A Catholic Life in the Secular University: A Conversation with George Dennis O'Brien

Dec 9, 2020
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Mark AlznauerNorthwestern University

G. Dennis O'BrienUniversity of Rochester

Cosponsored by Commonweal Magazine, and the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University. This event is presented by the Lumen Christi Institute Forum on the Church in Higher Education as part of its Liberal Arts Colloquium.

John F. Kennedy once quipped that a Catholic would be president of the United States before a Catholic would be president of Harvard. As the Catholic president of two secular universities, Dennis O’Brien was a trailblazer. In this interview, O’Brien discusses his long career in higher education as a Catholic, a philosopher, and an administrator, with reflections on the past, present, and future of American higher education.

O’Brien was raised in a south-side Chicago parish in the 1930s and 1940s. Educated at Yale, he came to the University of Chicago to write a PhD on Hegel. He was appointed president of Bucknell in 1976 and the University of Rochester in 1984. O’Brien’s varied career offers a fascinating window onto the history of American higher education in the twentieth century. Philosopher and fellow Hegelian Mark Alznauer will conduct this interview, focusing on higher education both Catholic and secular, as well as O’Brien’s experiences growing up in Chicago and attending the University of Chicago. 


Mark Alznauer is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern University. He has a B.A. from St. John’s College (Annapolis) and a Ph.D. From the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (2008). He specializes in ethics, aesthetics, and social theory in nineteenth century European philosophy. He also has interests in the history of political philosophy, the theory of action, and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Hegel’s Theory of Responsibility (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  He is Vice President of the Hegel Society of America.

George Dennis O’Brien is president emeritus of the University of Rochester and former president of Bucknell University. He holds a BA in English from Yale University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. After teaching philosophy at Princeton for several years he became a university administrator. Dr. O'Brien is the author of a number of books, including What to Expect from College, All the Essential Half-Truths about Higher Education, and The Idea of a Catholic University, and he is chair emeritus of the Commonweal Foundation.