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Jenkins says ND mission is global in nature

Maddie Hanna | Friday, January 19, 2007

University President Father John Jenkins didn’t go to Uganda just to help people.

First, he went to learn – and while he sees aiding a country that faces tremendous challenges as both an opportunity and an obligation, he says it takes a certain approach.

“It is very important not to come to a place like Uganda with a condescending attitude, that, you know, ‘We’re going to help you get back up’ – there’s a sort of hidden arrogance in that that I think is wholly unhelpful, and it’s insulting to the people of Uganda,” he said Thursday.

Jenkins arrived in Uganda two weeks ago, accompanied by Executive Assistant to the President Frances Shavers, Associate Vice President for Marketing Communication Todd Woodward, Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative (NDMDI) Director Father Bob Dowd, NDMDI Assistant Director Tim Lyden, Africana Studies department chair Richard Pierce and sophomore Tess Bone.

The trip was significant in a number of ways, Jenkins said. Besides the desire to explore another culture, there was the goal to connect with the universal Church – two ideas that Jenkins called “central to the core mission of Notre Dame” and key to his presidency.

There was also, of course, the purpose that is probably most associated with the weeklong trip – meeting the people of Nindye, who Notre Dame will work with through the Millennium Villages Project, founded by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs.

“[Uganda] is a poor country, education is less than what it should be, diseases that are easily preventable people die from in large numbers,” Jenkins said, “and the sense of justice and fairness – but also the sense of Christian charity – requires that, in the way that we can, we strive to help people … to rise out of poverty enough to have a dignified life.”

What’s important to realize, Jenkins said, is that Notre Dame isn’t just pouring dollars on Nindye – it’s a partnership. And partnerships work both ways.

“I think we need to help in what ways we can … to assist [the villagers],” Jenkins said. “I do believe that in that process, we will be the beneficiaries as much as they are. Because we will learn about their culture, we will work with them and form relationships that will enrich our lives as much as it enriches their lives.”

While Notre Dame’s involvement with the Millennium Villages Project is unprecedented, the trip itself wasn’t. After all, Notre Dame presidents are frequent travelers.

Global connections

University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh has been “all over” Africa.

He visited Uganda in 1958, “before Holy Cross got there,” he said. Those priests arrived years later, and since then, more Holy Cross priests and teachers have gone to the region.

“We’re not an isolated place in northern Indiana, but we’re a Catholic institution interested in the whole world,” Hesburgh said, echoing one of Jenkins’ reasons for the trip. “We pick and choose the places where we can have an influence educationally.”

Hesburgh’s successor, University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy, has also taken multiple trips to Africa.

“Notre Dame’s an international university, and I think everyone who’s part of it needs to think globally,” Malloy said.

Malloy, who has been to Cameroon, South Africa, Madagascar and Uganda, said he was “delighted” to hear of Jenkins’ recent trip.

And while both Hesburgh and Malloy noted that Notre Dame presidents are expected to see the world, they recognized the importance of this particular trip.

“It’s an important step. When you’re president of Notre Dame, it’s important you have firsthand knowledge of the places where you choose [to help],” Hesburgh said. “And we’ve been doing that for years … especially in Chile [and] Bangladesh.”

In the past, Notre Dame has helped schools in those two countries, he said. Hesburgh believes the educational approach to providing aid – like the idea behind Millennium Villages Project – is the one a university should take.

“Good ideas have to be institutionalized, and there’s no better way of doing it than creating a learning center that will exist and grow and be a constant help to an emerging area,” he said.

Catholic character

Another way Jenkins grew to know the Ugandans was not through their culture, but through their religion.

While the Notre Dame group did meet those at the forefront of the Ugandan Catholic Church – not unlike last January’s trip to Rome, where Jenkins and University Trustees built on relationships with Vatican leaders – Jenkins emphasized the value in less official encounters.

“We went to parishes in Uganda, just ordinary, faithful people,” he said. “You do feel a bond with them – it’s a common faith, common commitments, that brings you close to one another. The whole idea of the Mass, and the Eucharist, is formative of a community. … I think all of that is part of this richness of community that extends across cultures, across languages, across countries, to a deeper unity and a deeper solidarity with one another.

“I think that’s part of what we believe here at Notre Dame, and that’s why the struggles of people in Uganda are our struggles, their joys are our joys. And it’s important always to remain aware of that.”

Enriching a community

Members of the Notre Dame community will travel to Uganda again, but apart from Lyden – who’s slated to go back in February – definite plans haven’t been made, Jenkins said.

He said there would be research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.

“I think it’s a great educational opportunity for our students, and again, it would be a limited number of people, but … I think there are possibilities there,” Jenkins said.

The opportunity provided by Nindye village isn’t directly related to Provost Thomas Burish’s initiative announced last fall to increase research at the University, Jenkins said, but the two are intertwined.

“I think Tom Burish’s emphasis is more focused on certain areas, that our faculty do research on, but it’s all part of the same plan – that is, Notre Dame is a place where people ask questions and try to answer them in intelligent and creative ways,” Jenkins said, “And so all that is part of research.”

It will take a few years to see if Notre Dame’s involvement in Uganda is successful, and Jenkins knows that.

“I think that there’s some criticism that [Millennium Villages Project] is too optimistic,” he said. “It is true that development programs have been undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa for many years, and many of them just haven’t succeeded. So people are skeptical about their success, and it’s yet to be seen whether this village can be self-sufficient, but we’ll see.

“I just think the alternative, doing nothing, is not acceptable. And I’m sure there are other criticisms, but if someone has a better idea, let’s hear it. I haven’t heard a better idea. So that’s why we’re happy to be involved in this,” he said.

As for Jenkins, more trips are in the works. This semester, the president plans to visit multiple U.S. cities, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, as well as Jerusalem this May.

“I think of my job both kind of on campus and off campus, and I think Notre Dame has a job obviously to educate the students … but it also has an obligation to interact with the world,” he said.

Like his predecessors, Jenkins hopes those interactions will benefit the entire Notre Dame community.

“[Uganda] really was an enriching trip,” he said, “and I have great hopes it will enrich this community in the future.”