The current crisis and the future of the University of Dallas

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UD has now relinquished its control over Tower Village, one of the university's key assets.

It pained me to read in last week’s edition of The University News that the university was forced to sell Tower Village “in an effort to raise much needed revenue.” This is a warning bell.

Tower Village was one of the university’s core assets. The apartment complex ensured the availability of relatively affordable housing, close to campus for our students. Tower Village also created a reliable stream of revenue. Furthermore, the sale of the apartments was preceded by the sale of a significant portion of land on East Northgate Drive. This means that the university is losing control over the development of its immediate neighborhood.

The financial problems that the University is facing are nothing new. In my 21years here, there have been far more years of austerity than of prosperity. We are dealing with problems that are structural. I have too often heard that the next administration — or the next bishop — will finally resolve all our problems. But we never reach the promised land.

What are the structural problems? My impression is that the university’s main strength is also its greatest weakness. We like to speak of ourselves as “the Catholic university for independent thinkers.” This is a beautiful motto. To be seriously committed to the Catholic faith and tradition — and nevertheless to be open-minded — that is the mission of the University of Dallas. How does this work? How can the two poles be reconciled? In some sense, this question summarizes the entire meaning of the Catholic intellectual tradition: to be thinkingly and critically faithful, to reexamine and rearticulate the tradition anew for each generation — without betraying its core.

Our commitment both to the Catholic faith and to independent thought does, however, put us in a difficult strategic situation in the landscape of contemporary higher education in America. There are those who are willing to support a “conservative” Catholic college such as Ave Maria or Christendom; and there are those who are willing to support a “liberal” Catholic university like Georgetown or Loyola Marymount. The Catholic liberal arts, UD-style, are a more difficult sell.

Another richness only exacerbates the difficulty. Over the past 20 years, the University of Dallas has evolved from a liberal-arts college with a couple of appendices, called GSM and IRPS, into a university in which several colleges and schools operate on the same level. Each of these constituent parts has its own distinctive mission and excellence; each draws a different type of student. The coherence of the whole, however, is not clearly articulated.

Let me add a further structural problem. Like all, or certainly most, American universities, the University of Dallas now allocates a disproportionate amount of its resources to ancillary functions. By “ancillary” I mean everything that is not immediately related to teaching as well as scholarly, scientific, or artistic work, that is to say, to the essential mission of every university. To be sure, we need a business office, an advancement office, campus safety, the facilities department, academic computing, even academic administrators — to mention but a few of the offices without which the place would not be able to operate. But should we allocate more resources to administration than to faculty? Or is something wrong once such a point is reached? Has the tail started wagging the dog?

The final structural problem that I believe bedevils us is the absence of visionary academic leadership. This type of leadership is rare, but an institution cannot flourish without it in the long run. For intellectual inspiration, the University of Dallas still draws on the mythical figures of Louise and Donald Cowan, whose heyday was 50 years ago. The Cowans interpreted the meaning of being a “Catholic university for independent thinkers” for their generation. But what does it mean for us?

This answer cannot come from the past. We must rethink and rearticulate the meaning of the UD education for ourselves — a task that is in equal measure difficult and exhilarating. Yet without a compelling vision, it is difficult to attract enthusiastic donors.  

There are no easy solutions for structural problems. Recognizing and naming them is, however, a first step.       

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