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Jenkins chats with students ‘Fireside’

Maureen Mullen | Tuesday, April 4, 2006

When U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held “fireside chats” during the Great Depression, a living room radio was the closest the nation could get to its leader.

With University President Father John Jenkins, however, a fireside chat is an intimate, face-to-face affair.

Jenkins spoke with students Monday evening in the Coleman Morse lounge as part of the Student Union Board’s series, “Fireside Chats.” In the casual setting of armchairs and couches – complete with a fireplace- the several dozen students gathered were able to ask Jenkins questions and listen as he shared his experiences from his time as a Notre Dame undergraduate, as well as those from his first year as University president.

The event opened with a short address from Jenkins. He explained that he came to the University as an undergraduate in 1973, and he found in Notre Dame a place nurturing to both his intellect and spirituality.

“The great thing about Notre Dame as I experienced and as I hope you do, is that it is an intellectually challenging place. I had great teachers, great discussions … but on top of that I felt that it allowed me to cultivate spiritual life more deeply and to think about issues of faith, issues of right and wrong,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins added that as a student, he also made great friends and learned valuable life lessons from his classmates.

Now, in his position as president of the University, Jenkins said it is his job to make Notre Dame a place where a current student may enjoy those opportunities he had “to excel academically … and to develop as a person of faith with moral purpose to life.”

Jenkins then called for questions from students, and the discussion continued for the next 40 minutes with interaction between Jenkins and the audience.

Questions concerning academic freedom were intentionally avoided – as SUB organizers made clear when advertising the event. Instead, students asked Jenkins such questions as, “What was your favorite memory as an undergraduate?,” “What dorm did you live in?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Jenkins’ favorite memory from his time as an undergraduate is apparently having met, befriended and spoken with interesting and impressive people. He lived in Grace Hall, and a glance at his bookshelf would reveal Plato’s “Republic,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” and T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

One student asked Jenkins to explain his reasoning behind the 2004 firing of former Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham. In his answer, Jenkins said the main concern behind the decision was the future of everyone involved in the football program.

“We could have stuck it out, but I didn’t think that was a good idea for the players, a good idea for the program, or even a good idea for Tyrone himself considering that the pressure would have only gotten greater,” he said. “It didn’t seem like the situation would have helped anybody.”

Another student asked Jenkins whether or not he would like to return to the classroom and teach. He gave an enthusiastic “yes,” and explained that though next year was not the right time for such a venture, it might happen the year after. He explained that time is the issue, and that without having adequate time to devote to a class in the midst of all his duties as president, he fears his teaching might suffer from mediocrity.

Jenkins was also asked what quality he hoped those outside the University would identity with its students – generosity of spirit was his reply.

A student then inquired about what Jenkins had learned, from a leadership perspective, over the last year.

“There’s a lot of stuff that comes across your desk that needs to be dealt with and that can consume your time, but the biggest challenge is to not be consumed and to try to set a direction,” Jenkins said.

To keep striving toward a larger goal despite all the distracting details has been Jenkins’ lesson and his challenge, he said.

“I’ve learned to keep an eye on the big picture and the direction … to watch where you’re going even though there might be a lot of pressure to deal with the latest crisis,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s a good lesson for anything no matter how big or small.”