NEW YORK – In an era where more and more Catholic universities are turning to lay leadership, the University of Notre Dame will stick with its tradition of appointing a priest-president from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the religious order to which the university’s founder belonged.
Notre Dame graduate and longtime faculty member Father Robert Dowd will take over as the university’s next president, effective July 1. He will succeed Father John Jenkins, who announced in October that he would step down from the position at the end of the 2023-2024 academic year.
Dowd is currently Notre Dame’s vice president and associate provost for interdisciplinary initiatives, a role he has held since 2021. He is also an associate professor of political science and serves as a fellow and trustee of the university and is the religious superior of the school’s Holy Cross Community.
Jack Brennan, chair of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees called Dowd the “ideal” person for the role.
“We are thrilled that Father Dowd will be Notre Dame’s next leader,” Brennan said in a Dec. 4 statement. “His character and intellect, along with his broad academic and administrative experience and his deep commitment to Notre Dame, make him an ideal person to lead the University into the future.”
Commenting on his new role, Dowd said he was “humbled and honored” by the appointment, and thanked Jenkins for his leadership as Notre Dame’s president for the last 19 years.
“Working together with others, [Jenkin’s] efforts have positioned the University extremely well in every way. We will build on those efforts,” Dowd said in a statement. “Informed by our Catholic mission, we will work together so that Notre Dame is an ever-greater engine of insight, innovation and impact, addressing society’s greatest challenges and helping young people to realize their potential for good.”
Dowd will be Notre Dame’s 18th president – all from the Congregation of the Holy Cross – and the third in the last 70 years. When Dowd takes over in July Jenkins will have led Notre Dame for 19 years, since 2005. Before Jenkins, Father Edward Malloy led the university for 18 years, from 1987-2005.
The decision to appoint a priest-president is a tradition more and more Catholic universities have broken over time. Since 2010 a number of notable Catholic universities have turned to lay leadership, including the Catholic University of America, St. John’s University, Fairfield University, Marquette University, Loyola University of Chicago and Gonzaga University.
Since 2021, Fordham University, Santa Clara University, DePaul University, College of the Holy Cross, Loyola University Maryland, and Xavier University have all appointed a lay president. Georgetown University has had a lay president since 2001.
As for Notre Dame, Dowd is a native of Michigan City, Indiana. He graduated from the university in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and economics, and the next fall entered the seminary. After being ordained a priest in 1994, Dowd worked in campus ministry at Notre Dame, serving as associate rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and as an assistant rector in one of the university’s residence halls.
A few years later, he began graduate studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where he earned a master’s degree in African studies in 1998, and a doctorate in political science in 2003. While in seminary, Dowd had spent 18 months in East Africa.
Dowd rejoined Notre Dame in 2004, becoming a faculty member in the political science department. He specialized in comparative politics, researching how Christian and Islamic religious communities interact with democratic institutions, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dowd’s research has focused on African politics, identity politics, and religion and politics. He has explored the effects of religious beliefs and institutions on the integration of migrants/refugees in Europe and the effects of faith-based schools on citizenship and civic engagement in Africa. He has published a book on the subject: “Christianity, Islam, and Liberal Democracy: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Dowd currently oversees multiple Notre Dame institutes and programs, including the Center for Social Concerns, Institute for Educational Initiatives, Lucy Family Institute for Data and Society, McGrath Institute for Church Life, Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center, Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, and ROTC programs. He also directs the approval and review process of institutes and centers.
Dowd is also the founder of Notre Dame’s Ford Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity, which works to create research partnerships with the global south.
Speaking on Dowd’s appointment, Jenkins touted Dowd as an accomplished scholar and generous priest.
“An accomplished scholar, a dedicated teacher and an experienced administrator, Father Bob is also a faithful and generous priest,” Jenkins, who stepped down to return to a teaching and ministry role at the university said in a Dec. 4 statement. “He will lead the university to being even more powerfully a force for good in the world.”
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