Last week the Rev. Wilson Miscamble, a professor of history at University of Notre Dame, spoke on campus about the conscious and strenuous efforts that he believes would be required to maintain the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher education, such as Georgetown. His main proposal – that Catholic colleges and universities should seek to hire and retain a faculty composed of a majority of Catholic professors – received a critical response by incoming interim Dean of the College, professor Chester Gillis. Gillis argued that such a course should not be taken if it would compromise the “academic excellence” of the institution. It was suggested that such a compromise would lead, in turn, to the reduced academic status of a university like Georgetown.

I find this response puzzling in at least two respects. First, this university – like most others – currently considers criteria that should be included along with the ambition to achieve “academic excellence.” These include, but are not limited to, efforts to increase gender and racial diversity. There are times – most expressly in efforts to promote affirmative action – when it is argued that “academic excellence” should not be the sole or exclusive criterion. At other times, it is suggested that additional criteria such as gender or race should be considered when “all things are equal.” If either of these two arguments hold true in such cases, why cannot the same hold true for the effort to actively and consciously recruit Catholic faculty? I raise this question not to criticize affirmative action policies per se, but precisely to point out that we are already willing to consider additional criteria deemed to be important to the institution. If such criteria can be deemed a legitimate addition to “academic excellence,” then why not Catholicism at a university with an official affiliation with the Church?

Secondly, and in my mind, more importantly, I am puzzled that the very criterion of “academic excellence” is invoked as if it is a self-evidently neutral and objective standard, one that is not itself worthy of investigation. The criterion of “academic excellence” is largely guided and influenced by 19th century historicist and progressive assumptions, and is measured mainly by the ability of faculty to publish original research in peer-refereed journals and highly-ranked academic presses. As a consequence, this criterion valorizes specialization over the integration of inquiry and education across fields toward the end of forming the whole person. It emphasizes the training of graduate students over that of the formation of undergraduates. It implicitly rejects or at least mistrusts the legitimacy of tradition as a source of authority or guidance and makes little or no place for pedagogic approaches that seek to convey tradition or emphasize one’s own cultural inheritance. And it places most emphasis upon the judgments of wholly secular disciplines outside one’s own institution (for instance, over tenure decisions), thus ultimately conforming any university to the expectations of highly-ranked secular and religiously disaffiliated peer institutions. In short, the seemingly neutral criterion of “academic excellence” is loaded with a deep set of philosophical presuppositions that ultimately influence and shape the institution, and that have led universities around the nation inexorably toward the rejection of religious affiliation and a dogged pursuit of conformity to a single and unquestioned norm.

The irony is that it is precisely a Catholic world view – one that understands the compatibility of faith and reason and that seeks to achieve a comprehension of the connections between all the branches of knowledge in light of a created order – that is particularly well-suited to gaining a critical distance from the unexamined presuppositions contained in a criterion such as “academic excellence.” A university guided by such a world view could quite ably achieve excellence according to that standard without necessarily conforming to the commonly invoked standard now rendering our nation’s institutions wholly identical. I would submit that Georgetown can do a greater service to higher education – particularly in the education of our secular peer institutions and to the cause of diversity in higher education – and ultimately and most importantly to the education of our students, if we keep vibrantly alive such avenues of inquiry. It bodes ill, however, when faculty and officers of this institution invoke a criterion such as “academic excellence” without further reflection on what it really means and avoid asking whether we must wholly conform to the world without being willing to resist or correct its narrowing and homogenizing tendencies.

Patrick Deneen is an associate professor of government and director of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.