholic character. Discussion groups and colloquia on these topics now take up a significant amount of time on the Notre Dame campus.

This, of course, points to one more similarity between Notre Dame and Baylor, since similar discussions are beginning to take place at Baylor. But the very existence of these discussions has itself become a matter of controversy. At both Notre Dame and Baylor I sense that many faculty members fear open discussion on these matters, lest public discussion of them expose the creeping (or in certain respects, galloping) secularization of both institutions, and bring down "reactionary religious oppression." At Baylor the fear focuses on "Fundamentalism," at Notre Dame, on clerical control (or, among the more fanciful, "Rome and the bishops"). These fears are surely unfounded and slightly silly, of course. Both Baylor and Notre Dame have armed themselves well to fend off "religion darkness." Secularization remains the threat.

Why is it, then, that so many faculty members at Baylor and Notre Dame almost obsessively fear religious interference more than secularization? This obsession is especially peculiar since no major American university has ever become more religiously oriented, while a host of such schools have become less.

Why is it that talk about retaining or strengthening the religious identity of schools like Notre Dame or Baylor makes so many faculty members nervous? Why do they see these discussions as a threat? Why do faculty members who on other occasions emphasize academic freedom and the requirement to discuss openly every issue (especially those most the communities that support their universities) draw a line in the sand on these issues? Why do faculty members who press for discussion of these issues come to be seen as dangerous characters? These questions have puzzled me for some time.

I find the arguments frightened faculty members bring against efforts to preserve and enhance the Christian character of universities like Notre Dame and Baylor are surprisingly weak, and I have argued at length against these arguments elsewhere. They do not comprise even a prima facie case against continued efforts to preserve the few remaining Christian research universities in this country.

Thus those of us who think it is important to preserve the distinctiveness of Christian universities have reason to be both pessimistic and optimistic. The past record of Christian universities like Notre Dame and Baylor suggests that almost all is lost, that decline into full secularization is almost inevitable, and that in fifty years Notre Dame will be indistinguishable (except for that peculiar cruciform campus and the fading mosaic on the library) from Purdue, and Baylor indistinguishable from S.M.U.

On the other hand, there may be some reason for optimism. All is not well with the secular citadels of higher education in this country. The idealism of the young is unlikely to be satisfied for long by the pallid political correctness that has been substituted for a genuine Christian concern for social and political justice, nor by the hedonism and relativism served up by the gurus of postmodernism.

Baylor and Notre Dame have a distinct advantage over Duke and Vanderbilt in that we can reflect on what befell them. They literally never knew what hit them. All recent studies of secularization at these universities demonstrate that they were led along the secular path by well-intentioned and deeply religious university leaders. We, of course, while having the wisdom provided by this knowledge, also have inherited the responsibility that attends such knowledge. Those faculty members and administrators at Duke and Vanderbilt who are responsible for the secularization of those universities can plausibly argue before their final judge that they didn’t know it would turn out the way it has. We will not be permitted the luxury of such a plea.