The new father of Notre Dame

Author: Arts and Letters

Scholar hopes to further diversify the university without straying too far from its Catholic mission p. SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The campus chapel is empty and silent, just how Rev. John Jenkins hoped it would be.

Away from the bustle of 11,500 students, from the messages left by passionate alumni, and from meetings about fundraising and football, Jenkins kneels to pray at 9:30p.m. A half-hour later, he walks to his apartment in the graduate student complex to celebrate mass—alone.

In these private moments, Jenkins is anything but the image of a University of Notre Dame president.

Whether he’s on a 5-mile early morning run, reading in his office on a Sunday afternoon or concentrating on an operatic aria, Jenkins re-energizes and focuses best when he’s alone.

But two months into his presidency at Notre Dame, the baby-faced 51-year-old from Omaha has quickly learned he will have to sacrifice that time to be a national showman, fundraiser and perhaps the biggest defender of Catholic higher education in the country. He will shake hands and ask for money. He will be asked to comment publicly about ethical concerns and the church. He will be praised—and blamed—for the football team’s performance.

As Jenkins’ two-day inauguration begins Thursday, losing solitude is hardly the most difficult challenge ahead for the philosopher, scholar and priest.

At the start of the 21st Century, Notre Dame has a rare religious character that may be difficult to maintain because “the world has become both increasingly secular and more radically religious,” Jenkins plans to say in his inaugural speech. Notre Dame students are required to take philosophy and theology classes and live in single-sex dorms. Every residence hall has a chapel; students light prayer candles before final exams; and a grassy area of campus is referred to as “God Quad.”

Jenkins wants the campus to be welcoming to all students and faculty. But he doesn’t foresee a time when the university supports a club for gay and lesbian students or a pro-abortion rights rally, and protests surrounded last year’s decision to host a Queer Film Festival.

He plans to push his deans to recruit more diverse faculty members. That will be a challenge for a university where, of the 357 full professors, only one is African-American and 17 are Hispanic, a ratio that improves slightly when considering all faculty members. Women make up about 11 percent of the full faculty members, and 53 percent of the total faculty identify themselves as Catholic.

Only the third president of the South Bend university in the past half-century, Jenkins follows priests who took Notre Dame from an all-male school focused almost exclusively on undergraduate teaching to a strong research university with a $3.4 billion endowment and a freshman class that graduated, on average, in the top 6 percent of their high school classes.

Focus on societal issues

At Jenkins’ inaugural address Friday, at which he intends to discuss his vision for the university, Jenkins is expected to tell of his goal to make Notre Dame a world center of thought and debate on societal issues, including the ethical implications of scientific advancements and society’s response to poverty.

Jenkins, known as Father John on campus, said he believes that Notre Dame students and faculty also should address issues of religious divisions and conflicts, and failures and challenges within the Catholic Church. To lead these discussions on faith, society and academics, he plans to recruit top, diverse scholars in philosophy, sociology and other social sciences.

He will begin the debate by hosting a forum Thursday titled “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World,” which will bring together a Catholic cardinal from Honduras, the imam of New York City’s largest mosque, a former member of Israel’s parliament, and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Jenkins plans to make the forum an annual event.

During Friday’s speech, he also will outline his goal for more undergraduates to conduct original research, and for more of Notre Dame’s graduate programs to move into the top tier in the nation.

“In all of American higher education, Notre Dame has a distinct position. It aspires to be, and is, among the leading universities … It is at the same time the only one with religious character, with all respects to our friends at Boston College and Georgetown,” he said, referring to the more liberal Jesuit schools. “The inertia is always to be like everyone else. To be different, you have to chart a course and have a clear idea about where you want to go.”

Long influenced by religion

Jenkins’ course always has been influenced by religion. For his first 30 years, until he attended Oxford University, he studied only in Catholic schools—from St. Pius X Elementary School in Omaha to Notre Dame in South Bend. The third oldest of a dozen children, Jenkins and his family prayed together in the family room every night before they went to bed. Each child was encouraged to add his or her own special prayers.

Jenkins’ parents, Harry and Helen, required that their children work—to help the family financially and to instill a work ethic. Many of the children attended Creighton University tuition-free, because Harry Jenkins, a gastroenterologist, served on the faculty of the medical school. Those who chose another school were expected to earn half their tuition.

To do so, Jenkins worked at a meatpacking plant, where he clipped the hooves off cattle and steamed the parts to remove the hair. He then packaged them to ship to companies to make soup or other food. He said the job made him appreciate the opportunity of a college education.

Although he was a quiet, responsible child who packed a school lunch without fail, he also had fun, family members said. He played the electric guitar with friends in the neighborhood and was voted prom king by his high school classmates at Creighton Preparatory high school, where he was a member of the swim and soccer teams.

“If I put my hand on the Bible, I would tell you I never, ever, ever remember him not doing his job at home,” his mother said.

Jenkins became interested in reading and studying in high school, she said, after being a mediocre elementary and middle school student who earned mostly Bs and Cs. In one of those lifetime ironies, the grade school named him one of its outstanding graduates.

Growing up in a tight-knit Catholic neighborhood, Jenkins was drawn to the sense of community he felt when he joined Notre Dame as a transfer student from Creighton University during his sophomore year. Working from a favorite study carrel on the library’s fourth floor, Jenkins studied philosophy and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Not until after he graduated from Notre Dame, and after a difficult breakup with a girlfriend, did he seriously consider joining the priesthood.

He thought about his future as he attended daily mass at the campus’ Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

“At the time, perhaps this is over-dramatic, the question was: `What would I die for? What would be so important to me that I would die for it?’ That question rolled around in my mind at the time and it led me to think about faith and service and led me to the priesthood,” he said.

He was ordained a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1983 and earned two degrees in philosophy, including a doctoral degree, from Oxford University in 1989. He then returned to Notre Dame to teach medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion until he began working in the university’s administration in 2000. He was elected president by the board of trustees in 2004, a position that must be held by a Holy Cross priest, and began the job July 1.

Jenkins listens more than he issues orders, say colleagues, friends and family. During a recent day of meetings, he looked directly at each person and listened as they spoke—from the athletic director to the provost to student journalists. He nodded, his arms often crossed, as the visitors to his office shared their ideas and concerns. He offered suggestions on rare occasions, advice he took from General Electric chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who told him, “Once the boss speaks, it’s over. If you don’t speak, you let people generate the ideas,” Jenkins recalled.

The adjective most often used to describe him is “human.” He listens to everything from J.S. Bach to Bob Dylan and Norah Jones on an iPod when traveling, and hooks up the portable player to a small stereo when he’s home. When he cooks, he uses a basic, George Foreman indoor grill to make hamburgers or hot dogs, much like his graduate student neighbors, and he had a Betty Crocker cookbook on top of his stove.

He is humble, declining to say what he gave up for Lent for fear it would sound boastful, according to longtime friend Martha Merritt, an associate director at Notre Dame’s Institute for International Peace Studies. She said he told her: “This is a pact between oneself and God and it is not meant to be the subject of casually, joking conversation between friends, but denial of something.”

He is surprisingly—and subtly—funny, quick to deliver a one-liner even during the opening mass of the school year. Instead of the traditional service conclusion of “let us go forth in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” Jenkins added, “Let us go forth in peace … and let’s go shoot off some fireworks,” a nod to the celebration that kicks off the school year.

Not quite shy, Jenkins still tends to be introverted, a word that he agrees fits his personality when used to describe someone who re-energizes by being alone. Even as a child, his grandfather nicknamed him “The Mole” because he liked to retreat to the basement to read, according to his older brother Tom.

Now, as president, he will socialize with alumni clubs around the country and visit wealthy alumni to seek donations. The university is currently in the “quiet phase” of fundraising before kicking off a major campaign. Notre Dame’s last major fundraising drive, which ended in December 2000, raised more than $1 billion. On the first day of his presidency, Jenkins secured a $21 million donation for the law school.

A balancing act

Jenkins’ most difficult personal challenge will be balancing these expectations of a public figure with his cravings for time to reflect. Unlike his predecessors, he chose to move out of an undergraduate dorm because he needed time alone after days that can last as long as 14 hours.

As the campus gathered to watch Notre Dame’s football team defeat rival Michigan earlier this month, Jenkins watched the game alone in his apartment.

He swims and runs about five days a week, but after completing three marathons, he said he no longer has time to train for the long-distance runs.

“You are on stage so much, so many issues are crying out, it is important to step back and think about things—what we’re doing, what is our purpose,” Jenkins said. He continues to celebrate mass daily and said he’ll know there’s a problem if a day passes when he doesn’t take time to pray.

“I know if that goes out of my life, and I don’t have time for that in the day, I know I’m going down the wrong road and I better readjust my priorities,” he said.

As part of his inaugural celebration as the university’s 17th president, Notre Dame will show his favorite movie, `Babette’s Feast,’ a film about community and accepting fates that do not seem pre-ordained.

“Perhaps the best recommendation for John’s presidency is that he did not seek it. He did not spend his life trying to be a good president. He spent his life trying to be a good person,” Merritt said. “He is not doing it because it is easy for him to do or because it was his first choice. He is doing it because he loves Notre Dame.”

Rev. John Jenkins

Age: 51. Born Dec. 17, 1953, in Omaha.

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame (1976, 1978). Two degrees in philosophy, including a doctoral degree, from Oxford University (1989).

Ordination: Congregation of Holy Cross (1983).

Scholarship: Ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion. Author of “Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas,” published by Cambridge University.

Other experience: Notre Dame’s vice president and associate provost (2000-2004); religious superior of the Holy Cross priests and brothers (1997-2000); member of Notre Dame faculty since 1990.

Family: Mother Helen, father Harry (deceased); 11 siblings; 38 nieces and nephews.

Originally published by Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune at on September 22, 2005.