Further Thoughts on the “Protestant Notre Dame”

Just what would make Liberty University — or Baylor University or any other claimant to the title — “the Protestant Notre Dame“? Among other fine responses to my post on this topic yesterday, Aaron Morrison suggested that Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr. “needed to clarify what he meant by ‘Notre Dame'” before deeming his school the Protestant version of it.

Clearly, the relationship of Christian faith to the mission of the school is central. And soon I want to return to the question I’m actually most interested in: should any Christian college or university — Protestant or Catholic — aspire to become whatever “Notre Dame” exemplifies?

But here I’ll do no more than to hypothesize that to become the “Protestant Notre Dame” could mean a few things about the particular nature of a university in addition to its size, wealth, and commitment to a Christian identity and mission.

1. That it has elite academics

The Theodore Hesburgh Library
The Theodore Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame (yes, “Touchdown Jesus” is on a library) – Creative Commons (Mendaliv)

This is where most commenters started — which says a lot about who reads my blog, no doubt. Here’s historian John Fea, for example:

When Liberty University starts to invest its money in a world-class faculty, gives them the time and the opportunity to do world-class research, and develops Ph.D programs taught by those world-class faculty, it might be on the way to this distinction.   But I just don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon.  The doctrinal requirements for those who teach at Liberty are just too narrow. The campus and its administration are just too driven by one political persuasion.  Jerry Falwell’s legacy plays well among young conservative evangelicals whose parents were part of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, but it does not play well among all evangelicals.  Many evangelical scholars who want to maintain academic respectability in their guilds may shy away from a teaching post at Liberty because of its connection to the Christian Right. Liberty may be growing, and it may have tens of thousands of online students, but world class universities are not measured in terms of numbers.

So, not just size or faith commitment, but a “world-class faculty” doing “world-class research” with doctoral programs to match.

After all, Liberty University is #80 — among regional universities in the American South (according to U.S. News). The University of Notre Dame is #86 — among all the universities of the world (according to The Times Higher Education — in whose methodology research influence, reputation, volume, etc. account for 60% of the score). According to Washington Monthly, Notre Dame spends $134 million per year on research; Liberty: $0. (Baylor, the other leading claimant to the “Protestant Notre Dame” title spends $11 million in this area.)

And to Falwell’s response — cited in yesterday’s post — that Liberty is redefining academic prestige by offering opportunity to a wider range of students… Liberty’s six-year graduation rate (48%) is six points lower than what is predicted by Washington Monthly‘s algorithm (which factors in income and standardized test scores). Notre Dame’s is four points lower than the predicted 100%, but 96% ties it with Princeton and places it just ahead of Stanford, Duke, Columbia, and Cornell.

Given its low marks on social mobility and research, it’s no wonder that Liberty ranks #434 in the WM master’s university set. (#3 Valparaiso probably has the strongest claim among the avowedly Christian members of that group to claim anything close to Notre Dame’s elite academic status.)

2. That it have elite athletics

And really, I think the Notre Dame comparison is almost entirely about football — the recent success of the Irish in March Madness notwithstanding. If you can’t compete for national championships in the single most popular and profitable intercollegiate sport, one that generates over $40 million in net income for Notre Dame (with its eight poll-era championships), you cannot be its Protestant equivalent.

(Incidentally, if you Google “Notre Dame,” the Wikipedia page for Fighting Irish football ranks higher than those for the university itself and for the famous cathedral in Paris.)

A football game at Notre Dame Stadium
Game day at Notre Dame Stadium in 2006 – Creative Commons (Ted Moseby)

If you doubt that this matters a great deal to the would-be NDs, consider:

This August 2014 story in USA Today about Liberty’s ambition — backed by seemingly endless resources — to move from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS — formerly 1-AA) to the elite Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in which Notre Dame and Baylor compete. It ends with this quotation from Falwell: “My father used to say there were two universal languages all young people understood – music and athletics – and to build a world-class university those two components have to be a major part of it…. Athletics isn’t our mission, but it has the potential to shine a light on our mission like nothing else ever can.”

• In the same article, Falwell alluded to the perception that Liberty had to show that it’s “not Oral Roberts, it’s Baylor.” It was only one of the twelve imperatives in the Baylor 2012 strategic plan, but committing to “Build with integrity a winning tradition in all sports” made for a stark break with the university’s lackluster sporting history. The Bears football team hadn’t appeared in a New Year’s Day game since losing the Cotton Bowl to Alabama in 1980 (going down 30-2, no less). But six years ago the university spent $34 million on a 97,000-square foot facility that houses football operations — including a 13,500-foot weight room — and another $11 million on an indoor football practice field. New coach Art Briles is salaried at over $3 million per year. Last year he led the Bears to an 11-2 record, winning all six games played in their new quarter-billion dollar home stadium. That season ended with a narrow Cotton Bowl loss to Michigan State and a return to the top ten of national polls for the first time since 1951.

3. That it’s a destination

At least, that’s how I interpret this response from a Baylor PhD student, picking up on part of a line I quoted from one of his university’s most influential professors:

In a local-global age, I’m not sure that the idea of a “national university” is going to be quite as compelling at it used to be. But to the extent that elite universities still capture the imagination of would-be students…

This does go deeper than the academic reputation factors discussed above (and are probably not unrelated to sports). After all, Douglas Henry’s original statement here was not only about setting sights, but hearts.

Based purely on the anecdotal evidence of having known a couple of Notre Dame families growing up, I totally buy that there were and perhaps still are lots of people who “set their hearts on going” to South Bend. (And at least in their cases, it had much to do with being Roman Catholics in a majority-Protestant nation.) How many Americans (how many Baptists, even) have their hearts set on spending four years in Lynchburg or Waco?

I’m not sure how to test this… For 2014, both Liberty and Notre Dame had just under nine applicants for every enrolled first-year student. And both had 53-54% of those admitted actually matriculate.

Does any of that indicate sight- and heart-setting?

Well, compare with Baylor, which admits a vastly larger share of its applicants (57%) than either Liberty (21%) or Notre Dame (22%) and had about one fewer application per enrolled freshman than the other two. Only 22% of those it admitted ultimately went to Waco.

If almost four out of every five people who have the chance to attend your school decide to go elsewhere, how much of a destination are you?

(By the way, Liberty’s numbers don’t seem to include its online programs. And note that even its residential undergraduate programs are attracting a much lower caliber of student than Notre Dame or Baylor, at least as measured by admittedly flawed measures like SAT/ACT score and high school class rank or GPA.)

One other statistic here that might speak to the notion of this type of school as a destination: 92% of Notre Dame‘s students come from out of state, vs. 60% for Liberty and 26% for Baylor. (Pro Texana, indeed!) But then, there are something like four Texans for every Hoosier…

3 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on the “Protestant Notre Dame”

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