Leading by Example
A Review of Realizing the Distinctive University:
Visions and Values, Strategies and Culture
by Mark William Roche
Mel Piehl

Mark W. Roche, a noted scholar and Catholic educator, has written the third in a series of books on the modern university and liberal learning, especially in a Catholic context. The first two—The Intellectual Appeal of Catholicism and the Idea of a Catholic University (2003) and Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010)—addressed broad issues of, respectively, the Catholic intellectual tradition’s relevance in a largely secular academic age, and the importance of the liberal arts amidst the vast pressures for practical and professional education.

While it to some extent assumes the arguments of those two earlier books, Realizing the Distinctive University (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017) is a different breed of cat. Drawing heavily on Roche’s decade of experience as the Dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, the book is intended to be a visionary yet highly practical manual of advice for senior academic leaders—deans, provosts, presidents—for how they might seek to lead and improve their own universities. It is, Roche says, “about intellectual principles of administration and strategies for moving from vision to implementation.” (p. 2)

RocheYet even as it aims at this goal, Realizing the Distinctive University does a number of other things. It offer something of a personal memoir of Roche’s tenure as faculty member and dean at both Notre Dame and, earlier, Ohio State, with an emphasis on the vast change in outlook required when a faculty member “moves over” to administration. It comments on the past and present state of American—and German—higher education. It offers, inter alia, Roche’s perspective on how an intellectually alert Catholicism relates to higher learning. The book argues that a distinctive vision or ideal is critical to success, especially amidst the “disturbing changes and new challenges” currently facing higher education. And finally, Realizing the Distinctive University points to ways that certain ingrained American academic practices, such as institutional diversity, close faculty-student interaction, alumni relations, and private donations, might be adapted by international universities.

Although Roche says he is not providing an “overview of American higher education,” he begins with a compressed history of the modern university, presenting it as a change from the great nineteenth-century “German model” based on original research or Wissenschaft, academic freedom (Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit), and Bildung (individual self-cultivation) to the “American model” based on undergraduate liberal arts, institutional diversity, mass education, and “applied scholarship” providing practical benefits to society in such areas as agriculture, manufacturing, and medicine. He then argues that many American universities face an “identity crisis” in which their multiple purposes pull them in different and often contradictory directions—leading them to randomly chase prestige, funding, and popularity in whatever ways they can, with predictably confusing and incoherent results.

Roche’s central response to this widespread confusion about identity and purpose is to tell academic leaders to identify and elevate a unique vision for their particular institution. Once that central vision is understood, articulated, and made visible to all the university’s constituencies, the rest of the academic leader’s tasks naturally follows. These are, first, “embodying” the vision, and then funding it—that is, figuring out what central programs reflect the vision and then providing the resources to make them excellent. That leads to the need for precise “structures, strategies, and struggles” to implement these visionary goals amidst the nitty-gritty academic world of faculty careerism, bureaucracy, and numerous other distractions.

Of course Roche is writing all this primarily about the University of Notre Dame—where the idea of a “distinctive vision” is nearly as obvious as the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus. While many American universities might struggle to define how they are “different” from others, Notre Dame has never had this problem. The goal of building a truly great, international Catholic research university in the United States has long been part of the Notre Dame ethos—and certainly since the notable presidency of Father Theodore Hesburgh. Roche asserts that his own articulation of Notre Dame’s particular vision when he became dean in 1997 “has since become in many ways the self-understanding of Notre Dame and its current leadership” (p. 65). But the book reveals that what Roche (and presumably others) really brought to the table was a set of savvy, focused, and ambitious strategies to further advance Hesburgh’s vision from an ideal to something like a reality.

In describing his own role in this remarkable achievement, Roche provides an anecdote-rich account of how to use his preferred techniques of flexibility, competition, monetary and other incentives, accountability and—crucially—community building to enhance both distinctiveness and excellence. A consistent undercurrent in the book is that, before he arrived, Notre Dame was—despite its distinctive vision and high ambitions—still quite insular, ingrown, mediocre, and self-satisfied. Many of Roche’s strategies and tactics were designed to disturb this complacency and promote an academic excellence in line with the Catholic vision. While Roche emphasizes that any college dean is the “conductor of an orchestra made up entirely of composers,” he explains how he used everything from reallocating budget lines and splitting departments to staff birthday celebrations and donor cultivation to make Notre Dame’s arts and letters truly first rate. And whatever the multiple causes, it is certainly true that his university, and college, has become, by almost any measure, one of the top twenty research universities in the United States.

While administrative strategy and savvy are absolutely essential, it sure helps to have lots of money! I lost track of the innumerable times in Roche’s narrative where the availability of discretionary dollars enabled the dean to improve his college in dramatic ways. Among the instances: building a 150,000 square-foot performing arts center from scratch and attracting endowed faculty from Princeton and Yale to staff it; using clever recruitment techniques, scholarships, and departmental honors programs to attract and retain top students; teaching multiple languages from Quechua to Korean, among other things, to foster internationalization; developing special funds for hiring and retaining minority and female faculty; providing postdoctoral funding for Ph.D. students; and adding eighty newly funded faculty positions and fifty endowed chairs. And many more. Most startlingly, Roche reveals that, unlike probably 99 percent of American colleges, Notre Dame never had to cut its budget after the 2008 recession, and instead received budgetary increases (p. 127).

While many of Roche’s strategies could surely be adapted by others, one wonders how successful they might be for the vast majority of academic leaders who face ever-more-stringent budget pinches and economic rebellions from constituencies and the wider public. Roche frequently and correctly emphasizes the tremendous diversity of American higher education as one of its strengths. But almost all of his examples are drawn from the very top private and public research universities and elite liberal arts colleges, with a few nods to community colleges as places of practical training and remediation. The largest sector of American higher education, however, consists of non-elite four-year colleges, master’s-level institutions (including many former Catholic women’s colleges), and the prevalent second-and-third tier public universities that educate most students. These institutions are seldom alluded to. Any academic leader from any kind of college or university could assuredly learn a great deal from the book, but those who work in such settings might first have to resist becoming green with envy.

Nevertheless, anyone associated with Christian higher education can only be grateful that the nation’s leading Catholic university has been led by such wise and successful academic leaders as Roche. Along with a small handful of other church-related research universities—Georgetown, Boston College, St. Louis, Baylor, and Marquette—Notre Dame has begun to undermine, through tangible demonstration, one of deep narratives regarding American higher education: that there is an inverse relationship between faith and academic excellence, and that as universities become academically excellent they must become more secular.

Roche’s book, and his work, shows why that zero-sum equation is false. And even those in other, less-favored kinds of church-related institutions and traditions can benefit greatly from those achievements. And not least of those is elevating a kind of academic leadership that is attentively personal as well as toughly managerial. Near the book’s conclusion, Roche movingly describes what I think is one of the central virtues necessary to creating and leading a genuine academic community: “To take joy in the success of others is a privileged and often neglected virtue, one that tends to surface only when one has a meaningful sense of collective identity; and the exercise of that virtue as one assumes a leadership position further reinforces one’s identification with the community” (p. 45). While deriving joy from others’ accomplishments might occur anywhere, I suspect that such feelings are more likely to be evoked in communities—including academic ones—where personal achievements are viewed in the light of grace. Mark Roche’s book helps remind us why such places, such leaders, and such virtues, are to be cherished and nurtured.


Mel Piehl is senior research professor of humanities and history and former dean of Christ College, Valparaiso University.

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