While Notre Dame lies apart from the urban bustle of the big Jesuit-founded schools like New York's Fordham and Washington's Georgetown, it has nevertheless plunged into the mainstream of American education. Its propelling force is the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who at a time when college presidents cannot be sure of outlasting this year's freshmen has headed Notre Dame for 18 years. The public-spirited Hesburgh is also, among his other extracurricular activities, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A dark-eyed, compact man of 53, his immense energies are undiminished by a nagging case of tendinitis, which he combats with priestly faith and a copper bracelet.
It is with precisely this mixture of the spiritual and the temporal that Hesburgh has sought to refute George Bernard Shaw's dictum that "a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms." Committed to the ideal of free inquiry well before Vatican II breathed new purpose into Catholic education, Hesburgh's Notre Dame has beefed up its long-weak social sciences, expanded graduate studies and research and filled a gaping void by starting a psychology department from scratch. If it would come as a surprise to anybody that Notre Dame is free of direct papal control, it might come as a far bigger shock that the school in recent years has provided safe haven for teachers who were fired for unpopular views by at least two state universities.
As part of its academic awakening, Notre Dame has increased faculty salaries by 70% over the last decade and put up a dozen major buildings, financed by a remarkable $100 million it has raised during that period. But because of all that spending, its endowment has grown to only $60 million, meager compared to Harvard's billion-plus, a fact that leaves Notre Dame eager to please the alumni and foundations that are the chief sources of any university's money and approval. Something that Notre Dame officials take particular pride in is their open speaker policy under which students last spring listened peacefully to William Kunstler, the Chicago Seven lawyer who at the time was banned by the University of Illinois as too inflammatory. But education is a tricky business. When Vatican-baiting James Kavanaugh, appearing under that same policy three years ago, used the occasion to announce his resignation from the priesthood, Notre Dame was sufficiently unsettled to place an ad in The New York Times disclaiming any association with the renegade priest.
Other universities are at pains to protect their good names, too, and Notre Dame, coping with so much change, can probably be excused if it sometimes seems overly vigilant. The most far-reaching change involved nothing less than ownership of the university. In 1967 Notre Dame's Holy Cross community, while continuing to provide administrators from Hesburgh on down, relinquished formal control to a lay-dominated board of trustees. But the development most visible to the casual visitor is the presence on campus of so many women. Although Notre Dame remains officially coed only on the graduate level, an arrangement with St. Mary's now allows students of the two schools to shuttle across U.S. 31 to attend classes together, and plans are in the works for a coed residence hall.
Hesburgh pronounces himself generally satisfied with the university's direction, and that goes for football, too. "I rather like the proportion football is in now," he says. "I think we've proved it's possible to play competent, effective football and have a good university, too. We're very relaxed about football at Notre Dame."
It has not always been that way, of course. When Hesburgh, then only 35, became Notre Dame's president in 1952 he held a series of press conferences on the West Coast and was appalled that the only reporters who bothered to show up were sportswriters. He was defensive thereafter about Notre Dame athletics. "Why, we've got the lousiest gym in the country," he often said, the reference being to the drafty field house where Notre Dame played its home basketball games. That argument was blunted two years ago when the field house was replaced by an $8.6-million Athletic and Convocation Center, a white, double-domed building that the more irreverent students immediately acclaimed "the world's biggest bra."
If Hesburgh was embarrassed by football's long shadow, he was no less so when Notre Dame, the school of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, suffered its version of the great potato famine. Who would have dreamed it could happen here? Certainly not Rockne, the Norwegian-born chemistry teacher who compiled a 105-12-5 record from 1918 until his death in a plane crash in 1931, a loss so staggering that some grief-stricken alumni called for his interment on the 50-yard line of Notre Dame's new stadium. And not Leahy, either, the coolly brilliant taskmaster who seemed to associate victory with virtue, if not salvation, and ran up an 87-11-9 record in the '40s and early '50s.
And yet it happened. When illness forced Leahy to quit in 1954 Hesburgh quickly installed as coach 25-year-old Terry Brennan, an ex-Irish halfback whose youthful, low-keyed image promised welcome relief from the high-octane Leahy years. If Brennan turned out to be a mistake, it remains a question whether the mistake was in hiring or firing him. There were morale problems under the inexperienced Brennan, and although he suffered only one losing season before he was sacked in 1958, Notre Dame played without its accustomed authority even when winning. The team fared worse under Joe Kuharich and Hugh Devore, its restoration awaiting the arrival in 1964 of Ara Parseghian, a French-Armenian Presbyterian out of Northwestern.
Notre Dame men now accept as one of life's more pleasant verities that Parseghian was born for the job, a sound coach in the Leahy mold and one, moreover, with a flair for public relations. A few complain that he "blows the big ones," but these are usually the fans who tend to consider every Notre Dame game a big one. It is true enough, though, that Parseghian's 57-10-4 record will always be blemished by the 1966 showdown with Michigan State, another of those "games of the century" that come along every few years. It ended with Notre Dame, supposedly that year's national champion, sitting ingloriously on a 10-10 tie rather than going for victory. Parseghian also came up a loser in Notre Dame's first postseason game in 45 years, against Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, and has now twice managed to take undefeated teams to Southern California for season finales, only to lose both times.
Notre Dame officials have always denied any suggestion that alumni brought any undue pressure to bear because of the football recession of the 1950s. Yet if the Brennan-Kuharich-Devore experience proved anything at all it is that even a 6-4 record has no place at Notre Dame. Students and old grads showed they could live with defeat if necessary, and the Subway Alumni—those factory workers, nuns and taxi drivers who make Notre Dame their adopted alma mater—demonstrated the same thing. But where is it taught in ROTC Leadership Lab 211L, or even in Existentialism 245, that defeat is necessary?