I came to the University of Dallas for my Ph.D. from another small, distinctive liberal arts school, St. John’s College. Over the last few years, in my daily life and in my research and teaching, I’ve investigated their similarities and differences, I’ve tried to understand the development of their identities and I’ve compared them to other prominent liberal arts programs.
My alma mater has had its fair share of crises, conflicts and challenges, but it continues to thrive because it offers something distinct, valuable and instantly recognizable, and because its students, faculty, board and leaders understand and are committed to its peculiar identity.
The following observations are offered to my second alma mater, an institution that I have come to love, as it begins its own transition in leadership.
Schools like UD thrive when they embrace what sets them apart, do their best to fill their niche and are blessed with leaders who understand and can articulate what is distinctive about them.
To succeed—to sustain enrollment, to increase alumni giving, to attract new donors, to represent UD to the public, to maintain the confidence of the board and to serve the faculty and students whose intellectual lives comprise the university proper—the next president will need to know the differences between UD and the mainstream of higher education, and between UD and its nearest kin in higher education. A successful president will love UD for what makes it distinct and will be eloquent in communicating this love and this distinction.
What distinguishes UD? UD is a Catholic liberal arts university with a robust Core rooted in the liberal disciplines.
UD is Catholic—in a way distinct from Georgetown and Notre Dame, but also from Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom. The culture, community and curriculum help strengthen and evangelize students in faith and morals. Students and faculty appreciate and respect the Catholic tradition, even when it is not their own. They are fearless in the pursuit of wisdom, in their own studies and in the studies of their peers, because they know that truth cannot contradict truth.
UD is dedicated to liberal education—well-grounded in the liberal disciplines, but leaving ample time to specialize in a particular liberal or pre-professional discipline. Students can study the liberal arts to their heart’s content at UD. And students who want to go into business or medicine, but who know that the Catholic intellectual tradition is indispensable for their lives and vocations, can come to UD, have their cake, and eat it, too. It’s a big tent, but the tent-pole is the Core.
UD has a robust, substantial, and coherent Core—in terms of course credits, the largest of its kind; in less quantifiable and more important terms, probably the best to be found anywhere. The Core really is a core. Unlike Thomas Aquinas College or St. John’s College, it’s not an all-required curriculum. Unlike Harvard or even Chicago, it is for the most part a well-ordered set of specific classes, not a distribution requirement.
The Core introduces each student to the range of liberal disciplines, providing a preview for future majors and ensuring that non-majors do not become lost in the narrowness of overspecialization. The Core as a whole engages the great conversation of the West, and it helps professors strike the proper balance between teaching over research. It has particular strengths in its three- or four-course literature, philosophy and history sequences.
Finally, UD is a university rather than a college. The Constantin Core is the core of the university. It is decisive for undergraduate education, but it also helps set the tone for Gupta, Braniff and the School of Ministry. It is my sense that the faculty in these schools recognize that they teach at a special university, and that the Core contributes to their specialties. It gives them and their students strengths, resources and perspectives they otherwise would lack, and it sets them apart from other business, humanities and ministry programs.
Each of these attributes is crucial to UD’s identity. To forget one or another would be to mistake it for the competition. A salesman who doesn’t know his own wares is a poor salesman indeed. And this is all the more true in education, where the product isn’t really a product and the customer isn’t really a customer.
I haven’t mentioned Rome, or the Cap Bar, or the alumni community in Irving and beyond, or the faculty’s collegiality, or the students’ joyfulness and brilliance and good-naturedness and sense of wonder.
I’ll leave it to others to highlight these and other features of UD, to point out my mistakes, and to correct my oversights. Merely to read the university mission statement—four short but profound paragraphs, available to all in the Bulletin—would go a long way toward clarifying the character and commitments of the university.
The next president of UD will have the good fortune to join a flourishing community and the privilege to lead an excellent institution. He or she will succeed as a leader in no small part by understanding and building on its strengths.
Pavlos Papadopoulos is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Dallas, where he has taught courses in politics, philosophy and history, including a course on the history of liberal arts education.