No. 1 responsibility
Author: Carolyn Y. Woo
“We are #1. It’s a Responsibility.”
These words comprise the message on the magnet commemorating the Mendoza College’s first perch at the top spot of the Bloomberg Businessweek undergraduate business school ranking.
Responsibility for what? To whom?
Of the competing thoughts that flood my mind, a few memories take hold. First is a speech by an experienced dean from a highly ranked program who was invited to address the Business Advisory Council (BAC) two months into my deanship. “Your primary responsibility, Carolyn, as dean, must be to raise the slope of the earning curve of your graduates. That is how a business school is judged and why students take on loans for their tuition. Everything else is distraction.”
With no track record as a dean and lacking familiarity with the audience, I kept quiet. But inside I disagreed vehemently with this instruction. I thought this advice reflected no understanding of the mission of a Catholic university, embraced a totally transactional approach to students, shrank their humanity, and monetized their aspirations. I also knew my contribution would not matter much in the form of an argument. My job was to demonstrate what a Catholic business school stands for and how that ethos would be the way to create and sustain value not only for one, but for all.
My second memory came from my first week at Notre Dame. Fr. Hesburgh had sent a note to say that he would like us to chat. With warm welcome at our first of many meetings to come, he did what an elder in a Chinese family would do: make sure that newcomers understand what values they hold in trust and how they would make these come to life and pass them on. He reminded me that at Notre Dame everything is done in the name of the Blessed Mother regardless of function, discipline, or rank. In gentle, crisp and impassioned words, he imparted, “Mediocrity does not serve the Blessed Mother, and at all times pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’”
Being No. 1 was fun, certainly more so than being No. 2, 3, or 7 — rankings we occupied along the way. But that was never the goal, it was a means. The top spot gave us a platform, a loudspeaker, attention, and credibility to speak our message: the message of God’s reign. The ranking gave us gravitas to insist and to prove that, yes, the Gospel is just as relevant and necessary for the business sector.
In the countless times when I ended my letters with “Yours in Notre Dame,” I was always awed by the privilege and the responsibility of that signature. In all that we do, whether it is curricula and teaching, student support, colleague development, conflict resolution, or community engagement, we must do our best to be worthy of this mantle. From the Old to the New Testament, we are to act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with God, and serve God in our neighbors. It is the only way for business to live up to its potential: to be the force for good as envisioned by our founding dean, Cardinal John O’Hara, rather than the necessary evil of exploitation and profiteering.
Our responsibility is to our students: that by what they learn from classes and watching us, by their friendships and daily rhythms of sin, forgiveness, and grace, and by their spiritual and sacramental habits, they come into a growing sense of God in their lives and step up to be the flesh of God. If we do our jobs carefully and with intent, they are more likely to become the bearer of God in the world as Mary is. Like Mary, the Notre Dame students and graduates will seek to do so not by their own strength, but by their trust in an ever-loving, ever-present God.
Carolyn Y. Woo served as the Martin J. Gillen Dean of Mendoza College of Business from 1997-2011. Mendoza’s undergraduate program held the No. 1 spot on Bloomberg Businessweek’s rankings for five consecutive years starting in 2010.