The Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America has been without a permanent dean since the summer of 1998, when Richard Dobranski decided to leave the post to become founding dean of Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich.

After a nationwide search for Dobranski's replacement proved inconclusive last year, some wondered if members of the search committee had actively blocked candidates who would have promoted the school's Catholic identity.

As one of Catholic University's professors of law, Marshall Breger, who is Jewish, told the Register: “What we have in the law school today is that some faculty members feel threatened by religion and druthers — that Catholic not be a religious law school.”

Notre Dame Law School professor Gerard Bradley echoed Breger's sentiment, saying he fears that without “strong leadership committed to the mission of the [Columbus School of Law], it would become permanently secular.”

Why? Because, according to Bradley, the law school's faculty “is famously opposed to the Catholic mission of the place.”

In the following interview, Catholic University President Father David O'Connell — the final arbiter in dean searches — addresses concerns about the direction of his law school in general, and the state of its dean search in particular.

McGuire: Why was last year's search for a dean of the clusive?

Father O'Connell: The Catholic University of America [CUA] has been involved in a search for a dean of its Columbus School of Law for over a year. The first year's search was unsuccessfully concluded and the search was reopened. Although some people have given the impression that this is unusual, my professional experience has been that initial searches for senior administrators are often inconclusive and reopened or extended.

Here at CUA, I was presented by the search committee with good candidates last year. With all due respect to the fine credentials of the group, I was not convinced at the time that CUA should move forward with an appointment from that group. I wanted a broader pool of candidates with more diversified backgrounds, professionals whom I was convinced could lead this particular academic institution and this particular faculty to the next level of academic excellence. That was my primary consideration. For me, evidence of an understanding of and commitment to the Catholic identity and mission of the Columbus School of Law within The Catholic University of America was also and continues to be a given. I will not be satisfied until I find an individual who demonstrates all of these characteristics to me. The appointment of the best possible academic deans is a responsibility I take very seriously.

Is it possible for a Catholic law school to pursue top-tier status in today's legal culture while maintaining its Catholic identity?

It is certainly possible –– in fact, it should be part of a concerted internal effort — that a Catholic law school pursue top-tier status within the contemporary legal education community in our country while, at the same time, affirming its Catholic identity. There is a nottoo-subtle presumption in the question that religious identity and scholarly professional reputation need to be at odds. I do not accept that presumption — in fact, I deny it. If a Catholic law school does not strive to excel in the professional legal education it imparts, it should close its doors. On the other hand, if scholarly reputation requires the abdication of religious principles and values, Catholic institutions should seriously question their involvement in legal education.

What is the point of a Catholic law school? In other words, why should one decide to attend a Catholic law school rather than a secular one?

A Catholic law school –– like a Catholic university — seeks to integrate reason and faith in the presentation of its curriculum, precisely because it is Catholic. In other words, the education that is provided at a Catholic law school should always attempt to raise the deeper questions, the “value” questions, the “meaning” questions, the “human” questions as they relate to the law and its practice within contemporary society.

There is, apart from within the Church itself, no “Catholic law” but there is — can be, should be — a “Catholic approach” to law that is fostered and promoted within a Catholic law school.

One should be very clear on this point: A Catholic law school is not a seminary and its clients are not priests in training. At the same time, however, they are preparing to be ministers in the broadest sense of the term: ministers and servants of justice. At a Catholic law school, justice and truth are rooted in God and God's revelation at work and effective within the human community. Students who seek to be in touch with that aspect of human community experience should be able to find that “unique” approach to the law in a Catholic law school.

Is the purpose of a Catholic law school to train good lawyers, or good Catholic lawyers? If the latter, what would this mean?

Not every student who attends a Catholic law school is, in fact, Catholic. Hence, the primary purpose of a Catholic law school is to offer an excellent legal education to its students so that they can be well prepared to take their place among their peers. Again, I think the difference evident in a Catholic law school is one of “approach.”

Have any members of the law school faculty communicated to you, either directly or indirectly, that they feel threatened by the prospect of a dean who would make a priority of strengthening the law school's religious identity? How would you respond to such a fear? Would you take such a concern into consideration in naming a dean? How so?

Catholic academic institutions –– some more than others –– have their fair share of faculty members who, for whatever reason, question what it means for an educator and for education to be labeled “Catholic.” I do not believe that is, in itself, necessarily bad; in fact, such questions can serve to push the Catholic institution to define itself better and its purpose and distinctiveness more clearly.

A Catholic law school is no exception. Fear usually enters the picture when there is ignorance or misunderstanding. Faculty who present themselves for appointment at a Catholic law school should use every means at their disposal to understand the context and obligations to which they are making a commitment prior to appointment. Institutions should be very careful to make these clear to faculty candidates.

It seems hardly reasonable for an individual to seek to join an institution whose very purpose and mission run counter to his or her personal or professional convictions, while hoping to make a positive contribution there.

Pope John Paul II states in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that “If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.” Would you expect the next dean of Columbus School of Law to be willing to speak uncomfortable truths and encourage other faculty in doing the same? Please cite examples.

As far as I am concerned, the president of a Catholic university with the responsibility of appointing its academic deans, must take the fundamental Catholic character, mission and purpose of the institution into consideration when making such appointments. That is part of his or her institutional responsibility. To do otherwise would be to place the institution's Catholic character, mission and purpose at risk. No institution should tolerate that in a president or a dean.

It has been my own experience as president that on any given day, a percentage of the faculty supports you while another percentage questions your judgment. Administration is not or should not be a popularity contest.

Know your institution and its mission. Be as informed as you can be about the decisions you are asked to make. Pray for guidance. Seek advice. Do the right thing to the best of your ability and make your decision. Be prepared for disagreement and criticism but do not let it overcome you. That is how I approach my administrative responsibilities and that is what I would ask in any dean that I would appoint.

------- EXCERPT: CUA president answers concerns about dean search