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Speaking up

Megan Doyle | Friday, August 31, 2012

Editor’s Note: This story is the second 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.

The dorms were deserted. The sun shone on an empty quad.

But this summer, University President Fr. John Jenkins and his administration still showed up for work.

They restructured the University budget and worked toward the school’s next 10-year strategic plan, which will be proposed in 2013. They planned events for this year’s Forum, dedicated in the midst of an election year to an open discussion of American democracy and political life. They filed a lawsuit against the federal government.

For Notre Dame’s president, this work is about more than the day-to-day operations of a top university. It’s about being part of a conversation.

“I think my deepest conviction is that we have to find a way to talk to one another in ways that are respectful and reasoned. … If I care about anything, if I have a voice for anything, it’s to find a way to give the past disrespectful, dishonest, acrimonious discussion [direction] toward constructive debate that is absolutely essential in a democracy,” Jenkins said.

As the nation debates election issues and healthcare requirements, Jenkins has spoken up on behalf of Notre Dame.

“We have a distinctive and a unique role in American life, and not only Catholic life but American life,” Jenkins said.

After a summer of planning, Jenkins announced the topic for this year’s Forum – “A More Perfect Union,” a discussion of American democracy and the political system.

The Forum discussions can be a tool to avoid cynicism during an election season, Jenkins said. He encouraged students to avoid “temptations to check out” and instead add their voices to reasoned debate.

“I think Notre Dame students tend to be a thoughtful group and people of conviction, maybe not firebrands on one or another issue, but I think they can provide a thoughtful voice,” Jenkins said.

The first Forum event of the year will be held Tuesday. Prominent leaders in the Christian and Jewish faiths will discuss the role of faith in political life in a panel discussion titled, “Conviction and Compromise: Being a Person of Faith in a Liberal Democracy.”

Jenkins, a member of the Commission on Presidential Debate, said he hopes to see “reasoned and respectful” debate develop both at Notre Dame and nationwide.

“It’s been a wonderful experience because it’s a committee composed of members, people from different political views,” he said. “It’s been tremendously inspiring to see them deliberate and to try to put on a reasoned debate, a fruitful debate, in this country.

“Students, get involved. Get involved in a way that makes our political dialogue in this country more constructive, reasoned, [one that] better serves the common good of the nation.”

This summer, Jenkins also added Notre Dame’s voice to the ongoing conversation about the Affordable Care Act when the University filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The lawsuit, filed in May, challenged the constitutionality of the mandate that requires religious organizations to provide contraceptives as part of their minimum health insurance policies.

“The fundamental issue for us is not the provision of contraceptives coverage,” Jenkins said. “The fundamental issue is the limit of the power of government against religious organizations in this country.”

Jenkins said the University sent a public comment to the HHS in June to describe two or three alternatives to the current mandate.

“Because there are alternatives, I don’t think the government has a compelling interest to force religious organizations,” Jenkins said. “That’s why we’re doing this lawsuit, to retain this fundamental commitment to take all reasonable steps to allow all religious organizations, religious institutions, the freedom to practice their religion in ways they see fit.”

The federal government has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but Jenkins said he feels the University’s case will be successful as it moves slowly through the legal system.

“I saw a few headlines after we filed, ‘Catholic bishops, Notre Dame and 62 other institutions file lawsuit,'” Jenkins said. “That Notre Dame is picked out, and I don’t say this with arrogance, but it just shows I think people look to us for leadership on these issues. If I didn’t feel it was a fundamental issue, an issue of the limits of government as against religious organizations, I wouldn’t have done this.”
As the administration worked this summer, a new face joined the members of the Main Building. Matt Storin, former editor of The Boston Globe and former associate vice president for news and information at the University, returned to Notre Dame in July to occupy a new position – chief communications executive.
“I’ve heard this again and again, Notre Dame is a hidden jewel,” Jenkins said. “[New faculty are] so impressed and surprised by the quality of our education and the quality of our research. That’s good news on one hand, but it’s bad news. It shouldn’t be a surprise. … People just don’t know how good we are, and that’s our failure to tell the story of Notre Dame.”
Jenkins said Storin will be responsible for helping the University’s communications reach a wider audience to attract new faculty to the school and promote Notre Dame research.
“So how do we get that message out, how do we engage with the media, how do we tell our story?” Jenkins said. “Matt’s job is to kind of coordinate this and give us a compound strategy so we can be effective.”
Storin will also help guide the communications office during controversial moments for Notre Dame in the media, Jenkins said.
“I’m not trying to make us controversy-free,” Jenkins said. “But we do want to communicate effectively in the midst of controversies what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, so that is a very important part of Matt Storin’s job and our job here at Notre Dame.”
In the year ahead, Jenkins’ office will continue to be busy. In 2013, the president will proposea new strategic plan for all colleges and departments at the University. The plan is rewritten every 10 years.
Jenkins said the University is stronger “in just about every measure” than when the last strategic plan took effect 10 years ago.
“I believe Notre Dame is poised at this time in its history to make some major advances in important areas. … We can’t be complacent, but we’re in a solid position.”