Rooted in Faith: Deal W. Hudson interviews University of Dallas President Msgr. Milam Joseph

The University of Dallas is considered to be one of the great Catholic institutions of higher education in this country. What kind of general plans do you have for the development of the University of Dallas?

Well, I think I could divide the general plan for our university into external and internal. The external program for the University of Dallas has to do first of all with taking care of our assets: maintenance on our buildings, land, and infrastructure. A forty-one year old campus has infrastructure needs to be addressed. To that end, we had a board retreat last February in which we outlined a five year plan: We borrowed ten million dollars to take care of roofs, foundations, and renovation of residence halls. We just finished one dorm, Catherine Hall, for $1.3 million, and we plan to renovate one dorm a year over the next five years. In addition to that, we have on the table plans for the expansion and renovation of our art facility, an eighty thousand square foot library with a high tech information center, and a new performing arts center. We would also like to see a new fitness center, in order to widen the student life opportunities on our campus. Those are some of the external issues. To accomplish that, we would like to have an undergraduate enrollment of 1,600 students.

What’s your present enrollment?

We began this year with 1,031 undergraduates. Graduate school enrollment is about 1,800 students, largely made up of students in the Graduate School of Management, which offers the MBA. Our other graduate programs are the Institute of Philosophic Studies, which offers the doctorate, and the various masters programs. Finally, our Institute of Religion and Pastoral Studies offers a master of religious education. Enrollment is up in all programs across the board.

University of Dallas has distinguished itself academically among Catholic universities which are considered orthodox. Do you foresee any way of making this incredible academic achievement more widely known throughout the country?

I’m glad you asked that question, because that’s an issue we deal with on a regular basis: the public relations aspect of the university. We will always cling to our Catholic identity, which is rooted in our fidelity to the Magisterium, the Holy Father, Ex Corde Ecclesiae and so forth. We intend to market ourselves—I hate to use such a pedestrian term, but there you are—in such a way that people know who and what we are. We hope to increase the visibility of the admission office, and staff it with the kind of personnel that can reach out to the country, get into the high schools, get into the homes so that people know that the University of Dallas is here and is an extraordinary school.

Do you think the trustees you have right now represent the kind of national representation that you are seeking?

We have an excellent board, but we do have to get other people on that board. We have a committee that’s specifically working on trustee development, and the kinds and types of people that we would like to invite to sit on our board. Of course, we’re very happy to have many prominent Catholics on our board: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus; Mr. Terry Larson of Philadelphia, who is an alumnus; Anne Husted Burleigh of Cincinnati, who’s well known to Crisis readers. We would like to reach out for more national representation on the board.

What’s the future of the liberal arts core curriculum, the compulsory courses taken by all students who are undergraduates at the University of Dallas? Is it going to remain as it is? Is it going to be nuanced?

It’s going to remain as it is. Hopefully, we can articulate the core curriculum in such a way as to be attractive to persons who seek an education, and not just the development of a particular vocation or skill.

You know a lot of liberal arts universities and colleges have found that they lose some of their—to use one of those terms we don’t like—marketshare when they don’t bend enough to vocational aspirations. How are you going to reach your goal of 1,600 undergraduates and at the same time maintain a strong liberal arts foundation?

It’s going to be a challenge to market what we are without changing our fundamental mission, but that’s the challenge incumbent on me, the board, and all of us who are part of this enterprise. I don’t have a twelve point plan, but I can tell you this: The liberal arts core and the fundamental Catholic identity of this university are nonnegotiable.

Don’t you see both of those things as the great attractions of the University of Dallas? Don’t you think there are a lot of parents and young adults coming out of high school who are attracted to precisely those aspects of the University of Dallas?

I think that the Catholic identity and the liberal arts core of this university are fundamentally what human beings really want, what the nation truly needs, and what the Catholic Church is all about. We’re about connectiveness, about Holy Communion. We teach students that reason and revelation are not mutually exclusive, but are two roads to the truth. Most of the things that are so awry in our society and culture have to do with a discontinuity between people and their religious and intellectual traditions, their community, and their God. We invite students to see themselves as part of a unified cultural understanding of the truth, an understanding rooted and centered in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist, as well as the western intellectual heritage. Our academic identity, which is part of our Catholic identity, is there to connect students to God, to each other, to the larger community, and finally, to the world as a whole. That’s why I think our program is going to be attractive to the modern world.

In terms of this sense of connectiveness, do you sometimes worry that the reputation of the University of Dallas is too conservative?

I don’t really worry about that—”conservative” isn’t a word I would use. I would worry about any phrase, word, or mindset that would not reflect the mission and authentic traditions of the Church, or of the intellectual life. I would worry about anything that would tend to skew one’s notion of the university away from what it really is.

So, in other words, you’re saying that a parent, a young adult, can choose the University of Dallas as a Catholic school where they can get both a fine academic training and continue their growth in the Catholic faith?

I would say that without reservation. I think not only would they get a good education, they’d get the best education. Our professors, our curriculum, the Rome experience, our core curriculum, our Catholic identity: These are all things that go into a true liberal education.

Don’t you think it’s a little ironic that with all the Catholic institutions in this country, one of the best is in Dallas?

Well, so be it. I think that’s wonderful, and providentially, it’s interesting to me, because I grew up in Dallas. I was born here, raised here, ordained here, and it’s so very interesting to me how God really does work in most unusual ways, personally and collectively. So, I’m not surprised at it: I’m glad because of it.

Why do you think, Msgr. Joseph, that the University of Dallas has maintained its orthodoxy over forty-one years of existence, when frankly so many schools have not?

Well, I think we have a fundamental commitment to being faithful. I quote the late Mother Teresa: We’re here to be faithful, not successful. It would, of course, be nice to be known as the leading university in the nation. However, I’ve been here in one capacity or another since I started as dean of men in 1965, and abandoning our commitment to orthodoxy has never been discussed. We’ve never wavered from that. If you can’t educate in the context of fidelity to the Church, then you sell your birthright.

Tell about the university’s relationship with the Bishop of Dallas, Charles Grahmann.

Well, the bishop is the grand chancellor of the board, and he sits at all the meetings. He has a vote like everyone else, and he does have veto power over who is admitted to the board. However, the University of Dallas is owned by the board of trustees, not by the diocese. That’s the way it’s been since the ’50s, a model of collaboration that many other Catholic universities have emulated since.

Give me a profile of a typical entering freshman at the University of Dallas.

You would have a student that has about a 1225 SAT score. Fifty-six percent of the students come from Texas, the remainder from thirty-eight states throughout the nation. They come from good academic programs, good high schools—they’re not at UD for remedial work. They truly want to engage the classics and the liberal arts tradition. Seventy percent are Catholic, and they’ll find the Eucharistic chapel available twenty-four hours a day. This student would look forward to the Rome experience in their sophomore year. The Catholic students, I think, will generally be from a more conservative background—I hate to use those words, liberal and conservative—but their faith, their Catholicity, will be a serious issue for them.

What do you think the biggest danger is facing Catholic higher education today?

It just costs an enormous amount of money to operate, sustain, nurture, build, and develop an institution of higher learning in this country. There are a lot of temptations that have to do with money.

Do you think the University of Dallas needs high-profile sports team, high-profile arts groups?

We’re a division three NCAA institution, which means we do not offer any kind of scholarships for athletics—and we never will. We have no interest in getting into what you call high-profile athletics. That being said, we would like to do division three athletics very well. We just resuscitated the baseball program and built a new baseball complex. I doubt very seriously whether we’re ever going to be a high-profile athletic program, but we do want to provide students with the opportunity to participate in athletics if they’d like. It’s good to have students who are well-rounded in body, mind, and soul.

Do you think you’re at a particular advantage or disadvantage by being a Catholic university in a Protestant community?

I think our Catholicity is an advantage. I was raised in Dallas, and when I was a child everybody in the neighborhood went to the Baptist church and the local high school, and my family drove twelve miles downtown to go to Mass and attend the Catholic grade school at the cathedral. So, I didn’t know it at the time, but as I look back on it I was raised in an ecumenical environment. I was always answering the questions, defending the faith: Why do you make the sign of the Cross? Why don’t you eat meat on Friday? To be a Catholic in this environment, you have to know your faith well.

Do you ever worry about some of the groups, like, for example, Opus Dei, causing division in this connectedness?

I’ve never seen any problem with that. One of the first things I did when I became interim president was to have dinner at the Opus Dei residence that’s about a half mile from our campus. I have no difficulty whatsoever with any group, Opus Dei or otherwise, that operates in good faith for the sake of the common good of the university.

If a parent called you and said, I’m trying to make a decision about where to send my child, what would you say about the University of Dallas? What distinguishes it from other good, Catholic universities.

Well, our academic program for one. Our program is not given in to trendy ideas and money-making courses, so to speak. We have held firmly to the tradition and we will continue to do that, but we are always open to new, legitimate expressions of that tradition. I would tell them about our Catholic identity. At UD, the Catholic faith is a lived faith. The Eucharistic chapel and daily Mass are available to our students, and you’ll see kids there all the time. You’ll see programs that express the corporal works of mercy—students gathering together during spring break to work in programs in Appalachia or Latin America. I think I would say you will see a very close community here, an academic life that brings students together. You will see a small university where students really get to know their professors and one another and form a community, while engaging in a rigorous and demanding curriculum.

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