Sed Contra: College at the Crossroads

Deal W. Hudson
July 1, 2001

The University of Dallas (UD) has long been counted among a handful of strong Catholic colleges where committed Catholic parents can safely send their sons and daughters. Billing itself as “the Catholic university for independent thinkers,” UD is one of the top liberal arts universities in America. It is one of only eight universities in Texas to have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and one of two to be accredited by the American Academy for Liberal Education, which I presently chair. Events of the past ten months, however, have raised questions about the direction of UD under the leadership of its president, Msgr. Milam Joseph, appointed in 1996.

Last fall, Scott Thurow, who came to the university in 1974 and was appointed provost in 1993, was “reassigned” inexplicably to teach in the politics department at UD’s Rome campus. Since Msgr. Joseph lacks an earned doctorate and was suspected of harboring a liberal bent, Thurow’s reputation as a scholar and a conservative helped calm most fears about Joseph’s appointment. Thurow’s seasoned oversight of academic programs was considered by those skeptical about Msgr. Joseph to be crucial in maintaining UD’s academic excellence.

Nonetheless, Msgr. Joseph is clearly uncomfortable with the out-spoken conservatives on his campus. Those who know Msgr. Joseph says he views himself as moving the campus into the Catholic “mainstream.” In doing this, he has strong support from UD’s board, which evidently shares Joseph’s vision for the university, though he has regularly clashed with some faculty and students, including the formidable Professor Janet Smith in the philosophy department.

Famous for her articulate advocacy of Humanae Vitae, Smith is a feisty defender of Catholic orthodoxy and the founder of the Millennium Evangelization Project on campus. As the unofficial faculty watchdog of Msgr. Joseph, Smith was never the president’s favorite person. After a number of contentious episodes, Msgr. Joseph made it clear to Smith that he would like her to resign. He recently got his wish, at least for the near future, when Smith announced that she would be teaching in the coming academic year at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. It is no accident that Smith’s evangelization program is exiting the campus as well.

On the heels of Smith’s announcement came the news that UD’s Institute of Religion and Pastoral Studies (IRPS) was moving to Ave Maria University in Michigan. Whether IRPS was cut loose by Msgr. Joseph or acquired by Thomas S. Monaghan, Ave Maria’s billionaire founder, is a topic of much debate. What cannot be disputed, however, is that IRPS was thriving at UD under the leadership of Douglas Bushman. The program was profitable and provided a sound education in pastoral theology to laypeople in the dioceses of Dallas, Tulsa, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Stevens Point, Wisconsin. It was on the verge of expanding to Omaha, Atlanta, and Syracuse.

The departure of Bushman and his colleagues from UD coincides with the dismantling of the St. Ignatius Institute by Rev. Steven Privett, S.J., the new president of the University of San Francisco (see “The Death of a Great College Program,” “Sed Contra,” April 2001). Guilt by association with Father Privett’s academic bloodbath is something that Msgr. Joseph would probably like to avoid, especially since Father Privett’s action at USF is under scrutiny at the Vatican. It’s ironic for an institution with UD’s conservative traditions to even appear in league with renegade Jesuits.

Credit should be given to Msgr. Joseph for bringing much-needed financial and capital improvements to UD. Financial stability at a small college is hard to achieve, and the situation Msgr. Joseph inherited at UD was fiscally marginal. And when a university president is sprucing up the campus, adding new buildings, and increasing the endowment, it’s unlikely the board will take issue with changes in institutional character.

Thus, the course set by Msgr. Joseph will very likely continue for years to come, and his ethos will likely prevail at UD until future leaders make their own mark. Time will tell if these changes mark a dramatically new course for UD, or whether Msgr. Joseph simply wants to eliminate what he considers obnoxious stridency among campus conservatives. If the letter is true, Msgr. Joseph is making a marketing decision that may come back to haunt him.

Being known as conservative isn’t such a bad thing when you have the market largely to yourself.

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