We know it for the colors: blue and gold. We know it for the famous mural: touchdown Jesus. Cultural and collegiate icon, the reputation of The University of Notre Dame precedes itself. But away from the football program and rivalries, and although the founding of the school formally known as Notre Dame du Lac was the work of Father Edward Sorin in 1842, the young Holy Cross priest Father Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. would be the one who envisioned and executed a plan to make the school a world-class institution of learning and research. His work went well beyond the administration of Notre Dame—he was quite the priest. Here are a few of his amazing accolades and accomplishments.
Although he was not the youngest president to serve, to be the priest entrusted in his mid-30s with the academic vision of a Catholic University such as Notre Dame is an accomplishment worthy of our pause. A typical top tier University president has years of experience on a university board or has demonstrated success at other advanced education institutions. At the age of 35 in 1952, he would serve the University as president for the next 35 years of his life. At that time, his was the longest presidency in American higher education.
Important figures skyrocketed under his supervision. Financial initiatives of his presidency brought the annual operating budget from $9.7 million to $176.6 million—1180% increase! His efforts and realignment of the University’s endowment made for an increase from $9 million to $350 million. These are ridiculous numbers and they don’t end there. Research funding increased from $735,000 to $15 million. Student enrollment nearly doubled from 4,979 to 9,676, and its faculty more than doubled from 389 to 951. And they’re probably happy, too, because the average faculty salary rose from $5,400 to $50,800 during Father Hesburgh’s presidency.
He led a number of initiatives for civil rights and made Notre Dame into a coeducational institution in 1972. In the height of the civil rights movements of the 60s, Hesburgh’s public appearances and remarks seemed to have had a considerable effect on public opinion. His comments on Kennedy’s Peace Corps made for renovations to the initiative and made possible a successful pilot project at the University. He was in Chicago, holding hands with Martin Luther King Jr. as they famously sang “We Shall Overcome”, and further shaped opinion and made for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He received 150 honorary degrees—a world record unlikely to be matched. These include several Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Arts, Sacred Theology, Public Services, and a host of others. These honorary degrees have been granted from institutions domestic and abroad, from Harvard and Yale, to Malta and Guatemala. His extraordinary contributions to civil rights and higher education are appreciated throughout the globe.
His list of accomplishments and influences on education and public administration is extensive and comes with well-deserved acclaim, but it was not without controversy for Catholics. He led the issuing of the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which declared the autonomous rule of education and administration in Catholic Universities. “In hindsight, what they did was appalling”, according to The Cardinal Newman Society. This document outlined a commitment to academic freedom with independent governance: free from all authority, including the Catholic Church. Many believe this is what has led to the secularization in Catholic Universities in the last 50 years. Hesburgh also controlled the controversial 1967 transfer of power. The ended the university’s exclusive leadership by the Congregation of Holy Cross clergy to establish a transfer of authority and ownership of the University from the Congregation of Holy Cross priests to the University of Notre Dame Board of Trustees.
Regardless of the effects of any perceived controversy in his decisions and influence, his success in public work was recognized and included papal appointments. From 1956 to 1970, Father Hesburgh served as a permanent Holy See representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pope Paul VI appointed Hesburgh as head of the Vatican representatives attending the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations’ human rights declaration in Iran. The same pope made him a member of the Holy See’s U.N. delegation, and Pope John Paul II appointed Hesburgh to the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1983.
Many have commented—including an acknowledgement from Hesburgh—that the greatest achieve life his life was that was a priest of the Catholic Church. Reminiscent of other priests of history with administrative careers, Father Theodore Hesburgh once said “Beneath it all, or perhaps above it all, I am what I am: a Catholic priest. I enjoy being a Catholic priest. I enjoy offering Mass each day for the whole world.”
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