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Jenkins withdraws invitation to meet after group makes requests

Aaron Steiner | Friday, April 17, 2009

University President Fr. John Jenkins formally extended an invitation to meet with a student coalition group, ND Response, which has voiced concerns about the invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at Commencement, but Jenkins declined to meet with the group after they made several specific requests in a reply to his invitation.

According to a press release from the student group, ND Response asked Jenkins to affirm the University’s commitment to pro-life causes before they met, including requests to make a public “promise” not to allow practices offensive to the pro-life cause and appoint a pro-life ombudsperson.

University spokesman Dennis Brown said Jenkins withdrew his invitation to meet with the group because “they issued a set of demands as a precondition to meeting.”

The group also requested Jenkins change the terms of the meeting in their reply, namely that it be open to all coalition members and that a transcript and video of the meeting be made available after its conclusion. Jenkins originally requested that the meeting be private and limited to 25 students, Brown said, in order to make the meeting “more productive.”

Mary Daly, a leader within ND Response and the author of the reply to Jenkins’ invitation, said that the terms they set forth in their response to Jenkins may have been misinterpreted.

Brown told The Observer that the administration “did not think it was appropriate to respond … with a set of demands as preconditions to meet.”

Daly said the letter did not use the words “demand” or “precondition,” and stated the misunderstanding “might just be a problem of language.”

The letter ND Response sent to Jenkins read: “[W]e have certain requests that we respectfully make of you in advance of any meeting with you.”

Also in the letter, the group asked, “that you (Jenkins) promise to take the following actions,” followed by two requests.

The first was that the administration “publicly makes the institutional and permanent promise that the University of Notre Dame will not engage in, promote or allow practices offensive to life,” noting research initiatives.

The second was the University “will appoint a pro-life ombudsperson at the level of associate provost to ensure that appropriate attention is paid to life issues at the beginning of life in both teaching and research.”

Daly said she was “sorry” that the letter’s requests were interpreted as preconditions to meeting.

“They were respectful requests, and that’s how we wanted them to be read, not as demands at all,” she said. “It was our intention to state things that we hoped to discuss.”

Brown earlier told The Observer Jenkins would be “happy to discuss” the requests made in the letter, but indicated that they were interpreted as preconditions.

ND Response is still open to meeting with Jenkins, according to Daly. Brown said any further discussion about meetings between the Jenkins and the group would be private.

The original invitation was extended “in the spirit of open dialogue to talk about this issue,” Brown said.

“[Fr. Jenkins] wanted to hear face to face from the students their concerns and to be able to in turn speak with them about why he made the invitation,” Brown said.

Daly said she was “pleasantly surprised” when she, on behalf of the coalition, first received Jenkins’ invitation to meet.

She said the requests set forth in her reply to the invitation were made “so we could have a confirmation from Fr. Jenkins and the administration” of their commitment to the University’s Catholic mission and the pro-life cause, which Daly said stems from that mission.

Daly said the first request – a public promise not to allow practices offensive to life – would “be a reaffirmation of what’s already there,” referring to the University’s Catholic mission.

The second request – the appointment of a pro-life ombudsperson – stemmed from Daly’s belief that the majority of pro-life initiatives on campus are not initiated by the administration. Daly compared creating such a position to the emphasis the University put on sustainability by creating a dedicated office for that issue.

“Seeing as there’s the sexual assault ombudsperson, and the Office of Sustainability, … we [would like] a designated person or role that paid attention to these specific issues,” Daly said.

Daly said all the requests included in the letter were meant to be “constructive and positive.”

ND Response, which stated “we pledge ourselves to acts of witness” in an earlier press release, has organized other activities including a Prayer Rally, which took place on April 5, and an ongoing campaign to pray one million rosaries “for a conversion of heart for President Obama.”

The group is also promoting the first March for Life on Notre Dame’s campus, which takes place today beginning at 6 p.m. at the Grotto. The event is sponsored by Notre Dame Right to Life and the campus Knights of Columbus council.

According to organizer Jeff Tisak, Charles Rice, professor emeritus of the Notre Dame Law School, will speak at the event.