Common Sense

October, 1996

The Summer of Our Discontent

Joseph Blenkinsopp

Those of us, faculty and students, who resist the temptation to enjoy the summer in the heart of rural Indiana, have become accustomed to finding an altered landscape on the campus upon our return - buildings demolished, others erected in their place, new walkways, holes in the ground, that sort of thing. But some of us have also noticed that the summer recess seems to be the preferred time for operations of a more disturbing kind, administrative decisions and changes which, if introduced during the regular school year, could be expected to arouse strong adverse comment and criticism. In this respect this past summer was no exception.

Towards the end of last spring semester we in the Department of Theology were asked to consider a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross Indiana Province, recently graduated with a doctorate from Duke University, for a position as assistant professor. This was not a normal situation since the candidate did not emerge from a departmental search and, in any case, there was no available opening in his area. But given the university's preferential option for suitable Holy Cross candidates where available, not a contentious issue at all in the department, the process went ahead in the normal manner.

The outcome was not reassuring. In the opinion of most of those present the candidate's oral presentation was very unsatisfactory, the vote of the Appointments-Tenure-Promotions committee was unanimously negative, and the Department Chairman also recommended against the appointment after submitting an eight-page, largely negative evaluation of the candidate's dissertation. All of this was made public knowledge at a special meeting called on June 27 to which all members of the department were invited and at which sixteen were in attendance. It also appears that both the Dean of Arts & Letters and the Provost at that time supported the departmental decision.

It was therefore disconcerting to learn that some time around the first week in June the President of the University unilaterally appointed the candidate to a three-year visiting assistant professorship in the Department of Theology. The manner in which this was communicated to the interested parties was no more reassuring than the decision itself. The Department Chair heard of it via a telephone call from the Dean's office, was instructed not to communicate with the candidate, and received the letter of appointment, dated June 14, on June 27. On the same day, at the meeting mentioned earlier, he happened quite by chance to hear from a department colleague, also C.S.C. Indiana Province and closely associated with the candidate, that the latter had already signed his contract and mailed it to the university. The message writ large in these proceedings was that neither the chair, nor the relevant committee, nor anyone else in the department, had any part to play except to acquiesce in a decision already made.

It may need to be said that this is not an incident in an anti-C.S.C. campaign. On the contrary, some of the strongest repudiations of this mockery of academic procedure have come from members of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Also, the department has an unimpeachable record in appointing and promoting members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, though in the case of the promotion of the President from associate to full professor it was not given the opportunity to participate. Perhaps inevitably in such a situation, allegations of unfairness and manipulation of faculty opinion have been voiced. These have not been substantiated in spite of an administration-mandated investigation, in itself insulting to the integrity of the department chairman, the members of the ATP committee, and the rest of us who care about our department.

As reported in the current number of the Notre Dame Magazine, a recent National Research Council survey ranked the Department of Theology twelfth among similar programs in the U.S. It is therefore hardly another one of those depressing cases of a mediocre department rejecting an outstanding candidate.

In the section of the Faculty Handbook dealing with academic freedom we are told that the university is to pursue the highest scholarly standards, promote intellectual and spiritual growth, respect individuals as persons, and maintain the tradition of Christian belief. It is difficult to see how any of these ends is served by this most recent example of disregard for faculty opinion at every level. We do not need to be reminded that the University President has the last word in appointments to the faculty, but we also know that no university can function adequately, let alone flourish, without respect for procedures and for the academic integrity of departments and their faculties. Faculty and student colleagues in other departments who care about these things would therefore do well to take note. Tua res agitur.


Joseph Blenkinsopp is John A. O'Brien Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Back to Contents