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

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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.

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