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Jenkins steers course for University’s future

Maddie Hanna | Friday, April 7, 2006

When University President Father John Jenkins in January questioned the presence of “The Vagina Monologues” at Notre Dame, he opened the floodgates to 10 weeks of emotional accusations, cries of censorship and national media coverage reporting that freedom of speech could soon be cut short at the nation’s most prominent Catholic university.

But on Wednesday, Jenkins largely silenced the clamor when he released a closing statement on academic freedom and Catholic character that surprised many faculty members – he found no reason to ban the “Monologues” and was determined “not to suppress speech on this campus.”

“What I care about is that we understand our mission to be a truly great university, in scholarship, in teaching, in all aspects of our academic work, that we are a Catholic university and we take that seriously, it gives us a broad moral framework, it gives us a sense of spirituality in what we do,” Jenkins told The Observer Wednesday. “Both of those are part of our identity at Notre Dame, and they allow us to move forward and make decisions.

“I think if we can be true to that, and just explain that, I frankly don’t worry too much about image or perceptions, as long as we’re true to who we are and we state that clearly and act accordingly.”

In minimizing the importance of image, Jenkins refutes what many critics have insinuated since the January addresses – that a decision to ban the “Monologues” and other controversial performances would be made to appease the Church and conservative alumni.

The decision to push for an end to violence against women carries Jenkins in the opposite direction from what many anticipated Notre Dame’s new president would be – squeamish about sexuality and reserved in discussion on sensitive subjects.

W. David Solomon, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Culture who taught Jenkins when the president was a Notre Dame undergraduate, told The Observer in January that people tend to make false assumptions about Jenkins.

“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,” Solomon said. “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.”

Jenkins’ method in making his decision, history professor Gail Bederman said, was as surprising as its content.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw a public figure say, ‘Here’s a problem, this is what I think, let me know what you think and I’ll pay attention,'” Bederman said Wednesday.

While Jenkins’ mild demeanor has masked an inner assertiveness, one quality it highlights is his ability – and willingness – to listen, to analyze, to contemplate.

This rational deliberation that played so heavily into Jenkins’ decision should have been expected, said University President Emeritus Theodore Hesburgh.

“I think he approaches everything from an intelligent philosophical and theological point of view,” Hesburgh said Wednesday. “I believe that’s a very good way to approach things at a Catholic university. … We’re not out in a desert somewhere.”

Hesburgh described the decision as “a measured statement.”

“It should be well respected by everybody,” he said. “It doesn’t foreclose any questions.”

Despite initial perceptions that Jenkins would take a hard line and suppress anti-Catholic views, he has done the polar opposite, stressing the importance of openness and promoting a campus-wide exchange of opinions – opinions he has responded to with sincerity and personal conviction.

And what that came down to, Director of Admissions Daniel Saracino said, was a relatively moderate statement – a decision reached in a “forthright” manner.

“I’m certain his response today doesn’t make everyone happy, but that’s not his job,” Saracino said Wednesday. “He went right down the middle.”

Jenkins said in his statement he expected the decision to be one “a large majority of this community can embrace.”

“I made the best decision I could in line with the character of the University and its mission,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “I don’t believe in leading by consensus, I don’t believe in just taking the temperature and following it down, but at the same time I don’t believe in making decisions without having a serious discussion. And I think we’ve had that, and I think it’s helped us reach a resolution and will help us move forward in a very constructive manner.”

Regardless of Jenkins’ stated disregard for image, faculty said Wednesday the decision reflects positively on both the president and the University. During the past two months, concerns surfaced among faculty members that Notre Dame would be running directly against nationally accepted American Association of University Professors’ guidelines, should Jenkins decide to ban controversial events from campus.

But those concerns were more than alleviated Wednesday, as faculty said Jenkins’ decision not only met but also exemplified a proper standard for a Catholic university.

“There are some people who want Notre Dame to be more of a seminary,” Dean of the College of Arts of Letters Mark Roche said. “I don’t worry about that. Some faculty members were concerned that we might have been perceived as being less than a university and that will no longer be a perception that is possible and that is good.”

English professor Glenn Hendler said Jenkins’ decision would “reassure a lot of people” and could provide a strong model for fellow Catholic universities grappling with similar issues.

“The implication is really important for recruiting students and faculty in the future,” he said. “It’s essential that Notre Dame take the lead. I hope that other Catholic universities looking at this can say ‘Oh, there’s a way to work it out so that neither academic freedom nor Catholic character need to be compromised.”