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Speeches evidence of Jenkins’ leadership emergence

Heather Van Hoegarden, Claire Heininger and Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Introducing University President Father John Jenkins to their respective constituencies Monday and Tuesday, Provost Thomas Burish and student body president Dave Baron offered the audiences the same promise.

“In short, we’ll learn a lot about Father Jenkins as our leader,” Burish said.

“We’re about to witness the style of leadership of our new University president,” Baron echoed the next day.

And that’s exactly what’s happened in the Notre Dame community in the past 48 hours, as the first-year president used two addresses on academic freedom to present an assertive approach and establish a decision-making precedent he acknowledged would characterize his presidency.

“You can go wrong in two ways,” Jenkins told The Observer Tuesday after his address to the students. “One is to just sit in the office and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do, we won’t do that’ – just issue decisions from here on out. That’s a mistake.

“The other is, ‘Oh, I’m just going to take in the views of some people, and never really act.’ That’s a mistake. That’s not leadership.”

Jenkins’ visions of leadership – and the University community’s perceptions of him as a leader – have changed dramatically in the nearly 21 months since his election as Notre Dame’s 17th president.

Growing into his role

Though he served as a vice president and associate provost for four years before the Board of Trustees elected him to succeed then-University President Father Edward Malloy on April 30, 2004, Jenkins was then a relatively unfamiliar face to many in the University community. He greeted the announcement of his election with humility, praising his predecessor and calling the Board’s choice a “flattering request.”

“No doubt, after I take this job, I’ll still be correcting myself, because you know I’ll be green,” Jenkins told The Observer in October 2004, in the midst of the presidential transition. “But you’re never completely ready, and you just try to get as ready as you can be.”

But that preparation was tested just seven months after Jenkins was elected – and eight months before he actually took over the presidency – when he was involved in one of the biggest decisions at Notre Dame.

Though his term officially began on July 1, 2005, he played a role in the Nov. 30, 2004 firing of then-head football coach Tyrone Willingham – a decision that followed the pattern of the president-elect having input on long-term University decisions during the presidential transition period.

When Willingham was fired, athletic director Kevin White said the decision was made by “University senior leadership, and in concert with the University senior leadership.”

“I think it’s fair to say, I report to the president and at the end of the day, I serve at the will of the president at the University of Notre Dame,” White said on Nov. 30, 2004.

After the firing, Malloy said publicly that he did not make the decision, and when new coach Charlie Weis was hired on Dec. 13, Malloy told The Observer the same thing.

“I was not a definitive voice and I was not the one who initiated the action,” Malloy said. “The impression had been gained that I was, and I was simply trying to clarify the record that I wasn’t and had a disagreement about that choice.”

The firing of Willingham – at the time one of five black head football coaches in Division I-A and Notre Dame’s first black head coach in any sport – after three years at the Irish helm prompted national controversy, from various media outlets arguing Notre Dame was racist to students on campus making T-shirts that read “IntegriTY.” The cry of racism continued through the hiring of Weis and was revisited in October 2005 when Weis received a new contract after seven games as the Irish head coach.

Throughout the coaching change, Jenkins made his presence felt before he officially assumed the presidency in one of the most important parts of Notre Dame – football. And the public began to recognize him as the University’s new leader.

“I think people were shocked about the decision with football coaches,” W. David Solomon, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, who taught Jenkins when the president was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, said Tuesday. “Whatever you think about that decision, he certainly showed courage and didn’t hesitate.”

Yet Jenkins also shied away from asserting himself too boldly before taking office.

During the transition period, Jenkins said repeatedly he wasn’t yet fully ready to be Notre Dame’s president. He declined an Observer request to be interviewed about his presidential ambitions before July 1, 2005, instead praising the steady hand of Malloy as one of the leadership qualities he would try to emulate.

“People look to you to set a course, and Monk’s been steady,” Jenkins told The Observer in April 2005, during the final months of the transition. “Things change and controversies come and go, but you just have to be steady.”

When Jenkins did take office on July 1, 2005, it was with relatively little fanfare as students were away from campus for the summer.

But the new president received a full-blown welcome in September 2005, when he was inaugurated in a two-day event complete with flourishes from cancelled classes to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s visit to moderate an academic forum that was cybercast on the Web.

Dignitaries from across the world were invited to take place in the academic forum entitled “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World,” while Catholic leaders were invited to celebrate Mass with Jenkins the following morning.

For the first time, the Notre Dame community was able to see its new president on a grand stage for two days as academia and Catholicism were repeatedly and dually brought to the forefront during the formal introduction of the University’s new leader.

During his inaugural address on September 23, 2005, Jenkins said his one of his goals for Notre Dame was to integrate “these two indispensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning: academic excellence and religious faith.” Specifics about how the two were wholly compatible, however, were not part of his address.

About a month later, Jenkins formally addressed the faculty for the first time, speaking to them about undergraduate education, graduate studies and research, diversity, the Catholic mission and fiscal constraints.

“Notre Dame was founded to be a university with a religious character; its statutes state that it should retain this character ‘in perpetuity;’ and it is a priority of mine to retain this character,” Jenkins told the faculty during his October 11, 2005 address.

But it was not until this week that Jenkins specifically addressed the interaction of Notre Dame’s roles both as a Catholic institution and a university that promotes academic freedom.

Jenkins said he used his first real foray into extensively addressing a polarizing issue not to test the waters, but to explain clearly where he stood and invite response from the University community.

The reason to address academic freedom and Catholic character, he said, stems from a sense of duty to the University.

“I do think it’s been percolating, I do think people have strong issues on both sides, I think people haven’t really addressed it and it is important to address one way or another,” he said. “There really aren’t many issues more important than issues of academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame.”

Interpreting new leadership

The president who emerged this week seemed to be a far cry from the man who was elected in April 2004 – but for Solomon, who has followed Jenkins’ rise throughout the decades, the president’s forceful addresses were not unexpected.

“I wasn’t surprised at all that he was being assertive” early in his presidency, Solomon said. “Many faculty members have misjudged Father Jenkins because he’s a nice man and a gentle man – I’ve heard many faculty members talk about him like he’s a weak man. Those of us who’ve known Father Jenkins for many years, and I’ve known him since he was a sophomore, know he’s very tough, he doesn’t lack for courage.”

Burish, also in his first year leading Notre Dame after Jenkins chose him in July to replace former Provost Nathan Hatch, said Tuesday his boss’s strong, straightforward stance had demonstrated Jenkins’ respect for – and in turn resonated with – the faculty.

“Some faculty agree with him and some do not, but everyone I’ve spoken to admired his openness and his approach,” Burish said. “The most common comment I have heard is that it is a welcome [leadership] style and that Father showed a boldness and an openness and an admirable willingness to engage the community in dialogue.

“…I believe that demonstrated the type of leadership and type of approach to leadership and decision-making to which he plans to commit himself.”

But not all faculty members cheered Jenkins’ style.

“Your responsibility to us as president doesn’t involve accepting the majority vote or ruling by consensus,” philosophy professor Ed Manier said during Monday’s faculty question-and-answer session, responding to an assertion in Jenkins’ speech, “but it does involve accountability to us. One thing that means is there [have] to be procedures we all agree are fair for an evaluation of our decisions on how such judgments are made.”

Regardless of the final policy issued about hosting events deemed to conflict with Catholic values and other issues of academic freedom, Jenkins’ willingness to step forward with his beliefs and engage the University community establishes a definitive tone for his presidency, many faculty and administrators agreed.

“I think it’s important that the president declare where he stands, and I think John left no doubt about where he stands, but also how he gets there, how he proceeds,” said University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, who led Notre Dame from 1952-87 and, along with University founder Father Edward Sorin, is widely considered Notre Dame’s greatest leader. “I think it’s something that very few university presidents do – explain why they get to where they get – and I had to do it a few times, and I found it was very fruitful and very helpful.”

Hesburgh praised the precedent Jenkins set for his leadership style.

“I think it says a lot of very good things – it says he’s not going to sit off in a dark corner churning off great decisions that no one had a part in,” Hesburgh told The Observer Monday. “I think he’s saying this is a community, this is an important factor in the Catholic community to be discussed, and let’s talk about it.

“And I think everybody in this community feels ready to talk about it, whether or not they begin where he begins.”