University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Academic Development: University of Notre Dame / by Philip S. Moore, C.S.C.


In the Catalogue of the University of Notre Dame for the school year 1890-91 programs leading to bachelor degrees in Arts, in Letters, in General Science, in Civil Engineering and in Law were announced. Also announced was the conferring of two Doctor of Laws, and three Master of Arts in honorem and two Master of Arts, which apparently are earned degrees.

We shall see that bachelor degrees other than those in Arts were being conferred a good many years before 1890. This is true also for advanced degrees, both honorary and earned. The first honorary doctorate was apparently conferred in 1873.[1] As for the master degrees, the possibility of earning a Master of Arts on condition of having pursued satisfactorily three years of study in Philosophy and Literature beyond the bachelor degree is found as early as 1854-55.[2] But until 1882. when the catalogue first expressly distinguishes between honorary masters, (in honorem) and earned degrees,[3] it is impossible to say whether the master degrees conferred were honorary or earned.

The development of Notre Dame in its programs and degrees beyond the liberal arts college was a well established fact by 1890, and this prompted the author of the Annual Catalogue for that year to state in the opening paragraph of the Prospectus (p. 9):

The author of the Annual Catalogue is anonymous; it could have been Father John Zahm, who was Vice President from 1885 to 1892. But whoever he was, he made the significant distinctions of the initial "frontier school," a "fairly equipped college," and the institution which had "assumed the proportions of a University." Looking back from our vantage point today to the Notre Dame of 1890, we might challenge the authorís notion of what a university is, but this seems irrelevant; the Notre Dame of that year had passed beyond the confines of a liberal arts college and had some of the hall marks of a university. The noteworthy point is that in 1890 he considered Notre Dame to be a university, and that it had reached this status through progressive development from a frontier school to a college to a university.

These stages through which Notre Dame passed in its first fifty years are in themselves and in the progressive development of the institution fascinating and intriguing, especially in the very earliest years. What was the "frontier school" of the 1840's? What kind of institution did Father Sorin have in mind when he founded his school in 1842, and for which two years later he obtained the grand chartered title of University of Notre Dame du Lac? What levels of education did he intend to impart and what was the highest level he envisaged both at the outset and as the years passed through his long life?[4] What did his successors in the Presidency and other members of the Administration think about these matters? Were there circumstances which were inexorably carrying this mid-west school dedicated to the Mother of God beyond the intentions of those into whose charge it had been put?

The first Catalogue[5] of the University was printed for the schoolyear 1854-55. In the introduction (p.3), it is expressly stated that the intention of the Founder was to establish a college. But on the following page we read:

No distinction is made here between preparatory school and college, but one collegiate course embraces two preparatory years. In its inception, then, Notre Dame was comparable to the French collège or lycée rather than to the American college as we understand it today. This may have been Father Soriní s idea of a college, though it seems true that the students who came to Notre Dame in its early years were not prepared for strictly college work and hence the de facto situation made the six year course a necessity. Judging from the way Father Sorin refers to the students in printed letters sent out to friends of the University in 1850 and 1851,[6] they must have been in their early teens or even younger and most of them were enrolled in the preparatory courses and in the Commercial Course.[7] Nevertheless, three degrees of Bachelor of Arts were conferred in 1859. Curiously enough the first Master of Arts degrees were conferred this same year.[8]

Father Sorin remained as first President of Notre Dame until 1865. During the twenty-three years of his presidency the school grew in student body, in physical facilities and in Faculty. The determination to forge ahead was expressed in an insert following page 8 of the 1857-58 Catalogue -- an insert which seems to have been written by Father Sorin himself:

But except for the two year Commercial Course, added in 1862 and apparently on the level of the third and fourth years of the American high school, Notre Dame's academic structure remained the same -- essentially a six year Collegiate Course leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree.

In the quotation given immediately above, Father Sorin says that he "never felt more sensibly the necessity of enlarging and building again." But did he mean merely the necessity of physical expansion to provide room for more students without any thought of a break-through in the academic structure? This seems to be the case, though in the introductory paragraphs of the very first Catalogue and of the Catalogue two years later, which very probably were written by the President himself, the hope is expressed that departments of Law and of Medicine, provided for in the Charter of the University, might be opened at no very distant period, so that "the young graduates of Notre Dame will be enabled to make their professional as well as Classical course at their Alma Mater."[9] The Department of Medicine never materialized, though sometime in the early 1860's subjects in Anatomy and Materia Medica were begun, and to those who took these subjects Medical Certificates were awarded from 1866-1888.[10] On the other hand a Department of Law was established in 1869. Before that, however, the first break-through in the academic structure had occured when the Scientific Course was inaugurated in 1865. Then in 1873 a two year program in Civil Engineering was added.

The Science Course was introduced the same year Father Sorin left the presidency so he must have been in on its planning; he must also have approved the other innovations because even though no longer President, he remained the dominant figure in the development of Notre Dame right up to his death in 1893. Nevertheless this expansion of the institution beyond the Collegiate or Classical Course, or what we may designate the Liberal Arts College, may have resulted more from external factors than from the deliberate planning of the men then here for a more extensive institution. At any rate the introduction of new courses or programs was a common phenomenon in American Colleges in the post - Civil War period and the reason for this was the new demands which the diversity of professions and vocations in the growing American society put upon the colleges to prepare their students for these walks of life.

Whatever is to be attributed respectively to internal planning and to external pressures, Notre Dame broke through the one Collegiate Course in 1865. By 1873 all the areas included in our academic offerings even today were established in embryonic form -- Arts and Letters, Science, Engineering, Law and Commerce. (Commerce was represented only by the two year Commercial Course on the high school level and many years would pass, as we shall see, before it was elevated to college standing.) The academic history of Notre Dame from 1865 until today is, therefore, the history of the development and expansion of these[11] areas, the evolution and clarification of the levels of education -- high school, college, university -- and the evolution of academic organization to correspond with the changes that never ceased to take place.

The clear-cut separation of the high school and the college as distinct academic entities was slow in evolving. True, some distinction was made from the very beginning. Thus in the Catalogues from 1854 to 1857 the first two years of the Collegiate Course were labled Junior Department, and the last four years Senior Department. Then in the 1858-59 Annual Catalogue (p. 10) these labels were changed to Preparatory and Collegiate Course. When in 1865 the Scientific Course was introduced, the title Collegiate Course was changed to Classical Course to designate the original program. Under the Classical and the Scientific Courses the labels Preparatory and Collegiate continued to appear but both Courses remained unified six year programs. In 1873 a third preparatory year was added and the collegiate years were designated Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior.[12] Not until 1833 was the first sharp distinction made, when in the Annual Catalogue for 1882-83 the headings Preparatory Department and Collegiate Department were used.[13] By 1900 the separation was complete and under Preparatory School or Preparatory Department the high school years were relegated to their own section in the back part of the Catalogue. Finally in the Annual Catalogue for 1902-03 (pp. 160-162) the addition of the fourth preparatory year was announced and the Preparatory Department became a full-blowned four year high school and a distinct academic unit of the University. Moreover, three high school programs were offered in preparation for the Classical, English and Economics Courses, the Biological and General Science Courses, and the Engineering and Architectural Courses respectively.

It would seem logical that the evolution of the college should necessarily paralleled that of the high school; that is, as the high school attained its identity so did the college. This is true in a sense, but as the end-term of the original Collegiate Course, the college, I think, may be said to have achieved its full status, in the American sense, earlier than did the high school.

I think we can date this from 1883 when it was given the separate label of Collegiate Department, and possibly from 1873, when the Collegiate years were first designated Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior.

Whichever date we accept, we are struck by a sentence in the Prospectus of the 1382-83 Annual Catalogue (p. 11), which again emphasizes the determination to keep Notre Dame moving "onward and upward":

But what did Father Thomas Walsh, who was President and Director of Studies that year, and his associates mean by "onward and upward." Could they have had at that time even dimly in mind that Notre Dame should transcend the college status which it had just attained, and move up to real university status? No sure and historically provable answer can be given to this question; we can only speculate.

In this speculation, we seem safe in saying that in 1883 the men at Notre Dame had no idea that it should become a university in our present meaning of the term, a place of specified advanced programs of study and research beyond the bachelor's degree, organized in a Graduate School. This seems true even though it was in that year that a Master of Arts degree in course was specifically so designated in the Annual Catalogue (p. 79). The whole question of the conferring of earned advanced degrees -- on the master's level up until about 1900 and then even on the doctor's level for the first decades of the twentieth century -- remains fuzzy, though this was also true in other American schools. We have seen that provision was made for the conferring of the Master of Arts as early as 1854 on completion of two or three years of study, with or without thesis at different times, and the passing of examinations. But for many years to come no definite programs of study and research nor university academic organization were set up. Neither were Holy Cross priests given opportunity for advanced study and degrees nor was the doctor's degree required of lay members appointed to the Faculty.

We may further ask, however, whether at least some at Notre Dame in 1883 may have had the incipient idea of realizing the institution's chartered title of University in the sense of building up several strong college programs in Arts, Letters, Science, Engineering and Law. These programs would lead only to bachelor degrees but advanced degrees on the master's level could be earned through independent study and the writing of a thesis or dissertation. The English universities would have served as models for this type of university. Perhaps this speculation is not too far fetched in view of the fact that only seven years later appeared the statement quoted earlier from the 1890-91 Annual Catalogue in which the writer asserts that Notre Dame had "assumed the proportions of a University."

In this connection it should be noted that Father John Zahm had joined the Faculty in 1873 and by 1883 was Professor of Physical Sciences and Curator of the Museum. His zeal for scholarship and the intellectual life are well known. He was himself a scholar devoted constantly to research and he strove to stimulate superiors, colleagues and the students toward scholarship especially in science, and to raise the over-all intellectual tone of the school. His writings and lectures brought prestige to the institution. During his twenty some years on the Faculty, and later as Provincial (1898-1906) he exercised an influence and left a stamp on Notre Dame that perhaps has not been equalled by any other man.

In 1883, therefore, Zahm may have envisioned Notre Dame's becoming a real university; he may even have been the author of the statement in the 1890-91 Annual Catalogue in which Notre Dame was said to be a University. This is possible, even though in 1883 and in 1890 the high school students, judging from the degrees conferred, numbered at least half the student body.[14] At the time Zahm may have been blinded to the actual situation. Later, however, after difficulties with Father Andrew Morrissey, who became President in 1893, and two years in Rome[15] where he came to know first hand European university life, his eyes were opened and he was assailed with bitter disillusionment.[16]

The presidency of Father Morrissey -- 1893-1905 -- brought on what in retrospect is seen to be one of the major crises in the history of Notre Dame -- a truly serious academic crisis. He was the antithesis of Father Zahm. Admittedly a man of many good qualities, he was nevertheless deficient in his own education and had neither appreciation of nor interest in scholarship and the intellectual life. He was a practical man but like so many other practical men he feared action where any financial risk was involved. He thought Notre Dame's financial security was and would remain in the preparatory school. Consequently, according to Father Arthur Hope, "under Father Morrissey's regime . . . very little progress was made. The University became more of a prep school than ever. Indeed, Father Morrissey expressed himself quite decidedly in favor of such an institution: 'We can never compete with those colleges that have such tremendous endowments. Our very existence depends on giving Catholic boys a good preparatory foundation.'"[17] At another time he is said to have remarked: "What we need here is a compact, tidy little boarding school. We can't compete with these other institutions that have all the money."[18]

The statistics in terms of students and degrees granted may not bear out the statement that Notre Dame actually became "more of a prep school than ever"; it simply stood still But Father Morrissey was "prep school" minded, and in this sense Father Hope's statement is true. He had no vision of Notre Dame as a university or even as a great college. The crisis arose from his being satisfied to maintain the status quo. We have seen that periodically in the Annual Catalogues had been expressed the determination to move "onward and upward." This determination will be revived later, but Father Morrissey had none of it saw no need for it --, and to remain stagnant is to retrogress and deteriorate.[19]

No doubt Fathers Zahm and Morrissey had clashed before 1893, but their differences multiplied once the latter became President. Zahm's influence in the University was largely nullified and in March, 1896, as we have seen, the Superior General sent him to Rome as Procurator General. Then early in January 1893 he was named Provincial and returned to the United States. Now he was in position to resume his plans for Notre Dame and the Community, and to implement one particular policy which he had long advocated -- better intellectual formation of all Holy Cross priests and higher studies for those who were to devote themselves to education. Between 1898-1906 the first priests received their doctorates -- Fathers James Burns, Matthew Schumacher, Julius Nieuwland. Father John W. Cavanaugh was also a protègé of Zahm's but never went on for doctoral studies.

Again it was Father Morrissey who ended Father Zahm's work and influence in behalf of Notre Dame -- this time forever. In 1906 Morrissey replaced Zahm as Provincial and remained in that office until 1919. In a diary he kept, Father Burns had written of Father Morrissey for June 30, 1895 that he had refused Father Burns permission to attend the Cornell Summer School that year, although the permission was given a few days later. Then on February 18, 1896 Father Burns noted: "He (Father Morrissey) does not seem to believe in higher education -- university education for college teachers."[20] It is not surprising, then, that Zahm's farsighted policy of sending young Holy Cross priests away for doctoral studies fell by the wayside during Father Morrissey's provincialship.

In 1906 Father Morrissey appeared to have won the day -- Notre Dame seemed destined to remain a small, midwestern institution, more "prep school" than college minded. This tragedy did not happen, though his regimes as President and as Provincial undoubtedly set the school back many years. (It is interesting to speculate where Notre Dame would be today, had Father Zahm been named President in 1893 and continued as Provincial for several years beyond 1906.) That this tragedy did not happen was because Morrissey had completely misjudged the times immediately ahead and was mistaken in his judgment that the security of Notre Dame lay -- and was to remain -- in the preparatory school. The march of events moved fast, and before his death (May 27, 1921) the high school was well along toward liquidation.

Father John W. Cavanaugh succeeded Father Morrissey as President of the University. He was a man of many gifts: brilliant of mind, witty, a fine writer with exceptionally broad background through wide reading, charming and genteel. He was a big man, and his poise and dignity of bearing can justly be described as majestic. No one who saw him sweep onto a platform or into a room, or who listened to one of his sermons or talks, could ever forget him. Being what he was, Father Cavanaugh attracted to himself the great in all walks of life. In these personal relationships he was a man of great prestige, and he brought prestige to the institution of which he was President.

As has already been noted, Father Cavanaugh was one of the promising protègés of Father Zahm. It cannot be said, therefore, that he shared Father Morrissey's views on Notre Dame and on the limited goals to which it should aspire. But he did not go on for graduate study as did his contemporary Father James Burns. Perhaps he did not have the opportunity; perhaps he had no desire to do so. Consequently, he was studious but not scholarly. There is little evidence that he did much to push the scholarly development of Notre Dame. He was diligent in bringing notable lecturers to the campus, but he did not greatly strengthen the Faculty. Even a man like Father Nieuwland got little or no financial support and little or no encouragement in his work. The Summer School, which influenced the organization of graduate study at the University, was started in 1918 -- a year before Father Cavanaugh retired from the presidency -- but this was accomplished only after the importunity of the Director of Studies, Father Matthew Schumacher, had worn down the opposition of the President.[21]

High School and college student enrollment stayed pretty much in balance during the first years of Cavanaugh's regime, but in the second decade of the century the college enrollment began edging up. And under this circumstance, Notre Dame became increasingly college minded in the second decade of the century. World War I, however, was the turning point. As in World War II, the school was kept going during the war years by placing its facilities at the service of the military. The Army established a unit of its Student Army Training Corp. With the termination of the war, applications for admission to the college mounted rapidly, and this spelled the end of an epoch at Notre Dame.

In 1919 Father James A. Burns succeeded Father Cavanaugh as President. Of him Father Hope has written: "Through his years of interest in Catholic educational circles, Father Burns brought to his new position a greater vision and more progressive spirit than any of his predecessors."[22] Father Hope might have added that this greater vision and more progressive spirit were basically to be attributed to the fact that Father Burns was the first university educated President of Notre Dame; he was a scholar with genuine scholarly interests.

Notre Dame was fortunate at the critical point it had reached in 1919 to have had Father Burns named President. As has been noted, applications for admission to college were mounting rapidly in the wake of World War I. A momentous decision had therefore to be made about the continuation of the high school. Father Burns, supported by most of his colleagues and by the Faculty, took decisive action and in the first year of his presidency abolished the first two years. By 1924 the high school was gone, and as has been said, an epoch ended and Notre Dame entered upon a new period of development and expansion which is still going on. Even Father Zahm, who was still living in 1919, though not at Notre Dame, is reported to have remarked: "The idea of throwing away a good ready-made prep school! It's folly."[23] If he made this remark, his vision in old age failed him.

In a later section of this study, we shall deal with the development of academic organization throughout the years as manifestation of scholastic growth and expansion. Here we must point out the second great achievement of Father Burns -- the reorganization of the Faculty into colleges and departments, with a dean over each college and a head over each department. The terms college and department were not new, having been introduced into the University as far back as 1905 But they remained names rather than realities until the reorganization which was put into effect in 1920-21.[24] In this reorganization, the College of Commerce was added to the other existing colleges.

A third far-reaching event during the regime of Father Burns was the creation of a separate administrative organization -- the Committee on Graduate Study -- to administer the incipient graduate studies.[25] This was the beginning of organizd or systematic graduate programs in the regular school year, which would soon lead to the establishment of the Graduate School. At the same time, therefore, that Notre Dame ceased to be a high school-college institution it became a college-graduate school institution. It had achieved, however weakly, the status of an American university. Its history over the past forty years has been its development and expansion in its colleges and in its Graduate School. Again the determination "to keep moving forward" was expressed -- this time as the "traditional policy of the institution."[26]

As conclusion to this introductory part of our study we may summarize briefly the general outline we have sketched of Notre Dame's development from frontier school to college to university, as we understand the term today.

Exactly what Father Sorin had in mind or what he envisioned his institution to become when he applied for charter in 1844 under the corporate title of University of Notre Dame rather than College of Notre Dame will ever remain an enigma. It seems certain that at that time he had no idea of a university in any true sense, and Father Hope avers that even thirty years later "he countenanced no moves that might make of Notre Dame a real university."[27] In another place Father Hope reaches the conclusion that Notre Dame has eventually developed into a university "not because of Father Sorin but in spite of him" and attributes Father Morrissey's obscurantism to Sorin's influence on him.[28] What his institution was actually during his long presidency was something equivalent to the French collège or lycée -- a six year high school-college course. But as early as 1858 he expressed the hope to establish professional schools of Law and Medicine and the Law School materialized twenty years before his death. He also must have approved the breaking away of Science from the Classical Course which was to culminate in a separate College of Science, as well as the beginnings of programs in Engineering which would find fruition in a College of Engineering.

This quantitative growth of academic programs plus undoubted qualitative development led at least some at Notre Dame to dream of greater things and to assert in 1890 that the institution has "assumed the proportions of a University." Today this assertion seems naive to us because the preparatory school -- which was soon to develop into a full four year high school with its own identity -- still accounted for the larger part of the students. At the close of the nineteenth century and in the first decade of the twentieth century both in the thinking of those in authority and in fact the "prep school" was "the tail that wagged the dog." Men of greater vision followed, but it was the very exigency of changing conditions which turned the tide and enabled the college to win out over the high school. This same exigency of events is not so evident, however, in the transformation of Notre Dame into a college-graduate school or university, and the vision of the men of Father Burns time is to be applauded, while as men of Faith we recognize a special Providence guiding the school dedicated to the Mother of God.

The Administrations which have followed that of Father Burns have continued to follow this vision. But just as as the turn of the twentieth century there were once tensions between the high school and the college, between the "prep school minded" and the "college minded", so today there are tensions between the college and the university, between the "college minded" and the "university minded." These tensions must be resolved rightly if Notre Dame is to become a truly great University. We shall return to this problem in the conclusion to this paper, after we have set forth in some detail the academic growth of the institution in its several parts.

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