University of Dallas Renews Catholic Identity

Several years after a controversy arose over its commitment to Church orthodoxy, the Texas college is earning plaudits for a renewed dedication to fidelity.

Susan Hanssen, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas
Susan Hanssen, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas (photo: File Photo/CNA)

DALLAS — Long regarded as one of the bastions of fidelity among U.S. Catholic colleges, the University of Dallas (UD) several years ago had seemed, at least to some, to have moved away from that commitment in recent years.

But according to UD faculty, students and alumni, there has been a notable swing of the pendulum back towards the full expression of the university’s Catholic identity since 2011.

The primary focus of Catholic-identity concerns was the university’s School of Ministry, designed to train the laity for pastoral ministry but which its critics depict as having become a kind of Trojan Horse, introducing dissenters from the magisterium into the Catholic college.

In fact, the School of Ministry had hosted guest speakers who argued that the “denial” of ordination to women was an expression of the Church’s alleged oppression of women and had faculty who openly challenged Church teachings on homosexuality, female ordination and contraception.

Observers looking for a change in the School of Ministry’s orientation initially were hopeful, following the appointment of Thomas Keefe as the University of Dallas’ new president in March 2010.

But their concerns were aggravated instead, early in 2011, when the university’s board of trustees considered a proposal to integrate the ministry school’s faculty and students more completely with the rest of the university, through a new undergraduate course in pastoral ministry.

This proposal sparked a concerned public letter from Patrick Fagan, head of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute and the father of five UD alumni, detailing some of the problematic things that had taken place on campus. Following the letter’s dissemination over the Internet, several hundred UD undergrads rallied in protest against the move.


Promises Fulfilled

However, Keefe vehemently disputed the accuracy of the concerns, noting that Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Kevin Vann, then the bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, both supported the proposal. The university’s board of trustees subsequently approved the new undergraduate course in pastoral ministry.

“Heresy is not being taught at the University of Dallas. Blasphemy is not being taught at the University of Dallas,” Keefe told the Register at the time. “Any faculty who do not comport with the teachings of the Church will not be teaching at this university.”

Bishop Farrell, for his part, released a video in which he explained that the School of Ministry and the university’s faculty of theology were instituting the new course jointly at his specific request. And Bishop Farrell pledged in the video to take personal responsibility for ensuring the School of Ministry’s orthodoxy.

“Let me remind the Catholic people of the diocese that this is my responsibility,” he said. “And I’m the one who has to stand before God and say whether or not this is truly Catholic. That is my responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.”

Now, many of the previous critics agree that President Keefe and Bishop Farrell have made good on their promises to uphold UD’s Catholic identity. Since the 2011 controversy, the School of Ministry’s former dean has left, as have most of its controversial instructors.

And while a previous administration invited an offensive artistic depiction of the Mother of God, under Keefe’s stewardship the university has indicated it will provide the Marian shrine that students have requested for many years.

New faculty and board of trustee appointments also appear to signal a renewed attention to fidelity. Among the latter are several alumni, including Bridgett Wagner, director of coalition relations with the Heritage Foundation, and non-alumnus Kevin Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.


Pro-Marriage Conference

History professor Susan Hanssen, who helped draw attention to the concerns about the School of Ministry, says things are definitely looking up.

She is particularly pleased with the reception her idea — a marriage conference — received, first from Keefe individually, and then, in the first stage of the event held in November, collectively from university staff and the student body.

Some 300 people heard presentations by the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus and a pair of University of Dallas professors, all focusing on how to preserve the traditional heterosexual-only understanding of marriage as the campaign to redefine marriage gains increasing public traction.

At the event, Anderson likened the state of mind among marriage advocates in the wake of the Supreme Court’s last-summer decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act to the confusion and dismay that prevailed among the pro-life community following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. But he offered hope: Pro-lifers now comprise a powerful, nationwide movement making headway, despite opposition from media and political elites.

And Regnerus described his findings on the empirical evidence of harm done to the children of same-sex parents.

Hanssen offers no apologies for not inviting any supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples to the University of Dallas event.

“We are here to provide a forum for Catholic thought,” Hanssen said of the conference’s focus on Church teaching. “They can have their own forums.”


Alumni Support

Mary Powers is one of a number of UD graduates who recently affirmed their support for their alma mater to the Register. Powers, national alumni board director and a 2009 alumna, said she believes that “everything has been addressed since 2011. The students, faculty, the administration and President Keefe have come together to deal with the concerns.”

2011 grad Jon Zischkau, who, like Powers, works in Washington, added that “the marriage conference was a resounding affirmation of UD’s dedication to equipping its students as independent thinkers, with constructive materials and arguments to consider … that adhere to the intellectual and cultural tradition of Western civilization and Catholicism.”

“This panel helps to substantiate the orthodox Catholic character of the University of Dallas,” Zischkau said.  “I am proud that my alma mater is willing to bravely discuss and entertain a controversial topic so central to the health of our society.”

As for Keefe, he blames much of the previous unhappiness on “a lack of clarity about the School of Ministry’s rollout.” When asked by the Register if he forced out some of the School of Ministry’s controversial faculty, he responded, “I won’t answer that question.”

But he did say that with UD’s tuition now at $30,000 annually, the school needs to live up to its promised faithfulness to the magisterium. It also needs to continue providing outstanding academics and outcomes.

“Everyone here is in the equivalent of an honors program,” comprising 19 required courses for students, he told the Register. “Well above eight out of 10 grads get accepted at law and medical schools, and 90% of job seekers get them quickly.” 

Added the University of Dallas president, “Enrollment has never been higher, and revenue has never been higher. And we are joyful about our fidelity to the Catholic faith.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, Canada.