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Transitions at the top

Claire Heininger | Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Most colleges average more presidents per decade than Notre Dame has had in the last half-century.

President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh headed the University for 35 years. Outgoing President Father Edward Malloy served for 18. Together, the pair oversaw Notre Dame’s 53-year rise from an all-male, chiefly Midwestern school known for its crucifixes and quarterbacks to a more diverse, world-renowned institution with a formidable and complex reputation.

From the outside, presidential transitions at Notre Dame are as momentous as they are rare. But from the inside, a transition is just another aspect in the mission of the University – and of the men who lead it.

“It’s like any other president, like the president of a corporation or president of the United States,” Hesburgh said. “Every president brings in new ideas, but they aren’t independent of the history or the development of the institution he presides over.”

Following a legend

During the transition from the renowned Hesburgh to the then-relatively unknown Malloy in 1986-87, one question kept surfacing.

“I used to get asked all the time, ‘Were you intimidated to take over for a legend?'” Malloy said. “And I went, ‘No.’

“Now, part of it may have been that I felt the University was in good shape. Part of it was I had a degree of self-confidence that if I had been chosen [as the next president], I would do the best I could, and I would just count on it working out. Since I have my background in competitive athletics, I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. I’ve never been cowed by things like that.”

The challenge was steep. Hesburgh had revolutionized Notre Dame, creating a lay Board of Trustees, bringing women to the University, gaining academic and athletic regard – all the while earning the respect of priests and U.S. presidents alike.

“I think all of us leave a legacy, especially if you have been around for a long time, but I think a new president brings in new ideas, new dreams, new visions,” Hesburgh said. “When Father Malloy took over I said, ‘Look, I did what I thought I could do, now you do what you think you can do to keep the University improving. If I can ever give you advice I’m around to do it, but I don’t expect the phone to ring off the hook because you have to run your own show.'”

That phone rang only “occasionally” as Malloy’s tenure began, Hesburgh said. And as the new president cultivated his confidence and refined his leadership style, the former president was pleased with what he saw.

“You can’t ask more of a leader than to have a vision and to work towards it,” Hesburgh said. “You also try to support the current leadership and don’t expect it to be the same as yours – it never is – but to back the person that follows you up.”

Hesburgh’s support wasn’t always the most visible – to the best of his ability, the legend stayed true to his promise to “get out of the way” – but Malloy knew it was there. And though he sought other past Notre Dame presidents for advice during his transition into office, he credits his immediate predecessor with both paving the way for his professional leadership and setting a more specific personal example.

“He would’ve been the closest thing to a model because in a sense, the only president I knew at Notre Dame was Father Hesburgh,” Malloy said. “I think the transition went very smoothly … and 18 years later … all I can say is positive things about Father Hesburgh because he was so good to me and has been all the way.”

Learning the ropes

Notre Dame has sustained remarkable growth during Malloy’s presidency, from rapidly-climbing SAT scores to a steadily-sprawling campus. But now that it is his turn to carry on the legacy, University President-elect Father John Jenkins knows he can’t afford to focus on the progress of the presidents who came before him.

“It’s humbling to take on this job. It’s humbling to follow people who have accomplished as much as Father Hesburgh and Father Malloy. I recognize that,” Jenkins said. “[But] if you’re always thinking, ‘Oh, somebody before me is really great, and I can’t measure up,’ you’re not going to do a good job.

“[You] just do the best you can. And that’s what I’m going to do every day and try to sleep well at night.”

Jenkins acknowledged that like “anything in life,” it would be impossible for him to be fully prepared to assume the presidency. That hasn’t stopped him from taking full advantage of his 14-month transition period, however, by spending time visiting Board of Trustees members and past presidents and interacting with Malloy. The president-elect also attended a “very valuable” workshop last summer for new presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, Malloy said.

“We not only [taught] the kind of ‘theory’ [of running a Catholic institution],” said Malloy, who, along with Provost Nathan Hatch, directed the sessions, “but also a lot of sitting presidents shared their experience and what they had learned along the way. So [Jenkins] has done that … I think that he’s used his time well.”

As that time ticks down, the responsibility of ensuring a successful beginning to the Jenkins era falls almost as much on Malloy as it does on his successor.

“I would feel terrible if things didn’t go well and if we weren’t continuing to make progress, because that’s what we were trying to set up the stage for, to be better in all the ways that are most important,” Malloy said. “Father Hesburgh did that for me, and I’ve tried to do that for Father Jenkins, and I’m going to be a great fan and supporter and advocate of his leadership and where the University’s going to go from here.”

The big picture

On July 1, the number of men who have headed Notre Dame in the last 53 years will grow to three. The number of officially complete presidential transitions will become two. But there will still be one constant – a University mission that exists apart from the priest sitting in the president’s office.

“Notre Dame is bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than any individual,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just me or what I think, or you and what you think – it’s a tradition that is bigger than that, and I firmly believe that this place is guided by God’s providence and God’s designs, and we try to make ourselves instruments of that.

“… I firmly believe in the mission of Notre Dame and its importance for the world, not because of anything I bring, but because of what the place is and the people involved,” he said. “I think it’s got a wonderful past, but its best years lie ahead.”