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A fresh look’

Megan Doyle | Thursday, August 30, 2012

Editor’s Note: This story is the first installment in a two-part series on Jenkins’ voice in these ongoing conversations in the Notre Dame community. This series is also the first of three similar “From the Office of the President” series on the Notre Dame presidency to appear in coming weeks.

God. Country. Notre Dame.

For students here, those three words are a mantra, a proud refrain.

For University President Fr. John Jenkins, those three words are his entire life.

“As president of Notre Dame, I live in three worlds,” Jenkins said. “One is the world of higher education, one is the world of Catholicism and religion and the other is the world of our nation, the United States of America.”

The upcoming year will be an especially poignant cross of those three worlds for Jenkins, who began his presidency in 2005.

The University, as one of the premier Catholic colleges in the nation, is challenging the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as an overstep of the government’s rights against religious organizations.

The beginning of the school year will be followed within months by a presidential election, as well as state and local elections around the nation.

2013 will see the implementation of a new strategic plan for the University, and administrators and students continue to discuss the ways in which the school will – and will not -address sexual orientation in its policies and ideals.

In an interview with The Observer to begin the 2012-13 school year, Jenkins addressed these issues and others in depth. As the leader in many conversations that will define this upcoming year, his words were soft-spoken but sincere.

“Any issue that’s controversial in the Catholic world or in the university world becomes more prominent at Notre Dame,” Jenkins said. “I believe that if we don’t have controversies at a university, [we're] failing. Universities are about vigorous discussion of important issues.”

One issue under heated debate among students and administrators in the past year has been the issue of sexual orientation at Notre Dame. Following public requests from students and faculty asking the University to improve inclusion of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community, the school announced last spring it would not add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination clause.

“At Notre Dame, we do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Jenkins said. “That’s a fundamental thing, but that’s not the only thing. The Spirit of Inclusion, which was approved by the Board of Fellows, higher than me, the highest level of the University, says that not only don’t we discriminate, but we want to be a place, an environment, where people feel – of same-sex orientation, anything else – feel respected, supported, fully involved in this community.”

The clause primarily addresses discrimination against prospective students and employees in areas such as admissions, employment, scholarships and athletics. The current clause states the University “does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, veteran status or age.”

What the University includes in the non-discrimination clause are “all and only” those categories required by federal law, Jenkins said. Other schools that include sexual orientation in a similar policy usually do so because they are required by state or local ordinance.

“If Notre Dame voluntarily took this on, our fear is that it would be seen as a broader and stronger commitment with regard to same-sex orientation that may undermine our ability to live in accordance with the Catholic teaching because we distinguish between orientation and action,” Jenkins said.

As a prominent Catholic university, Notre Dame could also become the target of high-publicity lawsuits related to the clause, Jenkins said.

“I don’t believe that step [of including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause] would achieve the goal of creating an environment of welcome, of support,” Jenkins said. “I fear that it would tend to be divisive. So I am absolutely committed to try to create that environment, but I think there are other ways to do that.”

Jenkins said the community has made progress in past years by embracing the Spirit of Inclusion, which states Notre Dame welcomes its LGBTQ community and seeks to create an environment in which “none are strangers and all may flourish.” The University has also established the Core Council for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Students, a group of administrators and students that advises the Vice President for Student Affairs on LGBTQ needs.

“The non-discrimination clause, I know that’s an issue that people are quite concerned about,” Jenkins said. “But I don’t believe that will achieve the end that is most important.”

Instead, Jenkins also emphasized the University’s discriminatory harassment policy, which is designed to protect current students and employees from discrimination and harassment for any reason.

“In our academic articles for faculty for promotion and tenure, there’s a clause in there about the unacceptability of bias that includes same-sex orientation or any other quality where people feel they’ve received bias,” he said. “And just I want to say as president, we don’t tolerate discrimination. If people feel they are discriminated against, use the hotline. Go to the appropriate authority. Let us know, and we’ll address it.”

Developing a welcoming culture on campus needs to go beyond the administrative level, Jenkins said.

“I think so much of this is about climate, and it’s not what I’m, what the president, is doing in his office,” Jenkins said. “It’s about what all of us are doing on campus. I think that’s extremely important, and that’s something we work on with hall staff, that’s something we work on with our Student Affairs personnel. … We just have to keep working on it.”

The Office of Student Affairs and its newly-appointed Vice President Erin Hoffman Harding are currently reviewing a proposal to create an official gay-straight alliance (GSA) at Notre Dame. AllianceND, currently campus’s unofficial GSA, applied for official club status in February.

“Are there better structures to achieve our ends?” Jenkins said. “I think it’s time for a fresh look.”

Tomorrow: Jenkins on the University’s lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services, the upcoming presidential election and more.