George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Decisions of great consequence for the future of Catholic higher education will be made over the next weeks and months by the board of trustees of the University of Dallas. Catholics throughout the United States have a considerable stake in the university's choice of a new president and in the direction he or she takes this remarkable institution.
Eight years ago, I described the University of Dallas in this space as the best Catholic college in America. I mean no disrespect to many other fine Catholic schools when I say that that's still my judgment. And now that judgment is based, not simply on the occasional visit to lecture at the U.D. campus, but from watching my two daughters and their friends go through the Dallas core curriculum and prosper because of it —intellectually, spiritually, and professionally.
I'll go farther out on the comparative limb and say that the Dallas core curriculum — a rigorous set of required humanities courses usually spread over the first two years of college — is both the most demanding and rewarding such core in the country. Period. At the end of those two years (which for most U.D. students include a semester abroad at the university's beautiful Rome campus) these kids know that they're part of a civilization, and that they're responsible for its future. U.D. graduates are neither grinds nor space cadets. When they graduate, they're well-educated, thoughtful, articulate young adults who flourish in business, medicine, law, the arts, and the humanities, and who are vocationally serious about marriage, the priesthood, or the religious life.
Employers seeking youngsters who know how to think, speak, and write have learned to value U.D. graduates. Masters and doctoral programs looking for candidates who haven't become narrow specialists at age twenty-two have learned the same lesson. That the school hasn't marketed its accomplishments adequately is a sadness, but university promotion is a relatively easy problem to fix. The key is believing in what you're doing.
Thomas Aquinas College in California is another superior Catholic school. It successfully raises tens of millions of dollars, although it's much smaller than U.D. and appeals to a narrower band of students. Why? Because the college administration and board know what T.A.C. offers — a Catholic “great books” program — and are happy to defend that product and sell it. There's absolutely no reason why other small Catholic liberal arts colleges can't do the same thing. If, that is, their leaders believe in what they're doing.
There are great financial pressures on most small independent colleges these days. The ones that will survive, and deserve to survive, will be those in which both trustees and administrators understand that mission-driven promotion and fund-raising produce better bottom lines. You can't do it the other way around. If the financial bottom line becomes the only criterion for decision-making about curriculum, recruitment, and hiring, then the mission will lose, time and again. Eventually, the mission will get lost.
What happens at the University of Dallas as it chooses its new president concerns more than the trustees, faculty, administration, students, and alumni of that university. Catholic higher education could be on the edge of a renaissance. If it happens, that renaissance will be led by schools secure in their Catholic identity, committed to rigorous core curricula, and dedicated to producing well-rounded young men and women. Schools like the University of Dallas could lead that renaissance, which could have an important effect on all American higher education, and indeed on the future of our democracy, if they remain true to their mission. That means believing in the mission in the first place.
There's a telling example of this right at hand in the football-crazy Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Bill Parcells took essentially the same Dallas Cowboys team and transformed it in a year from a bunch of losers to a divisional champion. Leadership turns things around — leadership that believes in the unique mission of the institution in question. Given that kind of leadership, the University of Dallas can prosper. So can similar Catholic schools. As it chooses a new president, the U.D. board is also choosing a future for Catholic liberal arts education in America. We've all got a stake in their decision.