2021 Faculty Day Address

2021 Faculty Day Address


Excerpt from Faculty Day Address - Aug. 18, 2021

What is the nature of the University of Dallas? As with any person, and by analogy as with any institution, one needs to say something about the soul of the thing as well as the way that soul gives shape and direction to the body, in order to answer such a question.

Soul and body are correlative terms. You cannot have a soul without a body, or a body without a soul. A soul is what makes a living thing alive, gives it structure and form, and makes possible its various activities. A dead thing, though it may look like the body of the formerly living thing, is no longer a body, but a corpse. A corpse will have biological activities going on within it, but they are no longer orchestrated and unified as one thing. The matter that was the body decomposes, and new living things subdivide it into new organisms. In the case of institutions, it is possible that you can have structures, such as buildings, offices and even individuals performing tasks, and yet, in relation to the institution it was, it can be a corpse. Something new, or most likely, a number of new things, utilize the parts that were formerly coordinating in a vibrant and unified set of endeavors.

The University of Dallas is a living institution — vibrantly so. Its soul is named with three distinguishing terms: Catholic, liberal arts, university. Of course, we have not just liberal arts programs, but professional ones as well, most notably in our college of business. Those professional programs, however, are not outside of these three terms our institution has always used to define itself: Catholic, liberal arts, university. By seeing how our professional programs are an expression of the University of Dallas’ unique combination of its three differentiating terms — Catholic, liberal arts, university — we should realize that these professional programs are intimately wrapped up with who we are and not some sort of add-ons.

To name an institution a university is to indicate the ways in which the many inquiries, artistic creations and pedagogical efforts undertaken across all of its disciplines are, as the etymology suggests, turned toward one thing. What is that one thing? To put the matter into a single formulation, it is the convergence of the many truths grasped by each of our varied disciplines. You might call this the unity of truth. It is not a uniquely Catholic notion that all truth is unified, or at least unifiable. Two notable pagans, Plato and Aristotle, were convinced of this. So too were notable Jewish and Muslim thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides and Al-Farabi. A conviction that there is a unity to all truth, a convergence of truth, is what justifies the organization of multiple disciplines within a single institution. It is what makes a university one thing, as opposed to many, a multi-versity. One of the goals of our integrated, synthetic, undergraduate Core Curriculum is to foster in our students those virtues that enable them to cultivate an appreciation for the unity of truth. That habituated ability goes by the name of wisdom.

​​The liberal arts are those disciplined ways of perceiving, knowing and thinking that cultivate an appreciation of truths for their own sake. These arts are liberating in at least five ways. First, the liberal arts free us from ignorance. They only do this when we first acknowledge our ignorance through practicing the virtue of intellectual humility. Second, they free us from unperfected passions because, in order to cultivate these arts, one needs to develop certain habits, certain virtues, like moderation and perseverance, in the very process of acquiring the ways of perceiving, knowing, and thinking embodied in the liberal arts. Third, the liberal arts free us to study things that require a great deal of attention which, were it not for the unique environment that college provides, we would not be free to study. The term “leisure” is what is traditionally used to name what I have called “the unique environment”; it is a potent and noble term, though often grossly misunderstood to mean something like “time to chill.” It is our duty as their professors to show our students how to use the great gift of time they have to embrace fully the vocation of being a student. Fourth, the liberal arts free our graduates to live lives dedicated to continuous learning, lives dedicated to an ongoing pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful. Fifth, a liberal arts education, through enabling our students to embrace more fully their own humanity, particularly as rational beings made to flourish in community with others, frees them to become leaders and responsible citizens.

In each of these modes of freedom, our students and graduates are provided opportunities to cultivate those virtues needed to be attentive to what they study, the virtues of studiousness and educability.  The kind of attentiveness I mean here is an attunement to the objects of inquiry themselves. This notion of studying a thing for its own sake and not, say, merely for its utilitarian value, is one that can be stretched to include studies of those disciplines which include an explicit orientation to professional success. Simply to have a practical application does not render a discipline bereft of intrinsic value. There is order and beauty to how data sets are arranged in a spread sheet, rhetorical goodness to be appreciated in a marketing plan, and deep psychological truths to be appreciated in cultivating the art of pedagogy. What matters most is the disposition of the learner, the attunement to and appreciation for the practical and productive arts themselves. By recognizing the ways in which our professional programs are expressions of our liberal arts character, we find in them a purpose and nobility that might otherwise be overlooked.

We are not just a liberal arts university, but a Catholic one. With respect to what unifies our various disciplines, Catholicism undergirds the convergence of truths by recognizing that the origin and summit of all truth has its source in God. With respect to the modes of freedom that our approach to a liberal arts education provides, Catholicism provides the richest of anthropologies that enables us to understand and make efforts to realize what freedom exercised well entails. I have been attending to the academic dimensions of our being a Catholic liberal arts university, and it is fitting to stress these elements as of primary importance to an academic institution, but of course there is no part of this institution that its Catholicism does not touch. From its very beginning, UD’s Catholicism has included little “c” catholic, that is to say, a universal effort: we have always been open to students of any faith tradition and whatever ethnic or racial background. Segregation has never been a part of our university, and it is a remarkable, if sad, fact to realize (as Sybil Novinski, our first archivist, testifies) that at the time of our founding we were the only non-segregated private university in the state of Texas. The universal reach of our university, its small “c” catholicism, is a manifestation of its big “c” Catholicism, and that welcoming and hospitable spirit is a legacy we must continue to build on.

You know from your own interactions of the deep piety of many of our students. It is a beautiful and inspiring thing. They look to us, Catholic and non-Catholic professors, to help them grow into a mature Christian faith. The deep truths we institutionally hold guide our approach to residential life, and athletics, and spiritual formation on campus, and the thousands of ways in which the intellectual virtues our students are developing come to be interwoven with their moral and theological virtues. One does not need to be a Catholic to be nurtured well in the Catholic ethos of our university, and we are all contributors to that ethos.

Of late I have been asked with greater frequency than in the past what sort of Catholicism I personally hold, and often such questions turn one way or another to what sort of Catholicism the University of Dallas seeks to promote. We live in an age that is eager to partition individuals and institutions into sorts or types. 

In some respects, this manifests ways in which partisan politics has come to take on a totalizing effect, reaching into every nook and cranny of our lives, including our own families. I am not so naïve to think that we can simply wave this tendency away. But, I am convinced that we can represent, as an institution, a unified vision of Catholicism, particularly as it undergirds our education, forms our students, and orients them and us toward living lives well. What makes that possible, amongst other things, is the magisterium of the Catholic Church. It is not a mystery what the Catholic Church holds, even if the foundational teaching on God as Trinity is a mystery. 

We have long had a stake in the ground when it comes to such matters. We are a university that institutionally aligns itself with the magisterium; a mode of institutional being attested by our by-laws and its explicit expression of adherence to the inspiring vision for Catholic universities presented in St. JP II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae. What sort of Catholic institution are we? We can answer that without falling into the pitfalls of political divisions by saying simply that we are a non-dissenting one. Put positively, we acknowledge and seek joyfully and courageously to promote in those ways specific to a university the full spectrum of belief, from the divine origins of creation to the salvation of the human person through the death and resurrection of the Son of God, from the mandate to feed the hungry and care for the widowed and orphaned to the great commission to go out and share the good news. 

Because of our times and its preoccupations, a great deal of focus is given of late to Catholic teachings on sexual integrity and the hylomorphic unity of a biologically and psychologically engendered human person who, in his or her deepest nature, is a son or daughter of God. Again and again in Ex corde Ecclesiae, JP II reminds us of the significance of the Catholic vision of the human person. He read the times well, and he knew, from his vantage of faith, his many philosophical investigations into the human person, and his development of a Theology of the Body, that the path to full flourishing entails living out the full truth of the human person, guided by grace in the forms of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. You may not be a believer, but as a member of this Catholic university, you are part of the work of helping to facilitate that great dialogue between what we hold, as an institution, by faith and what the inquiries of reason yield. Advancing this dialogue between faith and reason and revealing the depths of their ultimate complementarity is fundamental to the work of a Catholic liberal arts university and, though touching on any number of points of controversy, nonetheless a unifying feature of our common work.

I have said a few things about the soul of the University of Dallas; let’s turn briefly to the body. Here, my more analytically oriented colleagues might be quick to point out, the analogy breaks down. Do you know of any living substances that have two bodies? 

Well, we have two campuses. I am going to resist my philosophical temptation to discuss this two-body problem metaphysically, and ask you to let me continue to apply the analogy. It matters that UD’s main campus is just outside of the city of Dallas. We have a campus that is set apart from the city, but the city is relevant to UD and UD to the city. It matters that our campus is in Texas, and that Texas is in America. The founding principles of our nation help shape our curriculum, and the local elements inform our mode of being. 

Physically, whatever might have been said about our campus in the past, we have a beautiful campus here in Irving as well as a beautiful campus in Rome. Both are places with structures that invite students and faculty to linger in small groups, inside and outside of buildings, in order to engage in the natural extensions of the classroom that animate our community of learners. I’ll admit it has taken me a little time to come to appreciate the mid-century modern style throughout campus, having grown up in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame’s neo-gothic architecture. But it has grown on me as I have seen how the body of our campuses are put to use by our students, faculty and staff.  

Our buildings emphasize naked materials—concrete, brick, steel, wood—rather than veneers, thus symbolizing our efforts to uncover—a-lethia—the truth. Our mall undulates with the turbulence of intellectual engagement. Our paths meander for the need to slow down so that we might be more prepared to see what lies at the end of our investigations. Our trees show the need to reach to the depths if one is to draw water from the semi-arid ground of this world of experience. Like any living substance that grows as it matures, as we grow in our physical structures, and we will, our university’s body will maintain physical continuity with its current shape, both in Irving and in Rome.  I don’t care what US News and World Report might have said about us when we were a little younger: we’re a good-looking university.

We are, each of us, teacher-scholar-makers, dedicated to the great task of building culture through educating our students excellently. We know there are no shortcuts in this work. Learning to write well, and teaching students to write well, is profoundly laborious. So too is mentoring students in our labs, pouring countless hours into guiding our students in our studios and practice rooms, helping them to frame their theses, and guiding them in their practica. Our labor of love is labor intensive, and especially of late, fraught with inconveniences and challenges we never could have imagined. But there is no more noble work, both for our students, and for the culture our graduates are building in their cities, their states, their countries, and their churches. The University of Dallas matters for our students. It matters for our country. It matters for our Church. Our calling is high, the sacrifices are many, and the stakes have eternal consequences. What more could we want? Our work is a vocation. Thank you for responding to the call.