A university is a terrible thing to waste.
The tiny University of Dallas, which for so many years has served as an oasis of intellect for (let’s admit it) a parched city, may be floundering. I don’t think matters have reached the crisis stage, but the sudden resignation in December of President Milam Joseph was a sign that all is not well. People in the know are questioning whether the university can survive.
On the surface, the problem is money. The university doesn’t have enough. During Joseph’s eight-year tenure, $45 million was invested to shore up the university’s crumbling infrastructure. But enrollment has been off.
Founded in 1956, UD achieved distinction in the late 1960s and early ’70s under the leadership of Donald Cowan, who put in place a core curriculum that taught the “great deeds and works of Western civilization, both ancient and modern.” Cowan envisioned the curriculum as a conversation with the best minds of all time, founded on the premise, “quite unabashedly … that truth and virtue exist and are the proper objects of search in an education.”
In today’s educational climate of moral equivocation, language like that isn’t just bold; it’s exhilarating. It’s why the University of Dallas has consistently ranked at the top in independent surveys of small colleges. National Review College Guide ranked it No. 1 in America. The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities extolled it as a “shining exception” to the mediocrity that permeates so much of higher education. Best-selling author George Weigel, whose two daughters went to UD, calls it the “best Catholic college in America.” In 1988, it became the youngest university in the United States to receive a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
The problem at UD isn’t money; it’s leadership. If education is a productwhich, judging from the brochures that arrive daily at the house of our high school junior, it seems to beUD is perfectly positioned in its niche. All that is required is a leader who believes in its mission with enough passion to make believers out of prospective students and donors. SMU’s Gerald Turner and Franklin Jenifer at UTD, and, for that matter, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells are only recent, local examples of the difference the right man can make.
Does the university’s board understand how rich an opportunity the present moment offers them? I worry. So do others around the country who care about the university’s future. As one observer told me, “I’ve seen too many boards go for the safe, ’proven’ candidate (i.e., lots of time spent as provost or president of a mediocre institution), when what they needed was a fire-breathing advocate not afraid to take the institution to new heights, both educationally and financially.”
This city has derived too much from the University of Dallas and its special sense of missionincluding the incomparable Louise Cowan; thousands of literate, gifted graduates; the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; and much morefor us to let it fade quietly into the sunset.
Long experience has taught me that it doesn’t do much good to hope for the best. Anyone who cares enough to hope for the best should be prepared to fight for the best. Stay tuned.