The pressing task for Catholic universities: An interview with Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford

“A Catholic university is called to be a place of witness for Christian truth, while respecting the academic freedom and commitment to inquiry of its individual community members.”

President Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D., University of Dallas (Image: https://udallas.edu); right: The Braniff Graduate Center on the campus of the University of Dallas (Image: Wikipedia)

Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford is President of the University of Dallas as well as a Professor of Philosophy. Sanford was at Franciscan University of Steubenville for thirteen years before joining the University of Dallas in 2015 as undergraduate dean and then provost.

He has written extensively on philosophical figures and topics, and is especially interested in foundational questions in moral philosophy. He is the author of Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics (CUA Press, 2015; paperback, 2019), and co-editor of The Philosophical Legacy of Jorge J. E. Gracia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). He is currently writing a book on virtue and education. Sanford is a Trustee of the Hildebrand Project, an Executive Committee Member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, a member of the board of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a member of Legatus and board member of the Dallas Chapter, a Fellow of the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, and a member of several other learned societies.

He and his wife Rebecca live with their children in Irving, Texas. (For more about Dr. Sanford’s upbringing, education, and background, see this Summer 2021 profile in Tower magazine.)

Dr. Sanford recently talked with CWR about Catholic higher education in the U.S., the importance of liberal arts, philosophy, Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex corde Eclessiae, and much more.

CWR: Your research covers both Aristotelian-Thomistic thought, as well as personalism and phenomenology. Often, in the Catholic academy, these two schools of thought are viewed as being in tension. Is there such a tension?

Dr. Sanford: That depends on which approaches to both one takes. Certainly, there are great thinkers who have combined the two approaches to great effect. St. John Paul II is one, and Msgr. Robert Sokolowski is another. Both, in different ways, show how the insights of phenomenology can be woven into the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of thought.

John Paul II does this by emphasizing phenomenology as a methodology for seeing objects, especially the objects of human action, which is in need of the metaphysical depth one finds in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. His Acting Person is a wonderful example of this. Similarly, Sokolowski makes the case for how phenomenology itself, when properly understood, builds upon the insights of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas with respect to ways of knowing things as well as descriptions of beings themselves. I see my own work as building on that of both John Paul II and Sokolowski in addressing contemporary philosophical questions with the resources of both phenomenology and Aristotelian-Thomism.

CWR: You are the president of one of the most important “Newman Guide” Catholic schools. Do you ever miss the classroom? Or do you still teach and research?

Dr. Sanford: Last fall, I taught a graduate philosophy course, “Nietzsche & The Greeks.” And this fall, I’ll be teaching “Natural Law and Virtue.” Although most of my time as president is devoted to implementing our Strategic Plan, overseeing all aspects of the university, and promoting UD as the premier Catholic liberal arts university, I’m committed to the classroom and the intellectual life.

Keeping a foot in the classroom keeps me focused on the most important elements of the University of Dallas and why the work of our university is of such vital importance to reclaiming our culture.

CWR: What role do you see UD as playing in the future of American Catholic higher education?

Dr. Sanford: I believe UD is the paradigm for what American Catholic higher education should aspire to be—that is, faithfully Catholic and wholly committed to the intellectual and character formation of young people that is oriented toward truth.

Increasingly, our secularized and technocratic culture is losing its mooring from a shared fundamental understanding of truth and from what it means to be human. Far too many academic institutions have lost their way, both in embracing ideologies that are radically contrary to the Catholic understanding of the human person, but also in the trend toward the commodification of education. This idea that an education is a service to be received, that a student is merely a customer, the professor a producer, and the administrator, a middleman, reduces education to a mere exchange: tuition dollars for marketable skills and a degree.

It should not be so, as Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex corde Eclessiae makes abundantly clear. In the first paragraph of Ex corde Eclessiae, he identifies the fundamental vocation of universities, which is to be dedicated “to research, to teaching, and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge.”

UD is one of just a handful of faithfully Catholic universities that wholly embrace this vision of the rightful purpose of education; I’d argue that UD is the premier such Catholic university that has this view in its DNA. We don’t capitulate to prevailing fads and cultural trends, but we see ourselves as preservers, teachers of a rich liberal arts tradition that truly enables individuals to wrestle with fundamental questions of human existence and truth, to live deeply meaningful lives, and to exercise tremendous creativity and innovation in taking positions of leadership in a wide variety of professions.

CWR: UD has a strong liberal arts program. However, some—including some Catholics with liberal arts backgrounds—have criticized a liberal arts degree as being impractical. What is your response to such a claim?

Dr. Sanford: George Weigel has on more than one occasion described the University of Dallas as the finest undergraduate Catholic college in the nation, and recently wrote about the high medical school acceptance rates our graduates achieve. Consistently, within six months of graduation, well over 95% of our alumni are either employed or are in graduate school. In fact, in our most recent ‘first destination’ survey of our 2021 graduates, over 99% had jobs or were pursuing advanced education.

One thing we all know about liberal arts education is that it truly can be transformative, creating entirely new avenues for thought and life that remold our second nature into something other and better than it was. Of course, two key components to this transformative experience are time and study, and it can be a hard sell to students and parents that the investment of extensive time and labor in fields of study that are not directly related to a future career.

But UD stands apart in American higher education precisely because we are counter-cultural in so many ways. We are not concerned with an education transmitted through faddish ideologies, or commodified coursework; rather, we place the highest priority on forming students to think for themselves, to act, and to engage in robust but civil dialogue in their journey toward truth. Our approach attracts prospective students (last year we welcomed our largest incoming freshman class in history), and prospective employers (Fidelity Investments is but one example of a major employer who last year hired 12 UD graduates from a wide variety of majors).

At the most basic level, what a liberal, that is to say, liberating, education seeks to achieve is freedom from ignorance and the correlative ability to become the rightful judge of any argument, as Aristotle explains in the opening remarks of his Parts of Animals, “An educated man should be able to form an appropriate judgment regarding the goodness or badness of a demonstration.  In fact, being able to do this is what it is to be educated; and a man of universal education is such as this … Universal education we ascribe only to one who can himself judge nearly all branches of knowledge …”

Rising above the level of ideology and popular opinion to the point at which one can scrutinize any argument is no easy task, and guiding students to this goal is without doubt one of the noblest of human works. Such guidance requires exposing students not only to the best of the past, but also to every area of human learning. And our faculty is consistently and passionately dedicated to this proposition. This focus on essentials sets foundations for the remarkable successes of generations of UD graduates in all areas of culture – law, politics, education, science, healthcare, and business. It supports their success as fathers, mothers, bishops (twelve have passed through our doors), priests, and nuns by focusing them on those matters that ultimately matter most.

A genuinely Catholic perspective is one that is open to every wisdom tradition, undaunted in its conviction that gold can be found in many mines, and one must undergo rigorous training in traditional disciplines. Mathematics reveals the shape of the world, and indeed the very structure of our thought. Natural sciences train us to be attentive to the small and the grand in the universe, and to find beauty in every domain. Artistic creations grab our attention through gripping our emotions and reveal hidden features of reality and human experience. Historical studies train our minds for the future by yielding to us the lessons of the past. Literature lays bare the depths of the human soul, making of each of us genuine students of human nature by cultivating those unique ways of seeing that are the fruit of a poetic imagination.

By embracing these and other disciplines, we learn to think well, we learn to live well, and we are made ready for whatever vocation God is calling us to fulfill.

CWR: UD also has a strong business program. Is this a contradiction for a liberal arts university?

Dr. Sanford: Not at all. We are justly proud at the University of Dallas that we hold the liberating arts and sciences in a fulsome embrace. Ask any junior why he wasted a couple hours memorizing Yeat’s The Second Coming since he can’t do anything practical with what he learned, and he’ll note your mistaken assumptions. But are utility and the intrinsic good of learning in fact divorced? And, for that matter, is an education in business somehow foreign to, even an impediment to, liberal education? The key to answering these questions properly lies in how we order things.

Anyone aiming to provide a robust defense for liberal education will not be served better by any work than St. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University. And yet, perhaps because of Newman’s unwavering defense of learning for its own sake as its own good, champions of liberal education too often overlook two significant elements in Newman’s seminal work, both encompassed within Discourse VII.

First, he defends the utility of liberal education. Though utility is not the first justification for liberal education, he argues there is no more useful education than a genuinely liberal one. The well-educated University of Dallas graduate of whatever major is made ready to take on positions of leadership in every profession. Second, Newman goes a step farther in defending an essential role for specifically professional education within a liberal arts university, urging us to see that, in fact, every discipline, whether principally liberal or practical, is best pursued within a university setting devoted to the liberal arts. A business education, for instance, is best pursued within a liberal arts university, especially one so wholeheartedly dedicated to excellence as the University of Dallas, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level.

Future business leaders should be given opportunities to think how best to discern and apply properly grounded ethical principles in a wide array of circumstances, but they also need to be shaped by the virtues so that they, in turn, can shape the corporations they lead virtuously. It is our emphasis on both these elements of ethical training, combined with our liberal arts foundation and rigorous coursework and experiences that emphasize the skills necessary to compete in today’s increasingly complex environment, that makes business education at the University of Dallas so distinctive.

CWR: How can the University of Dallas grow in prestige while maintaining its strong Catholic identity?

Dr. Sanford: By simply remaining focused on the distinctives that set us apart from others – our commitment to the proposition that a life well lived is born of a robust liberal arts tradition of learning that is fully realized within the truth and light of Catholicism.

We do not see the Catholic portion of a Catholic liberal arts education as a “value-added” component. It is not the salt in the stew. It is not the icing on the cake. A truly Catholic education is a liberal arts education through and through; that is, an education that frees us to live virtuously, that enables us to think for ourselves so that we can direct all our efforts to the greater glory of God.

Again, as Pope St. John Paul writes in Ex corde Ecclesiae, a Catholic university, therefore, is not only “a place of research, where scholars scrutinize reality … to contribute to the treasury of human knowledge,” but a place where such research “provides an effective witness” that “necessarily includes (a) the search for an integration of knowledge, (b) a dialogue between faith and reason, (c) an ethical concern, and (d) a theological perspective.”

The task today for us and other Catholic universities is especially pressing in today’s culture as science, technology, and indeed progressive ideologies are attacking the very notion of what it means to be human. Indeed, as Ex corde presciently observes in 1990, a Catholic university is called in a particular way by virtue of its “Christian inspiration” to respond to the “search for meaning” of new discoveries and to evaluate “the moral, spiritual and religious dimension” of its research from “the perspective of the totality of the human person.”

Being salt and light, renewing our culture by recommitting ourselves to this vision of the proper understanding of what it means to be a Catholic university, I believe, is the surest way to ensure we continue to grow and enjoy future success.

CWR: Today, the Church—especially in the United States—is increasingly torn between traditionalist and progressive elements. How can a Catholic university be a place of both truth and unity?

Dr. Sanford: I’m not sure Catholics have ever largely been on the same page, even in John Paul II’s time. History has shown us that the Church has endured many periods of division since the apostolic age, down through the centuries. However, I recognize that present-day factions and divisions persist, perhaps in an even more amplified manner, in this digital age.

A Catholic university is called to be a place of witness for Christian truth, while respecting the academic freedom and commitment to inquiry of its individual community members. Institutionally, UD’s heritage is unique in that our origin is not tied to one particular religious order. Rather, today, we benefit from the presence of Dominicans friars, Cistercian monks, Nashville Dominican sisters, and many others who bring into concert varying expressions of Catholicism, all from a position of fidelity to the Church and her teachings.

We take practical measures to ensure our Catholic identity and mission is at the fore, from recruiting committed and mission driven faculty members and ensuring that each of our theology teachers, in particular, receive a mandatum from the Bishop of the Diocese. Unreservedly, the University of Dallas is faithful to the Magisterium, and as our mission statement says, is wholly “dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, of truth, and of virtue as the proper and primary ends of education.”

CWR: What is one book you would recommend for a layman interested in philosophy?

Dr. Sanford: Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

CWR: Final question: where is the best Tex-Mex in the Dallas area?

Dr. Sanford: Fuzzy’s Taco Shop is an Austin-based chain but common in the Dallas-Fort Worth area; it a frequent favorite of the Sanford family.


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About Jesse Russell 17 Articles
Jesse Russell is the author of The Political Christopher Nolan: Liberalism and the Anglo-American Vision (Lexington, 2023), as well as a number of articles on twentieth-century Catholic political thought and the poetry of Edmund Spenser. He is assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University.

13 Comments

  1. We read: “In the first paragraph of Ex corde Eclessiae [1990], [Pope John Paul II] identifies the fundamental vocation of universities, which is to be dedicated “to research, to teaching, and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge.”

    Cutting even closer to the bone in today’s death-spiral culture, the Introduction to the document reads, “On an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person.” Hello to the prideful abdication of the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Declaration.

  2. “The well-educated University of Dallas graduate of whatever major is made ready to take on positions of leadership in every profession”.

    Well, let’s slow down here. This might be a bit of an exaggeration. Taking on a leadership position requires experience, lots of experience, and that is precisely what an undergraduate lacks. I have no doubt that at DU he/she will have been provided with the conditions to eventually become a good leader, given that the person has leadership qualities, which many academics do NOT possess. Not everyone can be a leader.

    “Mathematics reveals the shape of the world, and indeed the very structure of our thought. Natural sciences train us to be attentive to the small and the grand in the universe, and to find beauty in every domain. Artistic creations grab our attention through gripping our emotions and reveal hidden features of reality and human experience. Historical studies train our minds for the future by yielding to us the lessons of the past. Literature lays bare the depths of the human soul, making of each of us genuine students of human nature by cultivating those unique ways of seeing that are the fruit of a poetic imagination.”

    Very cool!

  3. “But UD stands apart in American Higher Education…” Actually, they stand apart in American Catholic Higher Education. Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s theology mandate is something of a dead letter. In some cases bishops issued blanket mandates to professors who had not requested it, and probably did not qualify for it, and did not want it. UD is obviously a fine Catholic school, one of 15 recommended by the Newman society web site, out of a listed 197 Catholic colleges and universities, so, obviously a minority.
    I may have mentioned this in a previous post, but if so I will mention it again. Three years ago my grandson was an entering freshman at a Jesuit university and as part of freshman orientation had to sit through a presentation by the head of the campus LGBT group. I am afraid that this is much more typical of today’s Catholic Universities than what UD has to offer.

  4. “This idea that an education is a service to be received, that a student is merely a customer, the professor a producer, and the administrator, a middleman, reduces education to a mere exchange: tuition dollars for marketable skills and a degree.” THIS. Now if Dr. Sanford’s previous employer (my current employer) could understand this message…

  5. Personally I am not big on studying philosopy. My view is in today’s a world college program, 4 or 2yr variety, is a means for a well paying job. However no matter what, students must understand economics, in particular, Austrian Economic Theory, read Hayek, Mises, Friedman and Sowell. For Catholic colleges suggest deeply understanding the Mass, Sacraments and how to pray, icludong the Rosary. Learning Catholic virtues is also a fruitful concept.

  6. To educate our children in godliness is necessary. For their faith to be fulsome and that they speak a word in season to someone who is perishing is vital.

    Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

    Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

    Ecclesiastes 7:12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.

    Deuteronomy 11:19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

    Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    Proverbs 4:13 Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.

    Constant prayers for our children, may they have the peace that passes all understanding.

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