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Interview by Todd C. Ream and Brian C. Clark

Something So Good, We Want to Share It

A conversation with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh

Editor's Note: The March/April 2010 issue of Books & Culture included an interview with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh by Todd C. Ream and Brian C. Clark. Father Hesburgh, who served as president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, died last week, and I asked Todd if he would write a new preface to the interview. (Since the piece first appeared in B&C, Todd has moved from Indiana Wesleyan University to nearby Taylor University, where he is professor of higher education; he is also a research fellow with Baylor University's Insitute for the Study of Religion.) Here's what Todd wrote:

I knew the moment would come. In April 2014, the last time I saw Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, he was accepting, albeit begrudgingly, his need to wear a Life Alert-type button. While in good spirits on that day, he did growl something like “I do not know why they want me to wear this thing—when I go, I go.”

On that April day, and at the age of 96, he did what he always had done since committing his life to the priesthood—he showed up. Whether the challenge was stemming the tide of nuclear proliferation, championing civil rights, advancing co-education, or raising the academic standards of “our lady’s university,” Father Hesburgh showed up. For him, success was not preeminently vested in the outcome but in being faithful to the call and following wherever the Holy Spirit may lead.

At times, showing up meant meeting with presidents of the United States. At other times, showing up meant meeting with popes. On this occasion, showing up meant conversation with an eleven year-old girl, my daughter Addison, who asked to meet with him.

Addison and her classmates at Eastern Elementary School were studying the civil rights movement. She had then read Jill A. Boughton and Julie Walters’ appropriately entitled children’s biography of Father Hesburgh, God’s Icebreaker. When she asked to meet with him, he gladly accepted, and off we went to South Bend.

Several years earlier, macular degeneration had robbed Father Hesburgh of his eyesight. While I shared with Addison prior to our visit that he was blind, that reality did not dampen their interaction in any way. Afterward, however, Addison asked, “He’s blind?"

“Yes,” I answered.

“And he still comes to work?”


“To his office on the 13th floor [of the Hesburgh Library, a.k.a. ʻTouchdown Jesusʼ]?”



On that day, Addison heard a first-hand account of what it meant to link arms with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the struggle for civil rights. On a more basic level, she learned one can never link arms in struggles that matter unless one first shows up.

On Thursday, February 26, 2015, and at the age of 97, Father Hesburgh showed up for the final installment of his calling—eternal communion with the saints and the God who calls them home.

And here's the original preface and the conversation that followed:

In order to advance his challenge to evangelicals to "develop a competent literature in every field of study," Carl F. H. Henry began working in the 1950s to establish an evangelical research university. Conversations with potential donors were initiated and plans were made to establish this institution in a community adjacent to New York City. While various challenges eventually brought the possibility of this particular institution to an end, Henry would not let the idea in general perish. At a conference hosted by Wheaton College in the mid-1980s, Henry was still issuing his call to evangelicals to establish a research university. Convinced that such an institution was a necessary agent in the struggle for what he called the "new world mind," Henry passed his idea on to the next generation of evangelicals.

That the dream survives at all is a small miracle. A number of evangelical colleges and universities were thought to be on the verge of extinction as late as the mid-1980s. But in the years leading up to Henry's death in 2003, many of these institutions experienced population explosions, and student enrollment increases initiated growing expectations. Masters and even doctoral programs were established at schools such as Azusa Pacific, George Fox, Seattle Pacific, Wheaton, and Indiana Wesleyan. As a result of this prosperity, several evangelical colleges and universities are now confronted with the possibility of leaping from being teaching institutions primarily concerned with serving undergraduates to being research universities.

Meanwhile, down in Waco, Texas, Baylor University's president, Robert Sloan, was spearheading an ambitious plan (Vision 2012) to make Baylor "one of the top [research] universities in the United States (and the world)." Central to the plan was a determination to deepen the university's commitment to the integration of faith and learning. Alas, this road was not an easy one to travel. After years of bruising controversy, Sloan resigned as president in 2005. Unable to mend this division, his successor, John M. Lilley, was fired in July 2008.

Still, Carl Henry's grand ambition persists. Are there any viable models for Christian colleges or universities poised to take the next step?

Enter the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. As president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, Father Hesburgh directed the school's transformation to its present eminence as an ecumenically Catholic research university. (In recent decades, Notre Dame has attracted outstanding evangelical scholars (evangelicals or close kin) such as Alvin Plantinga, George Marsden, and Mark Noll.) Todd Ream and Brian Clark talked with Hesburgh in his office on the Notre Dame campus.

What exactly does it mean to you to be a priest?

It's a funny thing in a way, probably atypical, but from the time I began to think about being anything I wanted to be a priest. Don't ask me why. It's the grace of God and I can't explain it all, but I kept that through grammar school and high school. When I was going into high school, one of the Holy Cross priests from Notre Dame was giving a mission at our parish in Syracuse, and he told my mother that I ought to come out to Notre Dame and do my high school in the seminary. And she said, "He's not going to pick up at age 12 and go that far away. He's going to high school here." And the priest said, "Well, he might lose his vocation." And she said, "Let me tell you something Father. If he loses his vocation growing up in a Christian family, where he goes to mass and communion every day and is an altar boy, in the Church, I'll tell you something—he doesn't have one." So when I finished high school, I came here.

Would you describe your appointment to the presidency of Notre Dame?

I became executive vice president in 1949. I was the first one to hold that office. The president at that time, Father John Cavanaugh, decided to reorganize the after the war. Since I was the first executive vice president, I asked, "So what does that mean?" He said, "That means you're the vice president in charge of the other vice presidents, and you have to write the articles of administration for all these new tasks," which I did, and I think they are still using that organizational chart today with the description of the various tasks and how they interlock with each other. It was a very tough three years from '49 to '52. Father Cavanaugh really worked me across the board on a wide variety of tasks, and I learned a lot from him because he was a great administrator. (He had been vice president of Studebaker before he decided he wanted to become priest.) In 1952—I had just turned 35 a week earlier—I became president, and I picked a fellow named Father Edmund Joyce, who was quite different from me, to be my executive vice president. He had studied business at Notre Dame, and he had been out working in the world for five years; he was a marvelous guy with great intelligence and a great sense of administration. One of the smartest things I did was to pick him as my number-one assistant. When the six-year term was up in 1958, I expected to go back to teaching theology, but they told me to keep on going—along with Father Joyce. And I said, "What about the six years?" They said, "Well, that was a limitation because you are also superior of all the religious on campus, the congregation of the Holy Cross"—maybe 80 or 90 of them. "Under canon law you can't be a religious superior more than six years. So you are no longer religious superior but you are president." And on that basis we went around that track about six times. We started, both of us, at age 35 and at age 70 we retired. And that's the story. I've been retired since that time, but I still keep busy.

How would you assess Notre Dame as you inherited it at the beginning of your presidency?

My mentor, Father John Cavanaugh, brought the university into the modern age by creating a whole new administrative structure. That was a big aid because it spread the leadership broadly. There was no reason why it had to be a priest to do these jobs. Many people were doing them who weren't clerics across the land. But I didn't find being a priest hurt me; it really helped me in many ways because I was interested in education more broadly—not just secular knowledge but also formation of Christian character, which has been an integral part of Notre Dame since it began. It still continues that way today.

After having the job for about ten years, it suddenly dawned on me that we had great lack here. We had at that time about 5,000 or 6,000 undergraduates, but they were all men. I decided we really ought to begin to take in women for the first time. Of course, our male alumni thought that was a terrible thing—until it got into full swing, and some of their daughters got accepted here while their sons didn't. (Girls tend to outperform young men in high school.) I'm happy to say that as of roughly a year or two ago, we had 50 percent women and 50 percent men, and it's a much better place. It's more normal. Men and women grow up together and they understand each other better if they study together and learn together. Of course we have a lot of marriages growing out of that. All told it's been a great move. We have young women graduates doing great work all over the world—plus being wonderful wives and mothers, and great Notre Dame alumni.

What was the academic quality of the University of Notre Dame in 1952?

It was solid but not outstanding. I have to say it was solid because we turned out many graduates who did very good work and were well trained. But I felt that we had to have a much higher level of faculty and higher level of library and a higher level of everything. When I became president we had an undergraduate student body of 6,000 students and a graduate program of maybe 1,000. Our budget was $6 million a year for academics for the whole university. They had been working on an endowment since World War I, but it was only about $7 million. Today our operating budget isn't $6 million but over $1 billion. And our endowment is not $7 million but over $7 billion. About half of that jump took place during the years that I was president, and it's continued since then. A first-rate university is a very expensive place, and the better you get the more it costs.

The library would be one example of that. We're sitting in the library now on the thirteenth floor. When I became president, we had a library of 250,000 books. They had been working on it ever since the place was founded a hundred years ago. So, it wasn't because of neglect—it was because of money. I decided that the heart of a great university has got to be a great library. When we proposed this building, everybody laughed. They said, "You're crazy." The architect said, "Do you want to build a building twice the capacity of your current library, which has served you for over a century?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Bigger or smaller?" They had suggested half a million books, 500,000 volumes, and I said, "bigger, of course." And they said, "Well, do you want to multiply the current holdings four times? That will give you a million books, if you ever get there." And I said, "No, more than that." And they said, "How much more?" And I said, "Build a building for 6 million books and other library items." And they said, "You're crazy— that's twenty-four times what you have now!" And I said, "I'll make you a promise that before I die, we'll have 6 million items in the library," and today we do. The library has fourteen stories, 50,000 square feet each. The bottom two stories are four acres each, and there's a basement with that same four acres. Today when you walk through the stacks on the top floor, you notice that there isn't an awful lot of room left for more books, but we are still getting more each year. Of course, with the internet and all that business, books are not as important as they were. But it's a wonderful thing to be able to pick up a book and work with it, rather than doing all your work just on that machine.

How do you understand the university theologically?

I see the university as being open to all people, and everyone is welcome here. It's a Catholic university, of course, and there happen to be more than 60 million Catholics in America, so it's no surprise that a little more than 80 percent of our students are Catholic. But we have a substantial number of students who are not Catholic, including a growing number of Muslim students. They add to the richness of the place. Still, all told, it's a Christian institution. The great majority of the students are Catholic or Protestant. The faculty is around 50 to 55 percent Catholic and the rest are mostly Christian; there are, of course, a number of Jews and Muslims on the faculty. So, it's a pretty complete kind of community, but it's obviously got a Catholic character.

It's interesting that every one of our halls (and some of our academic buildings as well) has a chapel. We have mass in the chapels every day, and of course they are packed on Sundays. We have a central church, the Sacred Heart Church, which is a beautiful church, one of the first buildings on the campus. When most of the buildings on campus burned down in the 1870s, everything east of the church was lost, but the church was saved—it's still the original structure with French stained glass windows and the beautiful Gothic design. There is also a place called the Grotto, which is a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes, and I would guess that a great number of students drop in there to say a prayer every day. It's right next to the church, and it's a very meditative kind of place. When alumni come back, they go down to the Grotto and say a prayer; it's a custom here.

Faith has been always a strong component running through the whole campus. I'm retired now, and into my nineties, so I follow one of my companions, Father Charles Sheedy, who used to say, "Life is mostly showing up." I show up every day, and it's a constant range of faculty and students and alumni coming by to talk. It keeps my days active, but it's also a good testament to the fact that the tradition is there, and openness is there. We have priests and nuns. And the nuns are in the women's dorms.

When I went coeducational, all the students wanted coed dorms. I said, "Look, men aren't women and women aren't men. Women need special education and they get it best by living together with other women, forming lifelong friendships. When you guys move into a dorm you tend to take over, and the women wouldn't really have a terrain of their own." This is quite unusual in modern universities. Practically all universities have coeducational dorms. But we have half our dorms for women and half for men. Of course they can visit back and forth during the day, but when it comes toward midnight the bell goes off and the guys have to get out and the women have the dorm to themselves for the evening hours. They can sit around the bed and talk women talk. The place is theirs. It's a very good thing.

Are there other ways in which Notre Dame's theological grounding distinguishes it from many research universities?

Within the last year a top professor from Harvard came here, and a top professor from Stanford came here. And they'll be here the rest of their lives, I trust, and they came here because they felt Notre Dame had an added dimension they didn't have in those other places, which are great universities. I was President of the Board of Overseers for two terms at Harvard University, so I got a very good insight into how one of the best universities in the land operates. I have to say I learned about some things they were doing that we should be doing, and now are doing, but I also saw that they didn't have some of the things that we cherish here. Not simply a moral dimension, because an education at Harvard obviously has moral content as well intellectual content, but there is something more here. If you claim to be a religious institution, you'd better show, number one, that religion is a vital force in the whole operation: teaching, research, reading, and growing. And worship is a vital part of that. It is not academically central, but it is central in the lives of individuals who are doing the academic thing.

Added to that spiritual dimension—you might say the theological and philosophical concern of your faculty—there is also a style of life that might make you somewhat distinctive. While we don't want to be goody-goody religious in a pietistic sense, we want to be solidly religious in the sense that there is such a thing as a theological world growing out of divine revelation—and we shouldn't act as though that's not a part of knowledge. It's the center, I think, of knowledge. But that's not recognized in most universities, where they try to make up for it by having religious clubs or Newman clubs or things like that. Here it's an integral part of our philosophy of education.

For example, there is a building going up right now outside the window. You can look out before you leave. It's a church life building, and it began because we've always had a tradition here of our students doing social work, or you might say apostolic work of a sort. Part of that is tutoring minority kids, part of it's visiting poor schools and upgrading their facilities, part of it's going abroad and teaching in Africa and Asia and Latin America. Early on our students were caught up, especially after the war, with a sense of service in a broader sense. And then they started going overseas. Today we have 30 different overseas programs. And so, while we have the usual four classes here at Notre Dame, we also have a fifth class, you might say, where somewhere in that continuum of four years they're spending six months to a year overseas. That's become a fundamental part of the deal here. And today, over 80 percent of our students are involved in some kind of social action—you can put another word on it if you want: they tutor or they work with sports groups or they help injured children or retarded children. Many of our students spend their summers doing this kind of service, or they take a year or two after graduation to work in the Peace Corps.

As this kind of student involvement in service projects has grown, we decided that we needed a building worthy of their efforts. The building you'll see outside the window is costing $14 million, and it's already paid for. It's going to be open not only for student service activities but also for alumni, people who are giving time to others after graduation and are involved with things on campus. They can come back and meet there, and there are a number of faculty, of course, who get involved in these things—most of them have a faculty moderator. Now they will have a place where they can check their files, where they can have meetings, where they can have a snack if they want it. And again, to underline what I said earlier, there will be a beautiful chapel in that building—if they want to pray it's right there.

That building says what makes this university different from most great universities. Most of these service projects were started totally by the students, not by us. But we responded to their needs after they got going, and now they're going to have a building just for service to humanity. People have to learn that education is not just sucking in knowledge and getting better yourself, but giving back to society. It's apostolic in every sense of the word.

How did your aspirations for Notre Dame affect the experience of the average faculty member?

First of all it affects the kind of faculty member you engage to come here. In the old days all they had to do was teach. Today they have to both teach and do research. That's true across the board. It's obviously true in the sciences, but it's true also in the liberal arts, and we have a very large business training program here too. But, there's a kind of moral context which runs through it all, which isn't common to the world at large. I think it is very important that the great majority of this faculty not only take some part of the accepted knowledge in their subject and teach it to youngsters but also are involved in promoting the growth of that knowledge. In other words, they're doing research as well as teaching. When I started here everybody taught. I was given six classes to teach right away. Today they'd die if you gave them six classes, because every faculty member has a substantial part of his time given over to research for personal growth and the growth of the discipline he's involved in. So, it's a different kind of place today. If you don't do research, you don't get tenure. But that doesn't mean we undervalue teaching. If you're not a good teacher, you're not going to get tenure here, either.

What about issues of academic freedom?

I always believed there is academic freedom. Freedom, not just academic freedom, is a cornerstone of human existence. We're the only free creatures on earth. The others act by instinct or training, or whatever. But, we're free, and that's one of the greatest gifts God gives us, and you might say in a way that the Christian life is a way of directing your freedom to higher goals, beginning with God of course, but that filters down into human life in many dimensions. I think freedom is at the heart of so much of what we do. I'd say one of the greatest outlets for divine grace is to help an individual direct his free time to some good pursuit where he's not just doing something for himself but for others. And that's so important that the Good Lord Himself said, "Whatsoever you did for one of these my least brethren you did it for me." And that's, you might say, the capstone of all these efforts I'm talking about. That the Christian life is not sitting in a corner and praying—you know I do a little of that too—but it's also taking the good news which is at the heart of Christianity out to others who don't have it, or making it real in a life that is just perfunctorily Christian. So all of this, I think, gets into an educational system, and you have to put together a faculty that believes in this and is part of it and finds that a very rewarding thing. That should be, and to an extent is, at the heart of all Christian education—I don't just think of Catholic education. I think of the things you folks are doing, and it's something I appreciate. I think we can learn from each other, and that's why we've felt this is a very open place.

One last question: What advice would you offer to evangelical colleges and universities with perhaps comparable aspirations?

I would say the same thing to my Protestant brethren as I do to my Catholic brethren. Religion is certainly something internal because it involves a personal commitment to the faith and to the consequence of the faith, which we call a moral life, if you will, spiritual life, and prayer, and service is a kind of prayer I think. Christianity, if it isn't productive of good, if it isn't inspiring to people who need inspiration, is simply irrelevant. Religion is only relevant, especially in the educational world, if what you are doing turns out a better person, because a person is going to live his faith and practice his faith and serve others. You serve God by loving God, and there are a thousand ways you can do it. Education happens to be a very important one of those thousand ways, if you will. And if you are inspired by your religious faith to get into education of others who share your faith or want to find some faith, I have to say that is one of the highest forms of prayer. Christianity is not just something for us—it is something for us that is so good that we want to share it with others.

Todd C. Ream is associate director of the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University. With Perry L. Glanzer, he is the author of Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan).

Brian C. Clark is a master of divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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