In professor Phil Gleason’s Core course during the mid-1980s, Fr. Robert Dowd could tell he was cared for.
Gleason, who taught history at Notre Dame for 47 years and died in January, inspired students to think about important issues and the meaning and purpose of life, Dowd added.
“He was somebody who I think modeled what is best about Notre Dame. And that is just a deep commitment to growth and insight — and also, I think, an openness to ideas,” Dowd, who is succeeding current University President Fr. John Jenkins on July 1, told The Observer in an interview last week.
Like many Domers, Dowd’s affinity for Notre Dame began young.
He grew up a 45-minute drive west of campus in Michigan City, Indiana. His mom and his dad, a 1956 Notre Dame alum, would bring Dowd and his little sister to football games when they were kids.
As an undergraduate student, Dowd majored in economics and psychology. He lived in Grace Hall and played in the dorm’s intra-hall basketball league. The Oak Room on the first floor of South Dining Hall, with its free coffee refills, was his go-to hangout.
“It was a great time. It doesn’t mean it was easy,” Dowd said about his undergraduate years. “There was a lot of soul searching that I did, probably not unlike a lot of students today.”
Dowd considered becoming a high school teacher or going on to graduate school and pursuing life in academia. Ultimately, he entered Moreau Seminary after finishing his bachelor’s degree in 1987.
“I decided to enter the seminary and that brought me a lot of peace. It really did,” Dowd said. “It really felt like I was in the right place, and that never really went away.”
Africa was in political upheaval when Dowd requested to spend some of his seminary formation on the continent. In 1991, he relocated to Nairobi, Kenya for 18 months and became fascinated by what was going on.
“I was especially interested in the role that religious institutions might play during the time of political change,” Dowd said. “Would they support efforts to develop democratic institutions or would they hinder those efforts?”
When he returned to Notre Dame in 1993, Dowd worked in Campus Ministry and as an assistant rector in Flanner Hall. He was ordained a Holy Cross priest in 1994.
In 1996, he went off to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied for a master’s degree in African studies and a doctorate in political science.
Dowd joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2004 and has taught political science ever since. Much of his research focuses on religion and politics in Africa.
Notre Dame’s 18th president
Since coming on the University’s faculty, Dowd founded the Ford Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity and held leadership positions in the provost’s office and Congregation of Holy Cross. Though he didn’t expect it, Dowd said he knew he had a chance of getting elected Jenkins’ successor.
He regards the presidency as just another opportunity to serve the Notre Dame community.
“I would ask everybody to pray for me, just because I think that we all need prayers, and I certainly need prayers as I prepare to take on this new responsibility,” Dowd said.
Dowd said he wants to be an accessible and approachable president who distinguishes the urgent and the important smartly.
“Not everything that’s really important is urgent and not everything that is urgent is really important,” he explained.
In Dowd’s opinion, Notre Dame has changed in five major ways throughout the decades he has lived under the Dome.
Firstly, the physical footprint of campus has expanded. The student body also is more serious and accomplished. Thirdly, the student body has become more racially and ethnically diverse.
“But we have more work to do,” Dowd said about the student body’s diversity.
The University’s research profile has grown thanks to faculty and staff, who’ve gotten grants and done research that is making a difference in the world. Finally, Notre Dame has realized the importance of articulating its Catholic mission.
With the original Oak Room lost in a late-1990s renovation, Dowd passes time on campus these days working in the Main Building, walking around the lakes or in Cavanaugh Hall, where he resides.
For fun, he likes biking and exploring the bike trails around South Bend. Dowd also enjoys reading. Two of his favorite authors are St. Augustine and David Brooks. Along with basketball, Dowd played baseball and softball when he was younger.
Growing up in Indiana, Dowd can get away with cheering for both the Chicago Cubs and White Sox. He has been chaplain of the Notre Dame baseball team for the last few years, although he’ll have to give that up.
“We had to go to the bullpen to call in a new chaplain,” Dowd said.
Dowd is also a Chicago Bears fan and a fan of Notre Dame football. He said he has attended pretty much every home football game during his time on campus.
“We’re going to continue to do our best to compete at the highest level while maintaining our integrity,” Dowd said.
The main thing Dowd wants students to know about him is he cares about them deeply.
“We’ll be thinking all the time about how we can make Notre Dame a place where everybody can really thrive and make the most of their potential,” Dowd said.