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Make ‘conversation’ real

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, January 27, 2006

He didn’t owe us this.

Father John Jenkins doesn’t need – and doesn’t pretend to seek – majority approval for his stance on academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame. Jenkins earned the consensus he needed to make decisions on April 30, 2004, the day that the Board of Trustees elected him University president.

With the trustees’ mandate, the philosopher-priest from Omaha, Neb. could have steered Notre Dame by his will alone.

But this week, in a series of addresses constituting his first major assertion of presidential leadership since he took office on July 1, 2005, Jenkins made a remarkable choice. In opening a University-wide discussion on the complex relationship between Catholic identity and academic freedom, the new president made known his intent to seek input from the Notre Dame community before making decisions of this scale – ostensibly because he truly cares what faculty, students and alumni think.

Whether or not those intentions are authentic – his requests for feedback could merely serve to soften a blow to either Catholicism or academia as a result of a decision that has been long-settled in his mind – Jenkins deserves credit for his bravery in asserting himself so boldly, so alone.

Facing skeptical and even hostile faculty and student audiences, Notre Dame’s 17th president proved he is capable of and confident when commanding attention and establishing authority. If there had been any remaining doubt he’d emerged from predecessor Father Edward “Monk” Malloy’s 6-foot-4 shadow, Jenkins erased it by his address’ third paragraph. Now – with his authority cemented and his request for feedback widely praised – Jenkins must erase all hints he has prematurely made up his mind.

What Notre Dame deserves from Jenkins

One way for him to do so is to supplement his pledge to read all correspondence he receives with another, more interactive mode of receiving feedback – since a legitimate, productive exchange of views doesn’t just move in one direction.

The empty phrase “I appreciate your comment” left the president’s lips far too often during the faculty question-and-answer session Monday. Tuesday’s more meaningful interaction with students – “I like the give and take,” Jenkins told The Observer afterward – was a vast improvement, but the session’s truncated time allotment and pre-prescribed format still ensured it stopped well short of the debate’s potential. Reading letters and e-mails is a good start – and is a decision paved with the right intentions – but Jenkins also needs to talk face-to-face with people who feel passionately on both sides of the academic freedom issue to truly gauge the pulse of Notre Dame.

What’s needed, therefore, is a series of at least five open forums offering sit-down meetings with the president and his administrative circle, in alternate small- and large-group settings ranging from dorms to the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts. The confident president speaking on stage Monday and Tuesday has no excuse to hide behind a computer screen.

Jenkins’ busy schedule also does not justify the absence of such forums. He said he chose to examine the issue of academic freedom and Catholic character out of a sense of duty to the University. Now it’s his duty to listen thoroughly, not by cleaning out his inbox but by holding open forums where opinions can be voiced. Private meetings with select groups of students and faculty are another step Jenkins should consider. Students victimized by sexual violence who credit “The Vagina Monologues” with their recovery deserve to witness their president’s reaction as they tell him their painful stories. Gay and lesbian students who assume the University is ashamed of them when Jenkins insists on changing the title of the Queer Film Festival deserve to explain to him the snub’s significance. And students who have no connection to either “The Vagina Monologues” or the former Queer Film Festival – but have their own unique and valid reasons to feel reassured, dismayed or both by the events’ presence on campus – deserve the president’s ear amidst the partisan shouting.

Above all, before announcing a decision in favor of or against events he deems inconsistent with Catholic values, Jenkins should make time to actually attend them. Reading a play “a couple times” and disliking its content doesn’t begin to compare with witnessing an emotion- and honesty-infused performance. So go see “The Vagina Monologues,” Father – surely organizers would reserve you a front-row seat in DeBartolo 101.

Jenkins cannot claim to make an informed decision without seeing the “Monologues” and the film festival this February – and he cannot claim to initiate a University “conversation” about academic freedom and Catholic character without meaningfully participating in it.

What Jenkins deserves from Notre Dame

Students and faculty must also uphold their part of the bargain. Tuesday’s student question-and-answer session was an excellent example of the student body’s potential to be at once courteous and brave.

This is not an occasion to be apathetic. Jenkins’ eventual decision represents much more than whether or not the girl down the hall will be selling tickets for her performance in “The Vagina Monologues,” or whether a roommate will need to explain to his grandparents why the words “Queer” and “Festival” once appeared in the title of an academic event at Notre Dame. The outcome of the academic freedom and Catholic character debate could very well determine what – five, 10, 20, 50 years down the road – our Notre Dame diplomas will represent.

Everyone associated with the University has a stake in this decision. And since today’s students and faculty are fortunate enough to be here for the conversation, it is their duty to fight for their vision of Notre Dame to be achieved.

We are Notre Dame, and we must engage with Jenkins deeply, respectfully and fearlessly in the “conversation” about what Notre Dame will become.