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An open letter to President Jenkins

Caruso, Gary | Friday, September 23, 2005

University President John Jenkins’ installment today is certainly a time of celebration. This writer is among the most sincere of Notre Dame alumni wishing Jenkins the wisdom and courage to lead as though he was walking through Galilee, not on Wall Street. Jenkins faces many of Notre Dame’s most pressing challenges that stem from years of self-denial and neglect. Jenkins alone must preserve true academic freedom, restore the morale of campus staff, dispel rather than enforce a myriad of negative perceptions nationally against Notre Dame and desist from equating campus social conservatism with Catholicism.

University functions glide like an ocean liner’s course, steady on its approach and slow to alter direction. Jenkins is correct when he describes Notre Dame as having a distinct place in American education with no need for radical change. Yet a course correction is in order if Jenkins is to attain true diversity while changing misperceptions of Notre Dame.

To outside critics, Notre Dame’s message has been largely inconsistent with its actions, giving rise to the “Catholic Disneyland” label. One need only to step back months when, for the first time in generations, the University outright fired a head football coach – ironically its first minority head coach ever – while professing to cherish academics over athletics. Resentful sports writers denied Notre Dame the national title in favor of Florida State due in part to Notre Dame’s perceived self-righteous attitude. Jenkins should insist that the University’s goal of the “highest possible academic standards” for athletes never be called “our standards,” implying that other universities have lesser programs.

Jenkins has a daunting task in battling such long-standing sentiment. Decades ago bigots hurled fish and whiskey bottles interrupting a Dan Devine coached game. Fr. Joyce, representing the University at NCAA meetings, faced more covert bigotry when his proposals were regularly defeated by coalitions of anti-Notre Dame factions. Eventually Joyce quietly asked others to introduce his initiatives which were adopted.

Unfortunately, academic and social hostility also simmers against the University. If not for the now bulging endowment, Notre Dame would still fail to qualify for U.S. News and World Report’s top-ranked universities as it often did a decade ago. The University countered that it could not compete with medical schools like Georgetown. However, a personal conversation with the reporter revealed that other provosts and deans consistently rank Notre Dame academically low. Ironically and embarrassing, Notre Dame now repeatedly tops the Princeton Review’s list of most homophobic campuses.

Jenkins’ first task is to choose his personal gatekeepers wisely and to resurrect the sense of family among the clerical and support staff. Several longtime staff, both retired and near retirement, lament how they were cast aside by the past governing group who were self-absorbed in their leadership roles.

Jenkins’ team must cultivate and renew the feeling of family throughout the Dome and at the most basic staff levels across campus. Jenkins himself should imitate the path of Galilee and make time to walk with those who are the least paid on the University payroll.

Diversity is more than just an acceptable ethnicity percentage of the overall campus population. Where are the blue collar students embodied in Rudy’s personal story? Diversity embraces social and economic differences, religious differences, political differences as well as academic differences. In fact, academic freedom is the constitution of diversity.

President Jenkins must encourage all points of view on campus regardless of how reprehensible the message my seem to the Vatican. It is especially wrong to exclude publicly elected Catholics who refuse to impose their religion on those whom they represent. It is also wrong to spurn pro-choice Democrats while embracing Republicans who favor capital punishment and war. Should a Catholic John Roberts, as Supreme Court Chief Justice, hold true to his statement that Roe v. Wade is settled precedent, will Notre Dame also snub him?

We all lead lives of imperfection, and it seems that in rejoicing over the perceived Catholic character of some, the University finds itself in a position where it does not walk its talk after the revelation of personal shortcomings. Notre Dame’s history is littered with embarrassing moments caused by overarching celebrations for flawed beings once held as icons. Jenkins can learn from the awkwardness of Tom Dooley’s sexuality, of GE Chairman Jack Welsh’s divorce and extramarital affair or the remorse of presenting George Gipp’s monogram sweater to Ronald Reagan. Graduates like current Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice deserve a hearty and appropriate welcome on campus, but without such over-the-top Catholic rhetorical exuberance that neglects the possibilities of her personal thoughts and lifestyle.

Internally, Notre Dame needs to socially evolve with coeducational housing on campus. The notion that the University is more socially in line with Catholic character is reminiscent of the self-flogging monk in the movie, “The Name of the Rose.” Catholicism is no better served by traditionalists than progressives. If the Vatican can condone conflicting standards within the Eastern Orthodox wing of the church, Notre Dame need not hide behind Bob Jones University’s “bible rule” of keeping male and female students at least a bible’s length apart at all times.

Pope John XXIII initiated long overdue changes to the Church. Jenkins should likewise embrace the 21st Century after three decades as a coeducational institution. Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., is no less Catholic for its parietals and selective coeducational housing. Notre Dame’s character will be no less Catholic with a coeducational dormitory.

Today while the campus celebrates the transition of University management and prays for wise guidance, support for President Jenkins justifiably overflows. His future is unclear, yet hopeful that he can restore a sense of family and modernize social attitudes on campus. His path is difficult but not impossible as he combats the culture of bigotry seething at the gates of campus. His success lies in every quarter of the Notre Dame community as we together combat self-serving inconsistency with the humility of Galilee.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.