Guiding the next generation: Philosophy professor Michael Rea receives Arts & Letters Graduate Student Mentorship Award

Author: Mary Kinney

Michael Rea
Michael Rea is the Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion, and recipient of the 2024 College of Arts & Letters Graduate Student Mentorship Award.

When Michael Rea talks about mentorship, he likens it to spiritual direction.

“'It's not just helping someone through a particular philosophical project, " he said. “It's helping them to build an identity and a way of being within the profession.”

The Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame believes good graduate mentorship goes beyond helping students through their scholarly achievements — it also requires myriad traits like kindness, empathy, an ability to connect with students, and a willingness to be challenged and change.

It’s an approach that has resonated with his mentees — and helped them find success.

During his tenure, Rea has personally supervised 12 Ph.D students and is currently mentoring six. Those he has mentored have landed tenure-track jobs at prestigious programs such as Rutgers University, Fordham University, Yale-NUS in Singapore, the University of Missouri, Washington State University, Calvin University, San Jose State University, the University of Wyoming, and more.

“Collectively, they form something like a core of the next generation of young metaphysicians and philosophers of religion,” wrote Samuel Newlands, the Carl E. Koch Professor of Philosophy and chair of the department, in a letter nominating Rea for the award.

In recognition of his commitment to developing his students as scholars and people, Rea is the recipient of the 2024 College of Arts & Letters Graduate Student Mentorship Award. The honor recognizes a tenured faculty member who has demonstrated outstanding scholarly mentorship and care for students obtaining their master's and doctoral degrees. The award will be presented to Rea at the college’s spring faculty meeting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, in McKenna Hall.

At the same meeting, Robert Norton, a professor of German, will receive the Arts & Letters Research Achievement Award.

Drawing from experience

Reflecting upon his mentorship style, Rea credits those who shaped him.

He initially came to Notre Dame for his doctoral degree because of the University’s known strength in the philosophy of religion and for its close connections between graduate students.

“Christian philosophy — and philosophy of religion more broadly — has always been a strength of this department, and there has always been a community here interested in thinking about those issues,” Rea said. “But also, setting aside particular research specialties, the community of this department has been a draw.”

Rea’s research focuses primarily on topics in philosophy of religion, analytic theology, metaphysics, and feminist philosophy. He has written or edited more than 15 books and 50 journal articles and has given numerous lectures around the world, including the 2017 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews.

During Rea’s time as a graduate student, he described working with advisor Alvin Plantinga — the John A. O'Brien Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and a Templeton Prize Laureate — as “transformative” and likened his admiration for the philosopher to how protestants admire C.S. Lewis.

“I benefitted a lot from being around him and seeing his style of doing philosophy, but he also really cared about his graduate students as people,” Rea said. “You got the sense that he wasn't just advising you on this project, but he cared about you as a person.”

While Plantinga is a brilliant philosopher and great role model, Rea said, his advising style was relatively “hands-off.” Rea mostly appreciated this approach, but he found there were times when he needed a heavier hand of guidance. For this, he leaned on philosophy professor Michael Loux, who also served as dean of Arts & Letters from 1983 to 1991.

“Mike was really more tuned into where I was at,” Rea said. “He saw I needed some help, and stepped in and helped. And that was a learning point — that the job of advisors is not to just be the ‘great man.’”

Expanding the purview

Rea also saw skills he admired in his peers, like Trenton Merricks, who was two years ahead of Rea in the Ph.D. program at Notre Dame and is now a philosopher at the University of Virginia. Merricks “was quite open about his vulnerabilities,” Rea said, which made him easy to relate to.

“He’s a really smart and successful guy, and to know some of what he was going through, I found that so helpful,” Rea said. “I carried that over into my mentoring style.”

His absorption of mentorship didn’t stop after graduate school. Perhaps the most important person he turns for mentoring throughout his career, he said, is Eleonore Stump, an emeritus professor of philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and medieval philosophy at Saint Louis University. Stump was known for serving as an informal mentor to many in Rea’s generation of Christian philosophers, and he dedicated his recent book The Hiddenness of God to her.

“Rea’s selfless pursuit of the intellectual growth of his students and his evident care for their well-being, combined with his extraordinary successes in their training and placement, sets him apart as a truly outstanding graduate advisor and as someone eminently worthy of this award.”

“She and her work have significantly impacted many of my philosophical and theological views, and I have also sought to emulate in the ways that I can what, for lack of better terminology, I might simply describe as her general ‘way of being’ in the profession,” Rea wrote in his dedication. “For all of this, too, I am thankful."

He also finds inspiration from the graduate students he works with. One particular student, Kathryn Pogin, was instrumental in shifting his interests and values by bringing to light discrimination within the discipline.

“She just helped pull back the curtain,” Rea said. “I learned a lot of things, but she was also pretty persistent in calling out my mistakes or my biased beliefs and encouraged me to think differently on a variety of issues that broadly related to feminism, climate for women, and the sorts of things that people get at when they say 'check your privilege.’”

Rea took his new enlightenment head-on. He is now a concurrent professor with the Gender Studies Program and a former chair of the philosophy department’s climate committee, which oversees its commitment to inclusivity.

“He was instrumental in initiating reforms to graduate recruiting and faculty mentoring, and he helped establish our third-party monitoring efforts to track our progress,” Newlands wrote in his nomination letter for Rea. “He is widely regarded by graduate students and faculty alike as an outspoken ally and advocate for women graduate students in our department.”

Defining success

When guiding students, Rea has found discussions that start off relating to work often become conversations about balancing personal life, as well. Newlands said he has witnessed students who have faced challenges become stronger under Rea’s guidance and tutelage.

“I feel like the people who end up being successful are the ones who work hard, try to draw appropriate boundaries between work and life outside of work, and treat it like a job they care about,” Rea said. “It’s finding the balance of the kind of job you care about, but also not letting it overtake everything else so you burn out.”

In addition to one-on-one mentoring, he has also served on more than a dozen dissertation committees, including at St. Andrews, the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Baylor University. Newlands said Rea is also sought after for advice among graduate students outside of Notre Dame. As director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion, Rea has brought in visiting graduate students from top programs such as Stanford University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Yale.

“Rea has been our most successful graduate mentor in philosophy over the past two decades,” Newlands wrote. “Rea’s selfless pursuit of the intellectual growth of his students and his evident care for their well-being, combined with his extraordinary successes in their training and placement, sets him apart as a truly outstanding graduate advisor and as someone eminently worthy of this award.”

Originally published by Mary Kinney at on April 29, 2024.