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Kernan ends first term as University professor

Joe Piarulli | Monday, May 1, 2006

He’s simply not your average Joe.

Joe Kernan has been governor of Indiana, mayor of South Bend, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and now a proven professor at his alma mater.

Kernan, a 1964 Notre Dame graduate recently completed his first year as a professor with a one-credit course entitled “The Executive Branch and Public Policy,” which he plans to teach again next spring.

The class, composed of 20 political science majors, covered major issues such as education, healthcare, budgeting, campaigns and campaign finance, as well as current issues like the Indiana toll road and the leasing of U.S. ports.

John Roos, acting chair for the political science department, said having a professor with a background other than academia brings something special to the University.

“The students seem to be enthusiastic, so we think it’s working out great,” Roos said. “Bringing the … concrete, real world experiences has just been a real addition.”

Kernan said he looks forward to teaching the class again and feels as though he has already improved as a professor.

“I had a great group of students and I hope I taught them a little something,” he said. “And I learned a lot from them.”

The class was originally slated to be taught in DeBartolo, but was relocated to the Main Building in order to create a more seminar-like atmosphere.

During the Vietnam War, Kernan served as a flight officer on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. In 1972 he was shot down during a reconnaissance mission and held as a prisoner of war for 11 months.

Kernan continued his service in the Navy until 1974 and was given, among other awards two Purple Hearts and the Navy Commendation Medal.

In 1987 he was elected mayor of South Bend, a position he held for nine years. He was elected Lt. Governor of Indiana in 1996 and became Governor in 2003 following Frank O’Bannon’s death.

Despite Kernan’s reputation, he said he wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

“I didn’t sense that any of the students were intimidated, and that certainly was not my intent,” Kernan said. “[My intent] was to create a good environment where we could have constructive discussion.”

Senior Peter Kralovec, one of Kernan’s students, said it was not difficult to adjust to the class.

“We certainly presented him a level of reverence,” Kralovec said. “But we also were invited to be ourselves very quickly in the class because of his very personal and intimate style and approach.”

Kralovec said Kernan succeeded in improving as a professor over the course of the semester.

“I think he was cognizant of the fact that he needed to adapt his method in order to get to us, and over the course of the semester he certainly did that,” Kralovec said.

Kralovec, who plans to attend public service graduate school, said he took the class thinking there would be no better experience than to take a course with someone who has been involved in public service for a long time.

And he was not disappointed.

“[Kernan] expresses himself in ways in which students would be very comfortable,” he said. “He loves baseball, he loves South Bend, he loves student life and he’s very respectful of students.”

Kernan invited two guest speakers to his class, his Lt. Governor Kathy Davis and chief of staff Mary Downes.

Senior Laura Feeney, a resident of Indiana, said Kernan had great chemistry with both speakers and was able to connect with students in a similar way.

“He was really approachable and nice,” she said. “He was open to discussing anything we wanted.”

While Kernan is a Democrat, Feeney said she found it refreshing that he was not overly concerned with such labels.

“In our class we had a mix of people from the political spectrum,” she said. “[Kernan] talked about the importance of being bipartisan and working on both sides. He’s a very good moderator … he understands both points of view.”

In order to get into the class, students had to present a résumé and statement of interest. Kernan said his students did not have any major projects for the course, but had to write a final, open-ended reflection.

“I was looking for them to give me an idea of what they got out of the course, their thoughts and recommendations on how I could make it better,” he said. “I think that most, if not all of them, will be actively engaged in their communities in one way or another, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone run for office at some point down the road.”

Kernan said he has tried his best to fulfill his new role.

“If I didn’t get better, that’s a bad sign for me,” he said. “I think I became more comfortable as the semester wore on, and I think the students did too.”

Kernan said the best part of the whole experience was meeting Notre Dame students and continuing to involve himself in the community.

The former governor is currently involved with a group of mostly local investors in the purchase of the South Bend Silver Hawks, a professional baseball team. The team remains in South Bend after it was almost relocated to southern Illinois.

“It has been good for the city, it’s been good for the broader community. My interest in doing this was primarily in keeping this asset here,” he said. “This is home for me, I love South Bend.”

In class, Kernan said he stressed that shaping public policy does not necessarily need to be done through political office. Citizens can – and should – contribute to their communities however they can.

“I think one of the most valuable things we can learn is the responsibilities we have to the places we call home,” he said.