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viewpoint

Through the needle’s eye

| Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Three years ago this fall, I met with University President Fr. John Jenkins to discuss what I saw as an important human rights issue: the University’s contract with Coca-Cola. I was motivated by human rights violations committed by Coca-Cola’s bottlers in Colombia, which have prompted university boycotts internationally. The bottling companies, which Coca-Cola continues to approve for operations, have hired paramilitary squads to murder union leaders and abduct and torture their families in an effort to drive down the workers’ already low wages.

Seeing as how I was meeting with a priest at a University that prides itself on its commitment to social justice, I thought he would be interested in what I had to say. The reality differed somewhat from my expectations. After calling me “arrogant” for thinking I knew enough about the issue, but before kicking me out of his office, Jenkins made it clear to me that any reassessment of the Coke contract was impossible in light of the University’s relationship to Donald Keough. Former President and Chief Operating Officer of the Coca-Cola Company, Keough has long sat on the University’s board of trustees. Not to make myself appear totally innocent, I may have responded by insinuating that Jenkins cared more about a donor’s money than the lives and dignity of poor (Catholic) workers.

It was therefore with some dark humor that I read Fr. Jenkins’s remarks fawning over Donald Keough last year when Keough donated $30 million for the construction of “Jenkins Hall,” due to begin this spring. Tragically, neither the Colombian workers being whipped into line nor the small Indian farmers having their water stolen were able to field a competing donation in the President’s honor.

One thing Fr. Jenkins said has stuck with me. When I told him about the dozens of universities domestically and internationally that have cut their contracts with Coca-Cola in response to these murders, he responded, “Notre Dame isn’t like other universities.” Maybe I was just thrown off by the force of his condescension, but this confused me. When discussing football or academics, the administration brags that Notre Dame is one of the top universities in the country. But apparently when discussing human rights, we don’t compare ourselves to the riff-raff.

Notre Dame certainly isn’t the worst place for human rights. The Center for Social Concerns runs a number of programs focusing on poverty and injustice. “Catholic social teaching” is touted to the point where it’s impossible to discuss human rights on campus without it dominating the conversation. The University has even boycotted Chinese goods over labor concerns.

In its own dealings, however, the University has a long way to go. As the largest employer in the region, Notre Dame has a great deal of influence on working conditions. While maintaining an air of neutrality, the administration has long fought labor unions on its own campus. They have also stone-walled efforts to win a living wage for campus workers. As for the investments on its $9.8 billion endowment, the University does its best to fight transparency. This is understandable, given the headache chief investment officer Scott Malpass had to go through when it came out that the University had invested in HEI Hotels, which has been accused of violating labor rights to cut costs.

The University panders to rich donors and seems obsessed with growing its already extensive wealth. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is recorded as admonishing a rich man and telling him that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. For a University that claims to be founded in these beliefs, Notre Dame has been awfully kind to rich men. When the rich man in the Bible asked what he must do, Jesus responded that he must sell all his things and give the money to the poor. This passage is understandably difficult for a University that caters disproportionately to the children of the wealthy.

I invite the Notre Dame community, including my friend Fr. Jenkins, to do some self-reflection. Do we need expensive new buildings? Do we need $10 billion stockpiled in capital investments? Should a University committed to social justice be one of the richest in the world? Is there anyone else who could use those resources more? Would Jesus side with a rich executive or a poor worker? Maybe then we can reassess our position and commit ourselves to human dignity.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Will

    Great viewpoint. I disapprove of fr Jenkins more and more everyday.

  • ND Senior

    Wow, this is horrible! You’d think that the president of a prominent Catholic university would try to do a better job at upholding Catholic teaching. Accepting money that came through exploiting vulnerable workers just to get your name on a building is certainly not very Catholic. Thanks for exposing this.

  • David Kashangaki

    Thank you for challenging the University’s obsession with money, buildings and vain glory. It certainly needs to be questioned.

  • John Galt

    Firstly, why do you act surprised that a university that relies so heavily on donations might not want to upset wealthy donors? Secondly, you are completely misinterpreting the gospel passage and taking it out of context.

    • Anon

      The thrust of the passage is that being rich is an impediment to salvation. Go read the whole chapter, context doesn’t change that.

      Anyway, why do you care, “John Galt”? You’ve named yourself after an Ayn Rand character, so you’re clearly identifying with her ideology. Rand rejected Christianity, seeing it as incompatible with her ideology. Whatever else it has to say, the Bible is at least pretty clear that excess wealth is negative and everyone has a moral obligation to help the poor. The woman who made up “John Galt” knew that her ideology of the rich was incompatible with Christianity, so you probably shouldn’t be trying to reconcile them.

    • slickwill

      Why don’t you put it into context and educate us?

  • Coke Rules

    This may all be true, but have you tasted Pepsi?

  • Guy

    The “10 billion stockpiled in capital investment” earns something called interest or a return, if you will. This return goes further to fund the school than every single one of our student tuitions combined. We pay so much! Not as much as our donors…

  • Anonymous

    Having spoken with Fr. Jenkins personally numerous times, I have an extreme amount of trouble believing that the author received the treatment described in the article. I expect that from the other side of the conversation, the picture looks a bit more like a self-righteous student pointing out the sliver in someone else’s eye without noticing the beam in his own – and God knows there are enough self-righteous students at Notre Dame for this to be the case.

    • slickwill

      What exactly is the beam that you are referring to? Ad hominem attacks on a student do nothing to undermine the extent of the argument presented here. Then again, it’s easier to attack a person’s character than it is to do some due diligence about the issue in question…

    • Pi

      I understand the instinct to say “but he’s such a good guy, you must be lying” if you like someone, but it’s very unproductive. It sounds to me like you’re saying you don’t think Fr. Jenkins would ever have an ugly side and/or show his ugly side to a student, in private, with no one “important” to take him to task for being harsh. He’s human, just like everyone else. It’s entirely possible he had a bad day, or he had already gotten flack for this issue so he’s defensive about it, or his thoughts just slipped out without thinking because he was tired. The only way to dismiss this out of hand like you did is if you think it’s literally impossible for him to ever call a student arrogant or be condescending – which I find much harder to believe.

      It’s also interesting that you brought up the sliver line of the Bible. At what point is trying to enact social justice pointing out the sliver in someone else’s eye and therefore worthy of being dismissed? Should we not agitate for Coke to stop what it’s doing, because we should spend more time looking inward at the beam in our own eyes? If we see a man beating another on the street, should we hurry by because we don’t want to risk judging him since we have sins? There’s a line that needs to be defined – at some point trying to help people and be a good Christian involves trying to stop people from sinning, or stop people from allowing those sins to happen. Where is that line? You seem to see it very clearly, so show it to us.

  • Anonymous

    Do we need new buildings? Is the author serious? I can think of several buildings already standing that have no place at a university of such prestige. Continued reinvestment is essential to maintain Notre Dame’s standing as a world-class university that is in a position to even consider such social problems at all.

    • Goat

      lol

  • Anonymous Lawyer

    Missing from the conversation is the fact that the Colombian plaintiffs brought suit in the United States against Coca-Cola and it’s Colombian bottlers and lost on all counts. Sinaltrainal v Coca-Cola, 578 F3rd 1252 (11th Cir. 2009) http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-11th-circuit/1444530.html.

    Here’s the summary of the Eleventh Circuit’s dismissal of the case: “Plaintiffs’ complaint outline a litany of unfortunate events occurring in a country that Plaintiffs describe as experiencing ongoing civil unrest and lacking a robust legal system. Nevertheless, … Plaintiffs fail to sufficiently plead factual allegations to connect the paramilitary forces, who perpetrated the wrongful acts, with the Colombian government. Furthermore, … Plaintiffs fail to sufficiently plead allegations to connect the … Defendants to actionable torture….”