Richard C. Notebaert was elected to a three-year term as chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees in 2007. He was elected to a further three-year term in 2010. First elected to the Board in 1997, Notebaert subsequently served as chair of its University Relations and Public Affairs and Communications Committee prior to succeeding Cleveland lawyer Patrick F. McCartan as chair of the full board. Sadly, there is good reason to believe that Notebaert is ill-suited to this important role.
At an initial glance Notebaert’s credentials to serve as board chair appear impeccable. He epitomizes the trustee blessed with notable corporate experience and credentials along with a generous capacity for giving. Born in Montréal in 1947, Notebaert grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and then attended the University of Wisconsin, after which he joined the marketing department of Wisconsin Bell. So began his distinguished business career which culminated in his leading three major American companies – Ameritech Corporation, Tellabs, and Qwest Communications International. He retired as CEO of Qwest in August 2007 soon after taking up his formal responsibilities as chair of Notre Dame’s board.
Astute business observers credit Notebaert with Ameritech’s notable growth and financial success during his leadership of the company in the 1990’s. He is also credited with saving Tellabs from dissolution, and, most notably, with staving off bankruptcy for Qwest when the situation at the Denver-based communications giant seemed hopeless. Shareholders loved him. He proved capable both at devising strategies to better meet customer needs and at cutting costs, including by eliminating jobs and reducing benefits. During his time at Qwest Notebaert came in for some criticism for shaving retiree benefits while his own salary, bonuses, and stock options came in one year at over $20 million. Public complaints surfaced at Qwest’s annual shareholders meeting in 2007 but Notebaert defended his performance, clarifying that he had donated to non-profits the proceeds of an $18 million stock options sale of the previous year.
During his tenure at Ameritech, Notebaert and his wife Peggy emerged as leading figures on the Chicago philanthropic scene. In 1998 they donated $5 million to help build the Peggy Notebaert Natural History Museum, a wonderful Chicago institution specially noted for its “Butterfly Haven” exhibition. (Parenthetically, let me offer a word of advice––if you are at the museum for a wedding reception or the like please don’t attempt to carry a glass of wine into the butterfly exhibition!)
Of course, Notre Dame has also been the beneficiary of Dick and Peggy Notebaert’s notable generosity. In 2008 they made a $10 million gift to fund a new fellowship initiative in the university’s graduate school. Notebaert Premier Fellowships are awarded to the top doctoral prospects admitted to Notre Dame each year.
Notebaert’s personal example contributed to the success of the recently concluded “Spirit of Notre Dame” campaign. He also played an important role in steering the University of Notre Dame to make a generous contribution to the Holy Cross Order (to which I belong) to fund the education of its younger members and to provide appropriate care for its elderly priests and brothers.
Notebaert is well-regarded on campus and is occasionally called upon to address groups ranging from undergraduate students in the Mendoza College of Business through to participants in the newly initiated “ND Lead Program,” which is designed to train the next generation of Notre Dame “leaders.” In his talks he draws readily on his corporate experience and encourages his listeners to be “real.” He speaks in a calm and measured manner and asks them to adopt the key elements that he believes drove him during his career––passion, setting hard objectives which can be measured, and adhering to a clear ethical framework. He emphasizes the need for a “moral rudder.”
Given his record of business accomplishment and philanthropic generosity, what could lead to questions about such a man’s competence to chair the board of trustees at Notre Dame? The answer, in short, arises from a recognition that Mr. Notebaert evidently does not possess a firm grasp on the identity and mission of Notre Dame as a Catholic university.
This painful reality became patently clear at the end of last academic year when the fellows of Notre Dame elected Roxanne Martino to the board of trustees. Ms. Martino, a Chicago businesswoman and an ND alumna had given over $25,000 to the pro-abortion PAC, EMILY’s List. She also donated to a group largely dedicated to advancing abortion rights, the Illinois State Personal PAC.
Clearly, a significant failure was made in the vetting of Ms. Martino. But instead of a quick and honest admission of a mistake and a request for her to stand down, Notebaert sought to defend Ms. Martino, claiming that she was simply unaware of the purposes of EMILY’s list. That pathetic explanation could not withstand scrutiny, and, eventually, Ms. Martino decided to stand down.
Surprisingly, Notebaert appeared willing to allow a significant donor to “pro-choice” organizations to hold a seat on the board which sets the policies and broad direction for the university. He emerged as the main defender of Ms. Martino and seemed to supplant University President Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, in determining university policy on the matter. He appeared not to understand the damage that an appointment like this would do to Notre Dame’s standing as a Catholic university.
Notebaert offered a quite misleading statement on the matter, and subsequently he offered no apology for either his apparent dissembling or for his failure to vet this appointment with appropriate diligence. He has yet to give any public assurance that contributing to explicitly “pro-choice” organizations is incompatible with service on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees.
The problem with Mr. Notebaert’s leadership at Notre Dame, however, runs deeper than his serious mishandling of the Martino matter. It rests in his seemingly limited understanding of Notre Dame’s mission and in his apparent lack of appreciation for the role that John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, EX CORDE ECCLESIAE , must play in guiding Notre Dame. Such deficiencies are perhaps unsurprising in light of the fact that he is neither a Notre Dame alumnus nor has he any significant prior experience in Catholic higher education.
His limitations in this regard were publicly displayed in the rather cavalier response he offered to Bishop John D’Arcy’s pastoral reflection written in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama at its 2009 commencement. In his superb article (published in AMERICA, August 31, 2009), Bishop D’Arcy noted his responsibility to call institutions like Notre Dame “to give public witness to the fullness of Catholic faith.” He went on to note the silence and inaction of Notre Dame’s board of trustees during the Obama episode, and he concluded by posing some “critical questions” regarding the relationship of Notre Dame to the Catholic Church. Most fundamentally he asked: “Where will the great Catholic Universities search for a guiding light in the years ahead? Will it be the LAND O’LAKES STATEMENT or EX CORDE ECCLESIAE?”
In his response Notebaert embarrassingly stretched to defend Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama on the grounds that it provided an opening for dialogue. He paid no attention to the damage that the Obama invitation inflicted on Notre Dame’s standing in the broad Catholic community, and he breezed past any serious consideration of the relationship between Notre Dame and the Catholic Church. He ended, however, with an apparent endorsement of the LAND O’LAKES STATEMENT as the guiding charter for Notre Dame. Herein lies the problem and it is one that must be faced honestly by Mr. Notebaert and his fellow trustees.
Let me state the matter plainly as a question: Does Mr. Notebaert hold that the LAND O’LAKES STATEMENT, with its strictures for institutional autonomy from the Church and the aping of our supposed secular peers, should guide Notre Dame into the future? Is this the vision he puts before the future leaders of Notre Dame?
Furthermore, it must be asked: Does he therefore reject EX CORDE ECCLESIAE as the foundational document for Notre Dame’s fulfilling its mission as a Catholic university? If so, does he also reject its clear guidance for a close pastoral relationship between the local ordinary and the university, its crucial requirement for a majority of committed Catholics to prevail in the faculty ranks, and its distinct recognition of the central importance of theology in the university?
The answers to these questions have important implications for the kind of university Notre Dame will be. They assuredly will help clarify whether Notre Dame will develop down a path which puts ratings over principles and prestige over truth. They will help indicate whether Notre Dame should continue scurrying after such goals as an invitation to join the American Association of Universities, whatever the involvement of that organization with embryonic stem-cell research. They will help determine whether Notre Dame will provide a moral vision for its students grounded in such principles as the dignity of each human person and deep concern for the common good.
It has now become a ‘tradition’ at Notre Dame for the Laetare Medal, the university’s highest honor awarded annually to recognize outstanding service to the Catholic Church and society, to be conferred on the retiring chair of the board of trustees as a token of gratitude for services rendered. Some such awardees, one might add, have been more deserving of the medal than others, but we can expect the practice to continue. Dick Notebaert should be at short odds to receive the award in 2013. Yet, before the medal with its Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”) makes its way to the Notebaert family trophy room, perhaps the future recipient might take some clear actions to warrant it. He might begin with an unequivocal statement affirming EX CORDE ECCLESIAE as the guiding light for Notre Dame in the years ahead.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, is a professor of history and a member of the Rover’s board of faculty advisors. Contact him at email@example.com.