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Jenkins can take a stand

Staff Editorial | Friday, October 5, 2007

Fifty years ago, a young priest at the helm of a growing University took a stand.

Notre Dame President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh claimed his seat on the inaugural United States Commission on Civil Rights. He would serve on the Commission for 15 years, acting as a public face for both the University and the fight for civil equality for all Americans.

Hesburgh’s action, though political, was an essentially moral stand. On an issue that was sadly all too controversial, he stood by the courage of his convictions – and made his views known.

Half a century later, another young priest is at the helm of Notre Dame – now a nationally ranked school that seeks to be the greatest Catholic university in the world. During his first year as president, University President Father John Jenkins prompted extensive debates about the balance of academic freedom and Catholic identity at the University. He has proved willing and able to support serious consideration of difficult issues that are crucial to this University’s future.

But great leaders are more than mere moderators; they themselves must take stands.

Jenkins’ position is precarious. His job will become much more difficult if he alienates any members of the University community, and he often treads lightly on controversial issues.

On Monday, Notre Dame will welcome four of this country’s most visible leaders on the issue of immigration. The group represents very different sides of the debate. Notre Dame’s current television ad claims the University is “fighting for immigration reform.” But it is unclear what this commitment to immigration reform means. Social attitudes on this campus are subject to the dual influence of Catholic social teaching and a vocal conservative population.

The topic of immigration reform is sure to generate strong and opposing responses from members of the University community – like it has in the nation as a whole. Though the University may not want to take a controversial stand because of marketing concerns, it must ultimately take such stances to legitimize its claim as a leader on issues both moral and intellectual.

Students and faculty who want the University to continue to improve must support the idea of having a president willing to take a stand on moral issues, regardless of what those positions are.

That doesn’t mean disagreements should be swept under the rug; it means the community should truly support freedom of opinion and respect a leader who puts his name on the line for controversial, but important, issues.

To become a great leader – and cement Notre Dame’s position as a truly elite university – Jenkins must push himself to the forefront of public consciousness on the moral issues of our day, even in the face of opposition from within and outside the University community.

In the hot racial tensions of the 1950s, Hesburgh forged for himself a name as one of the great 20th century Americans. No one is asking Jenkins to be Hesburgh – a nearly impossible task – but the University’s best interest is to have a nationally known and well-respected president with a history of displaying his strong moral fortitude. Jenkins can be that president.