In response to news that philosophy programs at the University of St. Thomas in Houston may be shut down and tenured philosophers relieved of their positions, members of the University of Notre Dame Department of Philosophy have issued the following statement, which was sent in to Daily Nous by Professor Thérèse Cory:
Open Letter To President Ivany, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Aquila, Dean Evans, and the University of St. Thomas Board of Directors:
As philosophers and individual members of the University of Notre Dame Philosophy Department, we write to express our strong objections in response to published reports (here) concerning the endangered situation of the philosophy department at the University of St. Thomas, whose faculty includes two graduates of our own philosophy program at Notre Dame.
The philosophy department at the University of St. Thomas is highly respected within the Catholic philosophical community in the United States. Not only are its faculty responsible for the American Catholic Philosophical Association, but they are also to be found taking a leading role wherever scholarly work is being done that is of interest to the Catholic philosophical community, including—to mention just a few areas—the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas, Corpusthomisticum, the “Aquinas and the Arabs Project,” and others. They have made signal contributions to the field of medieval Christian and Islamic philosophy and contemporary Thomism. Their publications and professional activities bring distinction to the University of St. Thomas and contribute positively to its international reputation.
We are particularly concerned by the jeopardy in which the philosophy PhD program reportedly stands, in the absence of any appropriately paced program review and opportunity for faculty input. This vibrant and unique program offers students excellent resources for gaining expertise in Thomistic studies, drawing on the strengths of its internationally-regarded faculty. We remain deeply concerned by the documents made public in the above reports, which show events unfolding in such a way as to throw abruptly into doubt (1) the positions of tenured scholars, and (2) the futures of continuing and newly-accepted PhD students. The integrity of the scholarly enterprise depends on the ability of scholars at diverse career stages to trust the promises made to them by their home institution.
We object in the strongest possible terms to any course of action that would resulting in the eroding of tenure protections, the jeopardizing of lifetimes of scholarly work, and the placing at risk of vulnerable junior members of the philosophical community.
The following members of the Philosophy Department of the University of Notre Dame:
Patricia Blanchette, Professor of Philosophy
Therese Cory, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Richard Cross, Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy
Brian Cutter, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Mic Detlefsen, McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy (II)
Fred Freddoso, John and Jean Oesterle Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy
Lynn Joy, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Sean Kelsey, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Janet Kourany, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Alasdair MacIntyre, Rev. John A. O’Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
John O’Callaghan, Associate Professor of Philosophy (2016 Archbishop J. Michael Miller Lecturer, University of St. Thomas)
Adrian Reimers, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Kristin Shrader-Frechette, O’Neill Family Endowed Professor of Philosophy and Biological Sciences,
Jeff Speaks, Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair
Jim Sterba, Professor of Philosophy
Nicholas Teh, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Stephen Watson, Professor of Philosophy
Paul Weithman, Glynn Family Honors Collegiate Professor of Philosophy
UPDATE: Relatedly, I was sent a letter from a University of St. Thomas alum, directed at the school’s administration and board of directors, which I reproduce below:
To the administration and board of directors of the University of St. Thomas (UST):
In light of the recent events affecting the English and Philosophy departments of UST, and the professors within those departments, I feel obliged to write this letter and express my position—and the position of numerous other alumni, students, and faculty members—on this matter.
I graduated from UST in December of 2000, with a BBA in finance and economics and minors in philosophy and theology. I then attended law school at The University of Texas, and currently live and practice law here in Houston. I could have attended any number of universities to complete my undergraduate studies, but chose UST for one simple reason: I wanted to experience the richness of a classical liberal arts program within the context of a truly Catholic university. If I were singularly focused on pursuing a degree in finance, economics, or any other business discipline, I would have attended a larger, better-known university such as The University of Texas or Texas A&M, both of which have business schools that in general are more highly regarded in the business community than that of UST, and both of which have alumni networks that are exponentially larger than that of UST. Fortunately, even in my naïve youth, I recognized that becoming a well-rounded individual, sharpening my mind, and learning how to think and make well-reasoned moral judgments, would be far more important to me as a son, brother, husband, father, and friend, and as a citizen of this country, than any for-profit trade or craft.
Having solid programs in practical trades such as business, nursing, engineering, and others is a noble goal, but those programs should not be elevated and promoted at the expense of programs such as English, philosophy, and theology that serve as the true foundation of UST’s identity and, in my experience, are its greatest strength. In Blessed John Henry Newman’s classical work, The Idea of a University, Newman cautions against students focusing too narrowly on a particular subject or trade, and observes that “the eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.” To fully cultivate and develop a student’s mind and enable him to unlock his full potential, a multi-disciplinary academic approach is essential. As Newman explains, “This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education….And to set forth the right standard, and to train according to it…this I conceive to be the business of a University.” For those who question the practical benefit of such a broad-based training and development of the mind of the student, Newman goes on to explain “that training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to society…If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society.” This training is, according to Newman, “the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end:”
“[It] aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration…at facilitating the exercise of political power…. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them…. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind…how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class…he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon.”
Since their inception, the Basilian Fathers—the founders of UST—have understood well this basic truism which Newman describes as “the business of a University.” The Basilian motto, “Bonitatem et disciplinam et scientiam doce me,” which translates to “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge,” perhaps best embodies the principles upon which UST was founded and its aim to produce well-rounded, morally-informed students who are able to succeed in all aspects of their lives, and not solely in their careers. I am reminded of this simple yet seemingly lost truth every time I set foot on the campus mall and see the library anchoring the campus to the South, and the Chapel of St. Basil anchoring the campus to the North. If, as St. Thomas observed, the human person consists of two primary faculties, intellect and will, it is through the broad and thorough cultivation and discipline of both the mind and the heart that we are able to not only experience our own humanity more fully, but share that humanity and inspire others to pursue the same “great but ordinary end.”
My experience at UST forever changed me for the better. Though the business school is great and prepared me well for my career, it is the rich moral and cultural truths that I learned through my non-business courses, and from truly wise and cultured professors, that have had the most significant and lasting impact on me and have strengthened me from the inside. We live in a tumultuous age in which truth is under constant attack. Reason itself has been jettisoned by an increasingly large segment of society and replaced with a vague sense of sentimentality that, because it is entirely subjective, makes civil discussion and reasoned debate virtually impossible. Our society is increasingly divided and vitriolic because so few of its citizens have the ability to think and reason and are thus incapable of arriving at common intellectual ground founded upon immutable truth. The result of this intellectual skepticism is a deeply-rooted moral skepticism which has produced a society whose members not only disagree on what is right and what is wrong, but whether there is such a thing as right and wrong at all. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, “Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for.… But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires…. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.”
A university that leads its students to pursue narrowly-focused studies will produce narrow citizens who are ill-equipped to properly discharge their duties as citizens of a democratic republic. Correspondingly, a university focused solely on profit will produce students—and thus citizens—that similarly share that singular focus. We’ve witnessed time and time again the dangers of such a narrow, one-dimensional view of the world; for brilliant physicians focused solely on science or profit may go on to become Joseph Mengele or Kermit Gosnell, and ambitious entrepreneurs and business leaders focused solely on profit may go on to become Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, or Al Capone.
The recent attack on the English and Philosophy departments at UST, and on the professors in those departments who have dedicated their lives to enriching the lives of others, is nothing short of an attack on reason itself, and is a reprehensible affront to the principles outlined above and upon which UST was founded. The administration and the board of directors have a monumental decision to make at this moment that will forever change the trajectory of UST and will determine whether or not it will continue to be relevant as an institution of higher learning committed to developing well-rounded students. If profits are the administration’s only objective, then UST will fade from relevance like many of the other formerly Catholic universities in our country and beyond. If that is the direction chosen by the administration, then this is the point at which I and countless others shall forever part ways with UST, and though I previously had hopes of my children attending UST so that they too may benefit from the rich intellectual tradition offered through its liberal arts curriculum, and from which I have benefited so greatly, I would advise them—and anyone else seeking my advice—to not pursue their studies at UST. If, however, the administration chooses to stay true to the principles upon which UST was founded, and continues to offer its students a rich educational experience and academic culture that is true to those principles, UST will not only enjoy my continued support and the support of numerous others, but will continue to play a critical role in developing well-rounded leaders and citizens who are able to make a positive difference not only in their careers and in their families, but in their communities as well.
I hope and pray that you will take our position into consideration as you evaluate these important decisions that will forever affect the future of not only this university and its students and faculty, but the future of countless others as well.
Jason T. Lloyd