August 17, 2022
I confess a certain attraction to a dark view of things, by which I mean something of a special interest in the moribund features of all that lies within this earthly realm. This should be distinguished from a morbid sense of humor: there is nothing funny about death, even if we might mock it when secure in Christ’s triumph over it. Death, sin, the violence of slander, the cruelty of attacking another’s security in a sense of the sacred; these things abound in the world, and like the gathering moments of post-twilight, they can appear at times to be on the verge of overwhelming what remains of the world’s light.
Animated by this sensibility, and wishing to impress my eighth-grade literature teacher, I poured my rather melancholic soul into what my teacher eventually declared to be a most finely written and compelling story. The subject of that story was a young boy, who, having taken to heart the frequent exhortations he, and everyone else during my childhood, received—that he could be anything he wanted so long as he put his mind to it—led to his death when he disproved that claim by failing to fly like Superman. Melodramatic, I know, but I really did pull it off well. I was at first delighted with the praise, but then my teacher told me never to write a story like it again. He said there was darkness enough in the world, and I should never use what gifts God gave me to wallow in it. He said the world needs to see light, especially in those corners where things are most dark, even if I could only manage to cast a little of it in certain places.
It is remarkable how such little moments, a five-minute conversation with a revered teacher, shape the efforts of a lifetime.
That teacher, by the way, was Dr. Rollin Lasseter. A Yale PhD, poet, literary critic, scholar of Yeats, and celebrated teacher at Kentucky and NC State, who had taken a few years off from university teaching to plow his efforts into shaping the writing program at the classical school I was blessed to attend. This is the same Dr. Lasseter who later joined the University of Dallas in 1992 and taught here for many years, where he no doubt refocused the imaginations of many of our alumni and honed their efforts towards similarly light-bearing goals.
I share this story to honor Dr. Lasseter. I share it also to encourage each of us with the reminder that the encounters we have with our students matter deeply, and sometimes matter ultimately. Finally, I share it because, perhaps for you, and certainly for me, that attraction to the dark view of things has been harder to resist of late than in the past.
In my case, perhaps that has something to do with the greater portion of my academic reading list of late: I led a graduate course on the major works of Friedrich Nietzsche through the spring semester, followed by a quick read of Carl Truemann’s sobering The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and then a return to some of the works of an author from whom I learned much on a first reading more than a dozen years ago, an author whose life work has been devoted to making sense of the civilizational nightmares of the last 100 years, nightmares which came true when Auschwitz came to stand as the starkest fact and the most telling symbol for the culture wars in which we are enmeshed. I mean of course the late sociologist, Philip Rieff.
These were not random selections, of course. I announced last year that the effort we are engaged in by providing an excellent and liberating education is nothing short of a reclaiming of culture. From what does culture need to be reclaimed? There are many symptoms of cultural madness to which any one of us can point: what are their causes? Most of the explanations to be found amongst the chattering class seem either too shallow or off-base. Deeper explanations often finger Marx and his heirs, but I have always suspected that something else must be going on to abandon the faith of our fathers and to put in for Marxism: there has to be more depth to the account, a propaedeutic for the various destructions we have witnessed and been party to. Marxism does not explain the Shoah. It is this still deeper account which Rieff probes.
Rieff certainly takes a dark view of things. The three-world schema he proposes for making sense of our cultural moment is a simplification, but a useful one. (You should not impose the economic meaning of such terms as “first-world” and “third-world” here; Rieff’s schema is a historical and sociological one). We find ourselves, we exist culturally, Rieff argues in his 2006 work, My Life Among the Deathworks, in our relation to ultimate authority: “Wherever we may be, in the whatness of our whoness, what we are is constituted by where we are in sacred order (3).” Or, perhaps less enigmatically, he writes: “A culture is the vertical in authority, that space between sacred order and social order which is the world made by world makers (45).”
Rieff argues that, after a first world of culture, where ultimate authority lies with fate, as in the pagan cultures of Greece and Rome, arose a second world in which faith in a supreme lawgiving God was framed, as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rieff offers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as a representation of second world culture: “Here is where culture is, in what is perhaps the most famous image of the via, or the way of authority, known to us. It is the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which is at the same time the creation of our second world culture. There on the right is the figure of the Creator, and on the left the first created. The key element is the space between…. That space is extraordinarily limited. In that apparently little space is all the space in which all humanity lives (45).”
Third world culture, ushered in, Rieff argues, by Nietzsche, Freud, and their many elite heirs, is a grand experiment in attacking what Rieff has named the vertical in authority. We kill God or ridicule providence, and we free ourselves from orientation to the vertical in authority. We deny there are interdicts which descend from on high, and we are liberated to make of ourselves whatever we choose. Efforts to such effect, Rieff argues, abound, and it is these he summarizes with the term deathworks. A prime example Rieff examines as a deathwork is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which is a glass enclosure containing a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine. It is not difficult to see this work as subversive of the vertical in authority. What Rieff’s analysis of it provides is a basis for seeing a great many other cultural artifacts, words, and actions as similarly profanations of God, of Moses, of priests, of ministers, of rabbis, and mockeries of those striving to find themselves in a right orientation to the ultimate sacred authority. Rieff reveals that most of these deathworks are far more subtle, and therefore persuasive, than Serrano’s, and that they are legion. Rieff argues that third world culture is at bottom anti-culture since it seeks to destroy that little space between the hand of God and the first human being, that space in which humanity finds its genuine culture. It is impossible to avoid the effects of such deathworks: However hard we may try to maintain the posture of one who sees himself as principally a denizen of the second world culture, we are at war even within ourselves for we cannot but live our lives among the myriad deathworks of contemporary culture.
I warned you this was a dark view of the challenges before us, and, should you pick up Rieff, I suspect everyone in this room, myself included, would find objectionable some of the analyses that Rieff provides, especially in his interpretations of particular works of art, both visual and literary. But I warrant he is on to something, and that, indeed, the challenges are stark, and that even our best and brightest students who have also received an excellent formation in the faith of their fathers and mothers, suffer the intra and inter-personal torments he describes in their efforts to find their way forward as shapers of our culture.
As dark as Rieff’s survey of our contemporary malaise is, even he sees hope. His point in writing this work, he tells us, is to unmask deathworks as deathworks (18). To see them for what they are is to weaken their grip on our souls. His goal is to disarm deathworks. One does not do that with acts of physical violence—like in the recent assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie. Besides violating the interdict against murder, such acts of violence are self-defeating. Nor does Rieff argue that there is no role for subversive art or literature. And, it stands pointing out, that great literature, great works of art, whether subversive or not, deserve study. It also stands pointing out that “subversive” is a pliable word: Rushdie’s playful and engaging literature, to stay with the example, may be subversive of certain strains of Islamist orthodoxy, but is it possibly affirmative of other sorts of right thinking? One cannot judge rightly without study. Rieff’s effort is to liberate us from anti-culture by revealing the subversive as subversive, by naming things what they are. And, we should name things what they are; but a well educated person knows that such naming can really only be the fruit of assessing things himself.
Hope is strengthened still further when you have a university dedicated not just to naming rightly what lurks in the darkness, but to nurturing its students in an education in the true, good, and beautiful. We are explicitly dedicated to strengthening our students’ relation to the vertical in authority by educating them in the best of the Western and Catholic intellectual tradition and encouraging in them a genuinely magnanimous spirit, one that enables them to plow their lifelong efforts into glorious works for the greater glory of God.
But bear in mind that we should not be too quick to dismiss what might seem alien. My reflections on Rieff should not be interpreted as a suggestion to ignore creative works that fall outside comfortable patterns of thought, or worse, as fostering any fear of engaging works that may fall outside our tradition. Liberal education is animated by the principle that there is gold to find in every mine. Our mission statement (https://udallas.edu/about/mission.php ) does indeed dedicate us to “the recovery of the Christian intellectual tradition, and to the renewal of Catholic theology in fidelity to the Church,” but also to do so “in constructive dialogue with the modern world.” If we, the faculty of the University of Dallas do not find a way to do both these things well, who will?
More than ever, our work as educators is of vital importance. We are dedicated in our mission statement to orienting our students to wisdom, truth, and virtue. It is to that orientation we must tend with the very best of our efforts, taking special care to keep our own orientation aright. And for that latter effort, we all ought to be grateful that we are in this work together.
My summer reading concluded with a return to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. It is remarkable how well this relatively old work responds to our current challenges. Newman’s unflinching defense of learning for its own sake, explored at length in Discourse V, contains the heart of the matter. Liberal education concerns the cultivation of the mind first and foremost, and it is from that cultivation that genuine culture is secured. There are warnings to heed in The Idea of a University as well. For instance, that though learning for its own sake is unarguably a great good, it alone does not make us or our students good. This is why the work we do in student life and campus ministry is so vitally important: cultivating the whole person, integrating the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues, entails focused attention to all areas of university life.
The Idea of a University also contains ample argument for putting to rest fears that practical disciplines, like business, might weaken the liberal arts character of our university. When Newman argues that a liberal arts university is a place in which students and faculty are brought to appreciate the unity of all the disciplines, he really means all the disciplines. So long as the foundation remains the liberating arts and sciences, Newman argues that not just business, but law, medicine, and other practical subjects find their most fitting home in a liberal arts university. As Newman argues in Discourse VII, it is not only that the properly liberal disciplines, though not principally oriented towards usefulness, are nonetheless profoundly useful, for, “that training of the intellect which is best for the individual himself, best enables him[JJS2] to discharge his duties to society (Idea, 136),” but practical disciplines both benefit and are benefitted by their inclusion within a liberal arts university because the faculty of those disciplines enrich the lives of faculty in the more explicitly liberal disciplines and come to appreciate their discipline’s relation to the other disciplines (Idea, 128-9).
Newman concludes Discourse VII arguing not only that a great Catholic liberal arts university must indeed be dedicated first and foremost to the principal task of cultivating the minds of its students, and secondly to preparing them for successful careers in any sort of profession, but also that there is far more to which we must be dedicated. A great Catholic liberal arts university is preparing its students to live lives of rich meaning and purpose, and to shaping the culture in which they find themselves world makers, that is to say, culture formers. Newman’s words on this subject are too fitting to merely gloss:
But a university training is 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 giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education that 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 teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. 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 in their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, 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 any class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect. He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources of its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm (Idea, 137).
We, the faculty of the University of Dallas, are the ones who provide this gift to our students. It is a gift of light that penetrates every darkness and strengthens flagging courage. We in turn are gifted to be united in our effort to impart this gift. We do need to be conscious of the cultural challenges before us. We need to name things for what they are so as to loosen their grip on our and our students’ souls. But, let us not linger overlong on the works of darkness. Let us rally our efforts to offer the most excellent of gifts by educating excellently those students who will soon be before us in our classrooms. This is our great work. Let us begin it anew.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
 Newman, The Idea of a University (Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016).
We are justly proud at the University of Dallas that we hold the liberating arts and sciences in a fulsome embrace. Ask any junior why he wasted a couple hours memorizing Yeats’ “The Second Coming” since he can’t do anything practical with what he learned, and he’ll note your mistaken assumptions. But are utility and the intrinsic good of learning in fact divorced? And, for that matter, is an education in business somehow foreign to, even an impediment to, liberal education?
The key to answering these questions properly lies in how we order things. Anyone aiming to provide a robust defense for liberal education will not be served better by any work than St. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University. And yet, perhaps because of Newman’s unwavering defense of learning for its own sake as its own good, champions of liberal education too often overlook two significant elements in Newman’s seminal work, both encompassed within Discourse VII.
First, he defends the utility of liberal education. Though utility is not the first justification for liberal education, he argues there is no more useful education than a genuinely liberal one. The well-educated University of Dallas graduate of whatever major is made ready to take on positions of leadership in every profession.
Second, Newman goes a step further in defending an essential role for specifically professional education within a liberal arts university, urging us to see that, in fact, every discipline, whether principally liberal or practical, is best pursued within a university setting devoted to the liberal arts. A business education, for instance, is best pursued within a liberal arts university, especially one so wholeheartedly dedicated to excellence as the University of Dallas, whether on the undergraduate or graduate level.
Though we are shaping future leaders in all our courses of study, the way we do this in our business programs is particularly distinctive. To be sure, nearly every university that offers business programs provides some emphasis on ethics, but too often in these programs ethics is thought to be something that is applied only in special circumstances or in tough cases – students study ethical theories, look at some case studies, and hope they are ready for those tough moments when they need to apply one or another set of ethical principles.
There are two basic problems with this approach. First, ethics is never just for occasional use. Our lives are not properly divided between moments where ethical thinking does and does not apply. As Aristotle and Aquinas both aver, to deliberate about any action, no matter how mundane, to think practically at all, is to be thinking ethically. The real measure is whether we are thinking and then acting well or poorly about what is good and bad in any situation that calls for action. What is of utmost significance to thinking and acting well is the degree to which the thinker and actor is virtuous.
The second problem with applying ethics only in certain situations is that the character of the leaders is of special importance in any corporation or institution, for it is the leaders who play principal roles in the ways in which any corporation or institution shapes its own culture and affects the wider culture. That culture-shaping role, as we know all too well, can be for good or ill. It is virtuous leaders who ensure the former and guard against the latter.
A virtue, more than any skill or managerial theory, is what makes a leader good, and enables his or her work to be done well. Not just some of his or her work – all of his or her work, from making good decisions in fraught situations to answering everyday emails well. The virtuous leader is never a chameleon: There is constancy, consistency and integrity across the whole of the virtuous leader’s life, whether “on the job” or “with the family.”
Virtues are first principles of moral action. If one possesses them, one is able to discern which are the true human goods. This entails a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the human person: What makes one happy? What enables one to flourish?
There are no situations in which virtue is not called for. The virtuous leader does not need to discern when courage or justice is called for, he or she is always attuned to acting courageously and justly; the question becomes how to act justly or courageously in any particular circumstance. The virtuous leader is always ready to act, in prudence, to promote the common good since they are always disposed to do what is right for the right reason.
This is the advantage of an “ethics of character” approach, as opposed to an “ethics of rules.” The virtuous leader plays the long game, striving for what is right and good in every situation, cultivating and communicating moral excellence in such a way as to make possible genuine professional and personal success.
Future business leaders should be given opportunities to think how best to discern and apply properly grounded ethical principles in a wide array of circumstances, but they also need to be shaped by the virtues so that they in turn can shape the corporations they lead virtuously. It is our emphasis on both these elements of ethical training, combined with our liberal arts foundation and rigorous coursework and experiences, that strengthens the skills necessary to compete in today’s increasingly complex environment and makes business education at the University of Dallas so distinctive.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Growing up can be hard. Social disaster seems always lurking at the door, particularly in those early teenage years. Cliques abound. Talk to one, and you’ve just alienated yourself from another. The young person is faced with three options: Choose a clique and only talk to its members; keep completely to yourself; or try to talk to everyone and let the chips fall where they may. It was in the midst of navigating this sort of landscape that I met a young woman, also 13, who like me chose that third option. Maybe that has something to do with why we eventually married.
I am still engaged in that effort. I recently spent some time with a host of Fox and Friends, Rachel Campos Duffy. She and her husband, former Congressman Sean Duffy, have both publicly stated on television that they will have a child at UD this coming year. The University of Dallas was featured as a paradigm for how colleges can support student engagement and flourishing in a much commented-upon New York Times article. Drs. Scott Crider and Anthony Nussmeier, as well as rising senior Gabriella Capizzi, all play starring roles in that fine essay. The University of Dallas was given a resounding endorsement recently in the online version of First Things by Dr. Joshua Katz, who at the time of publication was the Cotsen Professor of Humanities and a professor of classics at Princeton. And, I recently had an opinion piece published in the Dallas Morning News. I used that occasion to encourage the recovery of civil discourse, invoking arguments aimed at making a broad appeal.
These engagements have generated significant positive responses. They also generated criticism. That criticism was not over the content, but rather over the venues for engagement. “How could the president have spoken to them?” “Why would he write for them?” Why, indeed?
The University of Dallas provides the finest education you can find in this country. Our commitment to a rigorous and integrated core curriculum combined with outstanding majors is without parallel. The way in which our Catholicism infuses not just the intellectual formation of our students but their moral and spiritual as well is peerless. Put our signature Rome Program, our outstanding graduate programs, and our longstanding commitment to excellence in the arts into the mix, and no other university can hold a candle to us. Those of you who know us well know this already. We are the premier Catholic liberal arts university in this nation. Too few outside of our immediate circles have known this for too long. It is time to take our message to the four corners of the world. This world needs the excellent liberal education that we provide. We are all called to be evangelists for it.
One of the ways in which we are called to revive our fractured and faltering culture is through exercising effectively the hard-won art of engaging others civilly. I like the phrase that G.K. Chesterton uses to describe this art, as one of arguing without quarreling. Our students learn this art through their work in the classroom. Whatever the topic, for our students there is no escaping learning to advance arguments in the classroom and on their written assignments. They learn as well that the Western intellectual tradition is no stranger to conflict – that, in fact, it is an extended argument. Our students learn not just to argue with each other and their professors, they immerse themselves in the extended argument of our tradition and thus make that tradition their own. They learn, as well, that the tradition is not something static, but a dynamic source of creativity that enables them to add to the growing body of knowledge and works of artistry.
Some might imagine that in focusing so much on teaching the increasingly lost art of argumentative inquiry we weaken our ability to stand for things. Just the opposite is the case. Institutionally, we are unafraid to make clear our commitments to fundamental moral principles and to align ourselves with the Catholic Church’s magisterium. It is essential to recognize that argumentative inquiry is one of those principles, a fundamental good for which we stand. The goods of inquiry, like academic freedom and freedom of expression, are simply part of the fabric of any great Catholic liberal arts university. And, in point of fact, we are able to support fully the goods of inquiry precisely because of our other commitments. As John Paul II argues at length in Fides et ratio, faith undergirds conviction in the effectiveness of reason and empowers its enthusiasm for inquiry.
So, to whom should we speak? Everyone with ears to listen. In sharing the good news of UD’s liberating and excellent approach to education, one never knows whose heart might be moved to the good, true and beautiful that we joyfully strive to seek and to serve.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
There are twin perils facing a deep appreciation for the sciences and mathematics. On the one hand, those who take themselves to be advocating for the liberal arts sometimes exclude the sciences and mathematics in their accounts. Justifications for a liberal arts education can often tend toward justifications of the importance of the humanities. Of course, the humanities represent disciplines of fundamental importance for developing a deep understanding of the human person, the nature of reality, and man’s relation to God. But so, too, do the sciences and mathematics. On the other hand, the tremendous emphasis placed upon STEM because of a perceived immediate utilitarian application of those disciplines to achieve “real-world” results can work to corrode a fulsome appreciation of the sciences and mathematics as worthy of study for their own sake. These are twin perils because they feed each other in an unvirtuous rhetorical circle that excludes the manner in which studies in the sciences and mathematics should be fundamentally a liberating affair.
In point of fact, the sciences and mathematics have a greater claim to being liberal arts than do the humanities. The original seven liberal arts are, first, the Trivium, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and second, the Quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. We do not find philosophy, history, theology, or literature on this list of seven, but we do find two mathematical disciplines, that part of physics called astronomy, and even a fine art, which in its original medieval framework was also seen as a part of mathematics: music.
We have expanded what we mean by a liberal arts education to make room for a robust engagement with the humanities, and, of course, the studies comprising the Trivium undergird each of them, but so too do the “three ways,” the Trivium, undergird the sciences and mathematics. In turn, the “four ways” also undergird our studies in the humanities, for the methodologies of the Quadrivium train the mind to make sense of the world as it presents itself to our senses so that we can, over time and with study, make better sense of those realities behind appearances.
There is another training to be had by attentiveness to the sciences and mathematics when they are rightly treated as liberal arts: we learn to be attentive to, to ask questions about and begin to make progress toward understanding observable objects for their own sake. Those matters that are near at hand, that can be pulled apart and physically analyzed, or placed under a microscope, or significantly magnified through a telescope, are objects about which the human person is naturally deeply curious. Learning to ask good questions about observable phenomena, and learning how to pursue answers to those questions through the application of the scientific and mathematical methodologies, is first and foremost a good in and of itself. We humans, as Aristotle noted so long ago in the opening lines of his Metaphysics, desire to know, and paying tribute to the goodness of that desire by seeking to know things themselves because they are worthy of knowing, is itself a great good that we promote through our science and mathematics courses at the University of Dallas. This is why the natural and mathematical disciplines are part of our core. And, the majors in the sciences and mathematics continue to build on this same mode; we want our students to be able to understand and demonstrate the great discoveries of the past, and we also want them to learn how to expand the body of knowledge through their own research undertaken in collaboration with our outstanding faculty.
The worthiness of every discipline, not just the S and M of STEM disciplines, runs the risk of being reduced merely to their utilitarian effects. This can happen in the humanities when their justification is predicated upon just the “skills” that they cultivate. When that happens, we fall into the temptation of valuing a thing only or predominantly for its good consequences. When that happens, we diminish the goodness of human wonder and our natural desire to know while also losing proper sight of the objects under study.
Of course, those consequences are real. We would not be graduating students whose first destinations outpace those of most universities, or who regularly report back to us that they are more prepared for graduate or professional studies beyond UD than their peers, or who consistently rise in the corporations at which they are employed at a faster pace than do those from other schools. Indeed, as George Weigel recently noted in First Things, the impressive rates of UD math and science graduates who pursue doctoral programs and medical school demonstrate that the “best of Catholic liberal arts education prepares students for any intellectual or professional endeavor.”
Our Office of Personal and Career Development does a great job in helping students to imagine themselves into different possible careers through resume help, mock interviews, career talks from outside professionals, internships, mentoring, and career placements. Our students are encouraged and enabled to explore their future careers, but they do so in the context of the freedom to throw themselves fully into their liberal arts education.
Commentators and employers are taking notice: Our graduates think more clearly and creatively, write with more precision and eloquence, speak more persuasively, and are enabled to adjust quickly to the ever-changing environments in which they find themselves after they graduate. But it is of the utmost importance to remember that these achievements are not despite, but precisely because, they have been habituated by the truly liberating and character-forming nature of their studies at the University of Dallas.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Any education is a matter of culture formation, for good or for ill. Plato recognized this better than most, and thus gave concerted attention to education and its relation to the political, institutional and social orders right up to the very end of his life; in fact, the final sections of The Laws were still wet in the wax at his death. Not to put too fine a point on it: You get education right, and culture flourishes; you get it wrong, and culture falls ultimately into a tyranny of the mind and body. The link between education and culture is inescapable, which is why so many of us are concerned about the distressing state of education in so much of our country. Degradations of academic standards, corrosive indoctrinations, a cancel culture that prohibits inquiry, and a dismissal of those virtues needed to cultivate the art of persuasion are all elements of some educations on offer today. Whether fostered in the worst or best of schools, the student is being formed one way or another, and the shape given to his or her soul will prove of signature importance for the shape of our wider culture. This is why it matters so very much that we take the greatest care to provide the best of educations to our students. Indeed, the education one receives can make the difference between life and death.
That life and death difference is poignantly evident in the case of abortion: how one thinks, and how one puts such thought into action, makes all the difference in whether a large number of vulnerable people are able to live beyond their mothers’ wombs. Abortion is especially on the mind of this nation during the month of January, the month in which the Roe v. Wade decision was issued by the Supreme Court in 1973. This January marks an anniversary like no other since that first issuance as the nation waits to see how the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case is decided, and whether that fateful decision in 1973 to lodge the permissibility to kill unborn children as a constitutional protection will be overturned. Though we may not have direct influence in how the Supreme Court decides the Dobbs case, there is more than plenty for us to do.
The University of Dallas is devoted to renewing culture through educational excellence. This is work that we undertake on both an individual and a social level. We dig into the roots of things. We seek not only to uncover what really is the case with regard to human life and the world in which we live, but to learn to give an account of why things must be so. We strive to see, to grasp, to behold, as well as to explain, to defend or refute, to reason. Wisdom entails both understanding and demonstrating. At the University of Dallas, we seek to understand and demonstrate not just what is the case in an effort to achieve philosophical or scientific knowledge, but to understand and reason well about all those matters that come under the orbit of human action, both individual and collective actions. We study ethics, politics and history not only to understand principles but to prepare to act well within the institutions that compose the fabric of our society. Just as we not only learn to appreciate artistic creations, but how to make them ourselves on the stage or in the studio, so too do we work with our students to form judgments about right action and nurture in them the virtues of justice and courage to execute those judgments excellently.
Whether striving to understand the meaning of human existence, our relationship to the world or its author, or those principles that ought to guide our actions, there is no more basic set of considerations than those that fall within that range of concerns that St. John Paul II named “the Gospel of Life.” I recently reread his remarkable encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, and was especially struck by two things. The first is that, though many of the arguments that JPII advances are grounded in Scripture and the theological tradition, many of them are not. From a personalist and natural law perspective he addresses not just the questions around abortion, euthanasia, and other issues of life and death, but also the nature of law, the limits of democracy and the responsibility of citizens. Near the very end of the encyclical, in section 101, JPII concludes that the Gospel of Life is not just for Christians, nor just for those of the Abrahammic faiths, but for everyone, regardless of belief. He asserts that the arguments he advances stand on their own legs. I agree. I encourage you to pick up his text and see if you agree — that’s just what a University of Dallas education enables you to do.
The other feature of Evangelium Vitae which struck me on my latest rereading is the emphasis on positive obligations. Innocent life must never be violated; that is an exceptionless norm, and it is framed in the Decalogue as a negative obligation: “You shall not kill.” But there are also positive obligations, a great many of them, to do all that we can to promote flourishing lives for all who live within our reach of influence: obligations to provide for basic needs as well as to promote the full flourishing of each human life through education. JPII does not locate those obligations in the state principally, but rather in the soul of each person. It is on those personal obligations that the grace of charity can perfect our natures as we strive to live out lives in which works of corporeal mercy have a prominent role in our daily lives.
JPII invites us to see the Gospel of Life as being of an expansive scope. Yes, advocating for the lives of the unborn and providing care for needy mothers and their children is foundational in promoting this culture. But also parents raising their children well, physicians caring for their patients, lawyers acting in justice and going the extra mile for their clients, and corporate leaders who put the moral well-being of their employees and customers first are all exercising works of mercy in those very activities. So too for our faculty and staff who dedicate themselves to nurturing the souls of our students. Evangelium Vitae reveals much of what renewing culture entails.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
This time of year, more than any other, the awareness that each year is composed of three years is felt with particular significance. Just as the calendar year is driving toward its close, accompanied by diminished daylight and year-end appeals, the Church has already begun anew its liturgical year with Advent. At least for those connected in some way with education, the academic year reaches its midpoint. December is the month of ending, beginning and middling.
Thinking about time and how it is measured always brings me back to Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine’s meditation on the first words of Scripture — In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth — launches him into a reflection on the timelessness of fundamental realities, God and what his being entails, and their connection to our time-bounded nature and mode of experience. Time is not an independent reality composed of an existing past and future; rather, it is the fruit of mental synthesis. What is past no longer exists, but is remembered. In remembering what is past, we anticipate the future, and both in remembering and in anticipating we make sense of the present.
In Section 28 of Book 11 Augustine exemplifies this mental synthesis by reflecting on the recitation of a psalm he already knows: “Before I begin, my expectation is directed to the whole of it; but when I have begun, so much of it as I pluck off and drop away into the past becomes matter for my memory; and the whole energy of the action is divided between my memory, in regard to what I have said, and my expectation, in regard to what I am still to say. But there is a present act of attention, by which what was future passes on its way to becoming past.” As the recitation progresses, memory is engaged evermore to bring meaning to the whole. Augustine ends his reflection by emphasizing that what goes for the recitation of a psalm is true for the whole life of a human being, and indeed for the whole of human history. In fact, any act of understanding arises from this time-bounded mode of understanding where both memory and expectation enable us to be fully attentive to what lies before our mind’s eye. Even though the mental act of grasping a timeless truth is a timeless action because it is an intellectual — that is to say, immaterial — act, the very means by which we can attend to timeless truths is, for us, time-bound. By Augustine’s way of thinking, time is not so much a mode of limitation as a means of enabling us to understand what is most worthy of our attention.
The three years through which we cycle in any given year are not the same with respect to the experience of time. The calendar year marks the seasons, but the years compound. Each liturgical year, on the other hand, is, so to speak, a new creation, a new opportunity to welcome the miraculous birth of our Savior and his salvific work of death and resurrection. Each liturgical year is both a new creation and, in another sense, the same as every other liturgical year. It is in the liturgical year that we find annual renewal.
Academic years bear features of both these other two years. At the University of Dallas, we return each year to those treasures of our tradition, like Augustine’s Confessions, that provide opportunities for new discoveries for those moving through this cycle of study for the first time, and new discoveries and renewals of past discoveries for their professors as well as for alumni who return to their core studies in efforts to continue to grow into the education they have received. But the University of Dallas is not merely a deposit of memories presented afresh to new students who enter our doors. We have outstanding majors and graduate programs in which we add to the growing body of human knowledge. Our students learn from their teacher-scholars not just how to be properly disposed toward the greatest insights of the past, but how to penetrate into what has not yet been discovered.
All three years are relevant to making sense of our lives as a whole. We are all growing older, as the mounting calendar years remind us with the turn of each new year. The academic year enables us to remember the treasures of our tradition, to expect new discoveries that build on past ones, and to perceive those truths that reveal themselves through our time-bound inquiries. The liturgical year sustains us throughout, bringing to our attention the Gospel truths that are ever ancient, ever new.
May this Christmas season be a time of deep renewal for you, and may this new year be a psalm well sung.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Love, Excellence and the University of Dallas: Inaugural Address by Jonathan J. Sanford
This is the address delivered by Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D., on the occasion of his inauguration as 10th president of the University of Dallas on Oct. 1, 2021.
Your Excellency, and Chancellor of the University of Dallas, Most Reverend Bishop Edward J. Burns; Chair of the Board of Trustees Richard Husseini; your Excellency, Most Reverend Bishop Gregory Kelly; Abbot Peter Verhalen, O.Cist.; Trustees of the University of Dallas; University Chaplain Fr. Joseph Paul Albin, O.P.; our many Concelebrants; Cistercian monks, Consecrated Sisters of the Dominican and Sisters for Life orders, Dominican Brothers, and other men and women religious; Seminarians of Holy Trinity Seminary and Redemptoris Mater Seminary; Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta; fellow university presidents and other university delegates; the esteemed faculty and dedicated staff of the University of Dallas; members of my family — my parents, Russ and Ruth, my in-laws, William and Peggy, my most remarkable wife, Rebecca, and our children; benefactors, students, alumni and all friends of the University of Dallas; what a joy it is to be with you this day. Thank you for your presence. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your prayers as I endeavor to serve faithfully and vigilantly this, our magnificent University of Dallas.
The opening lines of Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus have Socrates greeting Phaedrus with these words: “Phaedrus, my friend! Where have you been? Where are you going?” Phaedrus is a great lover of speeches, and he is taking a walk outside the walls of the city of Athens to reflect on and practice delivering a speech he heard from the sophist Lysias. The speech concerns love, eros, but it contains a most provocative thesis. Rather than arguing that thoughts and actions are best when motivated by love, it contends that relationships are best served when there is no affection involved. Given the tendency of love to go awry, we might be tempted to think that the speech of the sophist Lysias has hit upon a deep truth, namely that there is duty and security to be found in a commitment to passionless action. But that temptation should be avoided. On this both Plato and the Gospels agree: actions are rightly ordered to the good only when guided by well-ordered love, and whereas one can expect nothing great from the apathetic, disordered love at least bears the prospects of redeemability.
It is not my aim to provide you with anything like a thorough interpretation of Plato’s Phaedrus, one of the most fascinating and significant dialogues in Plato’s corpus, but I do want to dig in some of its fertile ground to plant the seed of my own speech. The dialogue concerns not just the nature of love, but the nature of words, and speeches in particular, and the manner in which words can both obscure and reveal reality. The purpose of speeches, Socrates states later in the dialogue, is to direct the soul (Phaedrus, 271d), and so there is an obligation that every speech giver has both to understand the soul and to discern the truth when he sets out to direct the souls of others. Socrates, displaying his own rhetorical prowess, provides a speech superior to Lysias’ in which he supports the same thesis as does Lysias, namely that actions motivated by something other than love are superior to those that are. Though the speech is very fine indeed, Socrates is deeply dissatisfied with it. Why? Because it obscures the truth of the matter: It is a speech which fails to fulfill that obligation that all rhetors have to direct souls well. The truth as concerns love is that, in fact, particular deeds and even one’s entire life are best when love serves as the principal motivation. Failing to love is a failure to acknowledge the creative and productive power of love. Now, it is not just any sort of love for any sort of thing that is best, but rather love that is perfected through cultivation of the virtues, and a love in which one yearns for those things that are truly good and beautiful. It is a love perfected by temperance and exercised with justice and courage that sprouts wings in a person so that he or she can soar, ultimately, to the very heights of heaven.
Where have you been? Where are you going? In the dialogue, these two questions put to Phaedrus are answered easily enough in our own cases if we consider merely the surface of things. You most recently came from your home, your dorm room, your hotel, to participate in this Mass and presidential installation. And, let me pause to express again my profound gratitude for your being here. Some of you traveled far indeed, and others were already near at hand, and still others have taken the time to be here virtually. But you have all come to mark this moment, to be part of this celebration which, though I am featured, is actually not about me but about this great Catholic liberal arts university and the glorious mission to which it is dedicated. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
The questions — Where have you been? Where are you going? — as with all things in those dialogues of one of the principal fathers of our Western intellectual tradition, have depth to them. Where have you been? At one level of depth, this question invites us to reflect on what and who have shaped us thus far. We all come from particular parents, born in particular locations at particular times, have a group of particular siblings and friends, and have had a practically infinite set of interactions with other persons and experiences that, in combination with our ongoing reflections, have given shape to our life’s story. When you make a new friend, you share some of those stories. Which ones? We tend to share the stories about ourselves that reveal our own loves, those things, those interests and goals, that reveal our heart.
One can press the question even deeper to strive to unearth the metaphysical depths of our being. Where have you been? Where do you come from? How did you come to be? What is your being? These questions lead us to reflect not just on the lines of our natural origins, our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on. They lead us to reflect on divine origins. Do you, as well as your parents and grandparents, share a common origin in a divine being? Did God participate in your coming to be? Does God maintain your being even now? What or who is God? In what ways are you like God? In what ways are you unlike God? In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates insists that the most important knowledge is self-knowledge, a point emphasized throughout the Platonic corpus. Pressing hard on the question “Where have you been?” brings us to the answer to that question. We are each imagines Dei, images and likenesses of God.
Where are you going? Like the first question, this one can be pressed beyond a surface answer to reveal two dimensions, a natural and a supernatural one. Where are you going? What do you intend to do with your life? What are your professional aspirations? Will you be married and have a family? How will you raise your children? What is your calling — professionally, personally, religiously? Just as we share our natural origins with our friends, so too do we share our aspirations. Where you intend to go and how you intend to live reveals your loves by laying open your heart.
As with our beginnings, so with our ends, the question of God and his role in where you have come from and whither you go emerge as we press on to the supernatural depths to which this question directs us. Does God want a relationship with you? What does that even mean? Why would God want you as his friend? What does God’s love for you reveal about yourself and the loves you ought to have now?
What does the University of Dallas have to do with either of these life-and-love-revealing questions? On the surface level, the University of Dallas is both an origin and a destination, a place to which some come and others go in any given year. It is the higher educational institution to which many come to receive an education and from which they leave to spend their lives growing into that education. More significantly, it is an institution that is a vital part of many life stories, a place of forming culture, creating friendship and family, and realizing one’s very humanity. Still further, through the education we provide at the University of Dallas, our students uncover and more deeply understand the very meaning of their lives and learn to listen to those callings that become their vocations.
There is another way to approach these fundamental questions with the University of Dallas in mind, one in which we think of it not just as the point of intersection and formation for many lives, but as itself a sort of living entity, an institutional being with a life of its own.
Where has the University of Dallas been? Where is it going?
Though young as far as universities go, the University of Dallas is old enough that some of its origin stories are tinctured with elements of sacred lore. The first iteration of the University of Dallas runs from 1905 through 1928. It was the Vincentian Fathers who founded Holy Trinity College in 1905 and renamed it the University of Dallas in 1910. They closed the University of Dallas in 1928, and the charter was given to the Diocese of Dallas. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur obtained that charter in 1955 with the intention of folding Our Lady of Victory College in Fort Worth into a newly established University of Dallas. Something magical happened when an energetic bishop with a great deal of experience and a doctorate in history from Louvain, Bishop Thomas K. Gorman, was given back the charter for the University of Dallas from the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur later in 1955 and, together with a board of profoundly generous and daring businessmen, founded the University of Dallas in 1956. Our campus bears the names of those early great ones — Constantin, Gorman, Blakley, Haggar, Braniff, Maher. Bishop Gorman was convinced of the need to found not just another regional Catholic college, but a truly great Catholic university, one that would serve as a paradigm in the wider landscape of American higher education. He succeeded.
The first faculty were composed of some of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, members of the Order of Friars Minor and laypeople. The Franciscans pulled out after three years, but they were replaced, and in ways that remain significant and continue to nurture the charism and classrooms of the University of Dallas, by Cistercians who were refugees from then-Communist Hungary and by Dominicans from the Southern province who built their first priory on campus in 1958. The School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in 1962 and provided invaluable teaching and administrative support. We are now mainly a lay faculty, but we have a new order of nuns, the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia, commonly known as the Nashville Dominicans, who comprise a part of our faculty, we continue to have Cistercians from our Lady of Dallas Abbey on our faculty, and the Dominicans provide excellent formation for our community through serving the chaplaincy.
Many lay men and women have had a profound effect on our university, but none so great as Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan. When they arrived in the 1960s, there was much good to build on, and high aspirations for what UD might become. But, it was the Cowans, originally charged with establishing an Honors College at UD, who instead built what is in effect an honors college for every undergraduate student. They were convinced that a shared curriculum was the most significant feature of a university education that would reclaim culture and revive the great Western intellectual tradition; as Dr. Donald Cowan observed, “The curriculum is the center of the solution; it must be the same for all students, but designed for the best — not in its complexity but in its imaginative scope and profundity.” And it was Dr. Louise Cowan who realized, together with Dr. Willmoore Kendall, Bishop Gorman’s dream of a truly distinctive graduate program, which came to be the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts in which is housed what is now widely recognized as the strongest interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in the country, the Institute of Philosophical Studies. It was from Braniff that first the Graduate School of Management, named now after our generous alumni Satish and Yasmin Gupta, as the Gupta College of Business, sprung. And, so too, did the graduate programs in ministry find their origins in Braniff, UD’s incubator for creative and foundational graduate education.
The University Dallas came from the creative partnerships, bold acts and generous donations of dedicated dreamers and doers: Bishop Gorman and his band of backers, Donald and Louise Cowan, James Fougerouse and Steven Pejovich, Lyle and Sybil Novinski, and countless faculty greats from Frederick Wilhelmsen to Sister Mary Clodovia, from Father Placid to Charles Coppin, from Father Roch Keretsky to Robert A. Welch, from John Sommerfeldt to Raymond DiLorenzo, from Bob Lynch to John Alvis, from Bob Wood to Eileen Gregory, from Tom Jodziewicz to Bruce Evans. We burst forth from unflinching daring in tumultuous times, and built on what was then a wilderness of mud, grass and scrub trees in these bluffs near the Trinity River. We do well to remember our origins, to study the great words and deeds of our founders, refounders and innovators. They gave the form of this institutional being we are, and as Aristotle reminds us, form and fulfillment go hand in hand. In establishing our forms, our forefathers and mothers fulfilled us.
Where are we going? Ours is an institution that liberates. Ours is an institution that reclaims the great things of the past. Ours is an institution that incubates the great things of the future. Ours is an institution that is dedicated to the purposes of rebuilding culture in a world that seems to have lost its way. Ours is an institution which by its Catholicism points the way forward for healing in our Church and in our country. Ours is an institution that stands tall and strong, like the Braniff Memorial Tower on our mall, in the storms raging against those dedicated to the purposes of genuine education, to form students by wisdom, truth and virtue. How do we do this? Through dauntless dedication to the soul-enriching and culture-building excellent education that we provide.
As I say, ours is an education that liberates, and that is because of the manner in which the liberal arts are deeply ingrained within our very essence as a Catholic liberal arts university. The liberal arts are those disciplined ways of perceiving, knowing and thinking that cultivate an appreciation of truths for their own sake. The liberal arts free us from our own ignorance, unmooring us from false opinions so that we might grasp matters as they are, and transforming even our true opinions into knowledge by learning to give an account of the reasons why those judgments are true. The liberal arts free us from unperfected passions because, in order to cultivate these arts, one needs to develop certain habits, certain virtues, like moderation and the courageous pursuit of truth, in the very process of acquiring the ways of perceiving, knowing and thinking embodied in the liberal arts. 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 ancients called such an environment “leisure,” and the measure of a well-educated person is his or her ability to use well those times in which one can separate from the concerns of the moment. Such genuine leisure, the great philosopher Josef Pieper insists, is the very basis of culture, and at its root is, if not proximately then ultimately, the act of worship of the God who makes all things new. 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. 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.
It is a hallmark of our university that all our undergraduates share the same pathway through a robust and integrated core curriculum. The core is not meant only to make its mark on the first two years of education; rather, it forms the foundation for the entirety of one’s education understood as a lifelong pursuit. The attunement to the objects of inquiry cultivated by the liberal arts can be brought to bear on any inquiry whatsoever; its fruit is appreciating the things one studies for their own sake. There is no discipline that is not profoundly enriched by the attunement that the liberal arts yield. And, what justifies our being a university, a group of many disciplines turned toward one, is the convergence of truth from the various disciplines toward a unity of knowledge. It is those liberating arts that enable us to appreciate the unity of truth.
The Catholicism of this, our University of Dallas, undergirds the whole of our endeavors. The very idea of our university — that is to say its form, structure, substance and purpose — springs from ex corde Ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church, and we have ever aligned ourselves under the Church’s magisterial guidance. 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 try to realize what freedom exercised well entails. With respect to our student body, Catholicism opens us to students of all faiths and ethnicities, with invitations to Catholics and non-Catholics to experience more deeply the treasures of our faith. With respect to our campus culture, Catholicism firmly plants the divine liturgy as the deep root that holds in place our common life, guiding our approach to residential life, and athletics, and spiritual formation on campus, and the thousand ways in which the intellectual virtues our students are developing come to be interwoven with their moral and theological virtues, benefiting and benefited by each and every member of our community.
The University of Dallas has indeed realized Bishop Gorman’s intention of founding a great Catholic liberal arts university, but let us not pretend that there is not more work to be done in fulfilling our mandate. Whatever the undulations of our mall might suggest to you, our educational foundation is firm. We are doing well in providing an exceptional education to our students. But we need to ensure that our commitment to academic excellence is unwavering, and we need to invest more deeply in our existing and future faculty members. We provide an excellent moral and spiritual formation for our students, but the extreme isolation and digitally inspired loneliness of these times make it clear that we need to do more to ensure that our students have every opportunity to live lives as complete and integrated men and women. We are rebuilding our culture first and foremost through forming its future leaders in our classrooms, but there is more we can do in service to Church and country, including for those who will not be privileged with the opportunity to matriculate at this, our great University of Dallas. I invite each of you into our efforts to strengthen our foundations and to build upward and outward from them over the course of what, God willing, will be a very long period of stability, growth and cultural renewal as I endeavor to discharge faithfully my duty to lead this institution by the sister virtues of humility and magnanimity.
I want to return to those opening remarks of Plato’s dialogue. We have taken up Socrates’ two questions, but the fact that Socrates greets Phaedrus as “my friend” should not be overlooked. Friendship is the pinnacle relationship that eros yields — a reciprocal love for another that enables both friends to endeavor for the true, good and beautiful. The love of friendship is at the heart of our education at the University of Dallas.
There are four spheres in which this love of friendship is relevant to our education. First and foremost, we cultivate a friendship with the truth. To be sure, my use of friendship in this context may seem a stretch since friendship requires reciprocal love. But, there is a manner in which the truths of things do yearn to be known by us, and that is precisely because they are known and loved by a loving God. God’s knowing love for the things He made in turn presents them as fit partners for our longing intellects, which yearn to be fulfilled by the very essence of the beings we study. Learning to be good friends of the truth requires a great deal of habituation, the cultivation of those virtues of liberal learning that enable us to progress in this path of friendship, virtues such as intellectual humility, a sense of wonder, perseverance and savoring the truths we seek when they are grasped. Cultivating these virtues requires friends, and at the same time cultivates a deepening of those same friendships between students, between professors, and between professors and students. Ultimately, our education cultivates a friendship with our God who deigns to call us friends. It is not an exaggeration to say that the education we provide is a friendship nurtured for the sake of friendship.
Genuine friendship is founded upon arete, the Greek word for excellence or virtue. It is virtue that perfects our friendships with the truth, with our peers, with our mentors, and with God. It is excellence that is our guideword as we endeavor to do all things well. I look forward to the opportunities to explore deeply this theme in the coming year in my inaugural series, “Arete: Renewing Culture through Educational Excellence.” This theme describes our call: The University of Dallas is uniquely positioned to revive our wounded culture through its unwavering commitment to an excellent Catholic and liberating education. We are called to effect healing and unity through the deep truths we communicate about the human person and our common desire to flourish in communion with others, our countless endeavors to promote all that is good, true and beautiful, and the many ways in which we foster magnanimity, which is that virtue that entails all the others and puts them at the service of glorious and good works.
As we strive to build on and share more broadly the vital cultural resources that our university provides, we need always to remember that our principal work is to be found in our classrooms, in the work of our professors engaged in research and works of artistry, in the work of our graduates who live their lives excellently, and in the work of all those inspired by our great mission to renew culture through excellence in education. Our work is truly noble. Our work is sorely needed. The University of Dallas matters for this Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, it matters for Texas, it matters for the United States of America, it matters for our world. Let us begin again the great work to which our beloved University of Dallas is already dedicated.
The start of a new academic year is always an exciting time. The campus reawakens after summer’s lull with students moving into residence halls and faculty preparing for the start of classes this week. Last week, we took time to welcome our faculty back to campus for our annual Faculty Day. It was my first such opportunity to address exclusively our faculty in my capacity as president, and these remarks are an excerpt from that speech about the nature of our shared mission as a Catholic university. I hope you enjoy them, and as always, I welcome your feedback.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Excerpt from Faculty Day Address
August 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.
The restlessness of the human spirit has been much on my mind lately. I recently read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, which tells the harrowing tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew’s trans-Antarctic expedition. The expedition was a failure; setting out in August of 1914, their ship, the Endurance, was caught fast in the freezing seas and crushed. The crew spent more than a year camping on ice floats and navigating treacherous waters in lifeboats in attempts to find solid ground and human outposts. Supplies dwindled to nothing, and their bodies were broken and frostbitten, stretched thin and ravaged by malnutrition. But the story is ultimately one of remarkable success; their original quest for imperial glory and discovery became a quest for survival, and indeed, Shackleton succeeded by January 1917 in preserving the lives of each member of his crew.
What struck me the most about this tale were not the steps by which the crew persevered in the harshest of possible conditions — impressive as those were — but rather what motivated the attempt in the first place. No one had yet crossed Antarctica, and those signing up for the journey knew well the risks: The routes were inadequately charted, the weather and currents unpredictable, and there would be no way to communicate with the civilized world should help be needed. And yet, Shackleton had no trouble finding able and eager men willing to take that risk, and in fact was able to hand pick his crew of seamen, craftsmen and academics from the cream of the crop. The hearts of a great many were restless and hungry for greatness, adventure and new knowledge.
I recently heard a lecture given to our friends at the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture by our chair of Classics Dr. David Sweet, in which he reflected on the odyssey below the Odyssey, the odyssey of what motivated Odysseus. Why, Dr. Sweet asked, did Odysseus leave the island of Calypso, the haven in which every imaginable creature comfort was supplied? In addition to his longing for his own hearth and home, his own family, Odysseus was moved by his spirit for adventure, his desire to brave the perilous in pursuit of his beloved Ithaca.
There has been much written lately on the apathy of youth today, their absorption into the mind- and spirit-numbing world of social media and entertainment, punctuated with brief episodes of tailored outrage to identify where they stand on the issues of the day. One should not, I have become convinced, put too much stock in these depictions. The human heart remains restless beneath these manicured surfaces. I have seen it spring to life time and again in our own students’ odysseys, in their quest for the true, good and beautiful.
But I do not mean to suggest that we should not put any stock in those worried descriptions of the rising generation of college students, for they do face new challenges. The “virtual world” has taken on far too much prominence in their lives. Many of them have not, as Ben Sasse notes in his 2017 book The Vanishing American Adult, taken on the burdens that would lead to self-responsibility. Far too many of them do not know their history, or they know only tendentious versions of it. The ways in which many of them have been thus far educated leave them underprepared and frustrated — frustrated because they have the nagging sense, born from the restlessness of their hearts, that there is something more, something greater, to which they are called. And, therein lies hope.
One reason we have our students read the Odyssey and other epics is that these great works of our tradition stoke the flames of the human desire to accomplish great and noble tasks; they incite the spirit for heroism even as they provide models of the heroic shape. St. Augustine is perhaps the greatest poet of the restlessness of the human spirit, and the greatest theologian in revealing through his Confessions where ultimately that restlessness ought to lead, to a deep and personal relationship with the Divine Other.
This points to the twin efforts of our faculty at the University of Dallas. On the one hand, we seek to stoke the fires of restlessness, to lay bare and encourage our students to quest for great things. And, on the other, we strive to guide well the fires that have been stoked, to shape enlarged desire by the truth and to cultivate restlessness through virtue for the acquisition of wisdom, both practical and speculative.
This summer, we are preparing to launch the adventure of a new academic year. We will be welcoming the largest freshman class in our university’s history, the latest crop of young people eager for something great, even if they do not yet know exactly what great things await them. We have been transforming Catherine Hall back into a residence hall to make room for these students, reshuffling the decks of faculty and staff offices and ensuring that we have sufficient numbers of excellent faculty who are eager and able to lead our students, new and continuing, on their odysseys. May they all find Ithaca.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Your Excellency, and Chancellor of the University of Dallas, Most Reverend Bishop Edward J. Burns; Chair of the Board of Trustees Richard Husseini; your Excellencies, Most Reverend Bishop Gregory Kelly, Bishop Mark Seitz and Bishop Joseph Strickland; Your Excellency, and our commencement speaker, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda; members of the Board of Trustees; University Chaplain Father Thomas More Barba, O.P.; Rome Chaplain Monsignor Thomas Fucinaro; the esteemed faculty of the University of Dallas; parents, grandparents, friends and other relatives; and last, but certainly not least, the graduating class of 2021; what a delight it is to stand before you this morning.
We have many reasons to rejoice! Not only are we gathered together to celebrate your achievements, but we are really, truly and actually gathered together — at least most of us are, and please allow me to give a special word of welcome to those who are participating virtually.
We have come through a tremendously trying time. We have endured in the face of genuine difficulties. We gather to celebrate the achievements of our graduates for having run the race of their rigorous education well, for having fought the good fight and won the crown of their degrees. But, this extraordinary moment is not simply one of celebrating our graduates. It is no diminishment of their achievement to note that it would not have been possible without the extraordinary sacrifices of parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings, providing critical support throughout the time of focused study. In any year, staff, faculty and trustees of the university play essential roles in creating the environment in which genuine learning can occur. But this last year, more than any other, has seen extraordinary service rendered by all those dedicated to providing a University of Dallas education. Our faculty especially deserves our thanks — one simply cannot overestimate the remarkable sacrifices they have made in providing the very best of educations even under the exigencies of COVID. Thank you! Indeed, this is a moment in which we all rejoice.
At the recent Honors Convocation for graduating seniors, I focused on how, though forced upon us, the virtues of patience and perseverance, both of which are elements of the virtue of courage, have been planted in our souls. I want to encourage our graduates to continue to develop these virtues. They will enable you to endure the many trials of your life, whether those be the vagaries of the job market, the joys and challenges of raising a family, the faithful living out of a religious vocation, or discernment about how best to live out your responsibility to exercise responsible citizenship. We have all suffered under COVID and its management, but from that suffering, genuine wisdom can indeed be cultivated. If, that is, we strive to learn what lessons we can from what we have been through.
Endurance, trials, suffering; these terms mark the struggles we have been through and the difficulties we have borne. But, let us turn from these terms of strife for a moment to remind ourselves of what it is that makes them meaningful. For, ours has not been a fruitless suffering, but one dedicated to the fundamental goods of education.
The University of Dallas is a community of learners. Our purpose is to cultivate truth, wisdom and virtue. That is why we exist. These are the fundamental goods of education.
Truth is a matter of communion between your very soul and some object about which you inquire. This communion is not achieved through a downloading of information, as though we are some sort of repositories of facts like encyclopedias or computers. We are thinkers. We have learned to think for ourselves. We have learned to think for ourselves by asking questions, testing, experimenting, imagining, creating, performing, arguing, wrestling with case studies, pulling things apart and putting them back together, reflecting, and ultimately listening to things as they reveal themselves to us. It is through these processes that we eventually come to hold onto, to grasp, to possess, truths about things in such a way that they become parts of our very selves.
What is wisdom? Wisdom is a combination of understanding things as they are and being able to demonstrate them. Wisdom grows as our possession of truths grows, as we come to be shaped by those truths, and put ourselves to the test time and again of explaining those truths to others and being tested by others to refine them still further. Ultimately, wisdom rises to reflection on the greatest of all things. We know from both reason and faith that that is ultimately the source of all truth and wisdom, God himself. It is God who is the source of all truth and the object of all wisdom. All that is has its source in God, and each of our worthy endeavors reach their fulfilment insofar as they make manifest the greater glory of God, as encapsulated in that exhortation St. Ignatius made famous, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
A virtue is a honed disposition that makes us better human beings and enables us to do those things human beings ought to do well. There are both virtues of the mind and virtues of character. The highest virtue of the mind is in fact wisdom, and one facet of wisdom is its application in discerning how we should act. It is in action that the virtues of character are most required. We ought not merely to wish to be good, to be courageous, to be honest, to be just; rather, we are ordered and fulfilled in our humanity through in fact acting courageously, honestly and justly. We become more the selves we are called to be through exercising the virtues, and thus make sense of our lives, that is live meaningfully, by contributing to the good of others, whether that be through work in business, medicine, ministry, research, teaching, policy making, raising a family, or any of the many other walks of life you will find yourselves in.
Your cultivation of the goods of education has not been concluded with the reception of your degrees. Far from it! These are goods worthy of a lifetime of pursuit. These are goods most deserving of your continued attention. You cannot exhaust these goods, and in your further acquisition of them, you will not deprive others of their possession. Far from it! You, and all those with whom you interact, will be the beneficiaries of this quest which ought to be the defining feature of your life, no matter what your occupation or other life circumstances.
Veritatem, Justitiam Diligite: These are the words surrounding the top of the University of Dallas seal, and comprise UD’s motto. These are words meant to encapsulate the point and purpose of your education. These are words to guide you. Love Truth. Love Justice. It is worth noting that diligite, the Latin word for “love” and “seek diligently,” is a command.
The command the University of Dallas issues to all its sons and daughters is not a diversion from your pursuit of a life well-lived, it is rather a guide to the achievement of your life-quest. Since knowledge is a personal encounter with the truth of things, you become more yourself the more you cultivate knowledge in pursuit of wisdom. Since putting your life at the service of others is a fulfillment of your human nature, you become more yourself the more you cultivate justice. We want you to be happy, and the path to happiness is the love and pursuit of truth and justice. We also hope you want to strive to do great and glorious things, to cultivate the virtue of magnanimity.
In living magnanimously, you will love truth and justice well, becoming who you are called to be. We are eager to see you come into your own and set this world ablaze with your great and good life and works, and, in doing so, through your efforts and God’s grace, to establish your eternal home in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is our greatest hope and most heart-felt prayer for you. Thank you for persevering through these challenging times. Thank you for braving distance and a pandemic to celebrate this day together. Kudos on your tremendous accomplishment. Know that you always have a home with your alma mater.
I was honored to provide the annual Thomas More lecture for the Lewis-Tolkein Society last week, the first in-person event the Society had offered in more than a year. I focused on the theme of friendship and its role in liberal education.
As often happens with formal addresses, the Q-and-A period proved the livelier part of the evening. My address had focused on the essentials of a liberal education and the signature importance of focusing on learning for its own sake, whether it be in history, mathematics, science, theology, or business. To really understand the things one studies themselves, one must strive to appreciate them in their own right, as opposed to considering merely their usefulness to other subjects or the practicalities of life. Many in the audience had led successful careers in business and the professions, and I was asked to explore the relevance of a liberal education to professional life. One question, from a University of Dallas graduate from 1980, struck me for several reasons. The questioner recalled a speech he heard as an undergraduate from UD’s legendary president, Dr. Donald Cowan. President Cowan had in this speech to undergraduates emphasized the impracticality of a UD education, in large part to emphasize the value of this education for its own sake. Other educations might focus on the how, my questioner asserted, but President Cowan’s speech helped him to focus his attention on the why. The questioner wanted to know, amongst other things, whether I endorsed that vision.
I do. But, I do so with some contextual clarifications, clarifications that I suspect, having read many of President Cowan’s speeches, that President Cowan would have agreed with as well. It is true that, in a primary sense, a University of Dallas education is focused on things themselves, and not their utility value. But, it is also true that a University of Dallas education is preeminently useful, precisely because of its focus on learning for its own sake. What do I mean by that?
I mean that our graduates, having been forged in the furnace of an education that commands their focus like few others, are fully liberated after graduation to take their place at the highest levels in every walk of professional, civic, familial, and religious life. In an age marked by anxiety about how one will make a living, it should be consoling to students and their families that our students have proven themselves, time and again, more fit for post-graduate achievements than students from nearly every other school. Our medical school placement rates, for instance, are twice the national average, and on par with Ivy League schools. A remarkable number of our students seeking admission to law school are admitted, and our PhD placements in top-tier programs in multiple fields, such as math, biochemistry, and classics, are exceptional as well. But, it is not only in admissions to schools for additional education that our students excel. Our first destination placements have consistently been above 97%, putting UD graduates into careers immediately after graduation, and many of them in companies with household names like Amazon, Fidelity, UT Southwestern, and Goldman Sachs. You will read about some of these remarkable senior student successes in our summer Tower magazine.
St. John Paul II biographer and father of two UD alumnae, George Weigel, echoed this appreciation in my recent interview with him for Guadalupe Radio: "The kind of comprehensive liberal arts education that UD offers, the human environment that UD offers, the transformative experience of the Rome semester—that prepares you for anything."
Perhaps we do not do enough to stress these achievements. We are first and foremost concerned with substance, with the essence of things, with an education that puts at the forefront an encounter with things as they present themselves to we, the learners. We tend to make the appeal to prestige and placements secondary, as indeed it is. Students at the University of Dallas are imbued by an education that humbles them before the riches of the past and those yet to be achieved, and so, well formed by the greatest of our culture’s paradigms, dedicate themselves to lives of excellence. Celebrating their achievements need not distract from a focus on the primary goods of education, and can serve as encouragement to future students that they, too, can fulfill their particular calling to live magnanimously.
It is the education our students receive which orients them to lives of greatness. The encounter with the heroic ideal is front and center to every freshman who enters the University of Dallas as he or she wrestles with the Homeric ideal of greatness in the Iliad. That ideal, countered and re-encountered throughout the rest of the curriculum, finds its way into the soul of our students. They want to do great things in service to God and country. And, God willing, they will.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
I know we love our philosophers at UD, but admittedly they ask some odd questions, like, “What is being?”, “Can you understand something you can't demonstrate?”, and “Why be good?” We might all agree these are important questions, but not that they are pressing. Finding moments where questions like these are made pressing, as we do in our classrooms, brings a freshness to our everyday lives by uncovering overlooked depths of meaning.
Here is another odd question: What is time? Aristotle tells us that time is the measuring of motion according to before and after. One of the things I like about this definition is the way in which it invokes the role of a measurer: Time is not something merely “out there” — those who notice the passing of things mark it out. This helps explain why the passage of time varies according to the circumstances of we the measurers. More than one person has remarked to me recently that “COVID time” is unlike other periods of their lives. It is hard to recall sequences of events. Days seem to move slowly, and yet in recalling past days, they seem to have slipped away far more swiftly than other periods of our lives. What has “COVID time” been like for the University of Dallas? It is worth recalling a few things.
It was one year ago that we were arriving at the decision that we would have to be fully online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester due to COVID. We thought at that time that the virus would be under control by the end of summer at the latest, and we were planning for a more or less regular fall semester. As the year progressed, we soon realized just how wrong we were in that prediction, and yet we nonetheless persevered in our plans for a fall, and then a spring, that prioritized opportunities for in-person classes. We even managed to be one of the few universities in our nation to continue to run our signature study-abroad program in Rome in both the fall and this spring, despite significant obstacles that stood in our way. We have faced challenges and discomforts, to be sure, but we have thus far prevailed in our efforts to provide the deeply enriching and personal education that is one of our hallmarks.
This past year has seen other changes as well: We have been able to put the university on the strongest financial footing it has had in recent years through the implementation of a restructuring and expense reduction plan, as well as through taking advantage of federal grants and redoubled efforts at philanthropic fundraising. And then of course, there has been a presidential transition.
Though we ought to take stock of what has preceded, we need as well to keep our eyes fixed on how to live well in the present. Doing that requires focus on what one is doing and why one is doing it. I recently gave a lecture to a group of our highest-achieving prospective students, who were part of a competition for 10 full-tuition scholarships. I focused on the role of friendship in a liberal education. My thesis was that a liberal education is a sort of friendship for the sake of friendship. One cultivates a friendship with the truth of things by means of the help of friendships with peers and professors, for the sake, ultimately, of cultivating friendship with the source and summit of all that is true, good and beautiful — God himself. Friendships of each of these sorts require a willed presence with and to one’s friends, an ability to lay aside distractions and to learn with and from one’s friends. This takes time, and it is time well spent.
Time is not only a matter of recalling the past and trying to live in the present. We make sense of our own lives by anticipating the future. As people of faith, our lives are marked not just by the natural limit of earthly time, but through the virtue of hope as we anticipate a new mode of living in the presence of a timeless God. Our work lies in the temporal order, and that work is more excellently accomplished as we orient ourselves to eternity.
It is with both senses of our future in mind that we can see that a new springtime for the University of Dallas is upon us. We have not merely made it through the winter of this past year; we have done so in a way that positions us well for the future, that positions us to make fully real our calling to be the best Catholic liberal arts university in this nation. I am eager to lead this university to new heights, guided by our distinctive mission and new strategic plan. In a world in desperate need of our graduates, men and women who have been oriented to those principal goods of wisdom, truth and virtue, we are going to play a key role in renewing our Church and country. Our education liberates all those who experience it to bear witness to the virtues of rational discourse, magnanimity, justice and charity. Expect great things from our great University of Dallas.
Wishing you and your family a blessed Holy Week,
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy