Group aims to empower leaders to promote free expression

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., joined a new consortium called “College Presidents for Civic Preparedness” in the summer of 2023. The consortium, convened by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, aims “to demonstrate how higher education contributes tangibly to our society and helps strengthen our democracy,” per the institute’s announcement. 

The range of schools participating in the consortium is unusually diverse for a group of this size. The announcement highlights how the participating presidents “hail from four-year institutions, including large public flagship universities, Ivy-plus campuses, HBCUs, STEM-focused schools, liberal arts colleges, and faith-based institutions.” 

Altogether, 14 other presidents joined the consortium besides Fr. Jenkins; Presidents from Benedict College, Claremont McKenna College, Cornell University, DePauw University, Duke University, James Madison University, Georgetown University, Purdue University, Rollins College, Rutgers University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Richmond, Wellesley College, and Wesleyan University are members. 

The founding of this assembly of university presidents was announced by Rajiv Vinnakota, President of the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, on August 15, 2023. The group’s founding was announced alongside its first initiative, the “Campus Call for Free Expression.” Leaders participating in the project will put resources toward developing “Free Expression Principles” among their students. The chief among these is the ability to “pursue knowledge beyond their comfort zone, challenging existing beliefs and assumptions.”

This year’s Notre Dame Forum, titled “The Future of Democracy,” is Fr. Jenkins’ contribution to the consortium’s first project. According to the institute, Fr. Jenkins will highlight free expression principles through the forum’s keynote events. One of these events, Justice Elena Kagan’s recent lecture, highlighted a message very similar to the one envisioned by the institute in the initiative’s description. 

The “Campus Call” advocates for other free expression principles as well, such as the ability to reach evidence-based decisions, empathize and appreciate those with different values, accept civic responsibility, and express beliefs while recognizing their consequences.

As part of their alliance, each of the college presidents also chose a select group of faculty to undergo training at a “Faculty Development Institute on Dialogue Across Difference.” In the training, faculty were instructed on how to promote cultures of free inquiry on their campuses. A combined 30 faculty participated this year, but Vinnakota believes it will only grow, according to a Forbes article on the consortium’s launch. It is not clear at this time which Notre Dame faculty members participated in the faculty development program this year. 

The consortium also operates “a cooperative working group” of analysts, which seeks to find ways of measuring the power of free expression at a given university. Additionally, all of the member schools have named their own groups to work on tracking free expression.

The Institute for Citizens and Scholars, the group that convened the consortium, was founded in 1945 as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and lists its mission as aiming to “strengthen democracy” by sparking youth interest in civic engagement, current affairs, and the common good. 

A statement from the institute’s website on the new name reads, “The new name honors the legacy of the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, as well as its new directions. It signals our aim to engage leaders and groups from various sectors as a collective force for progress on the nation’s biggest education challenges. It reflects our commitment to inclusion, bridge-building, and collaboration.”

Notre Dame’s Office of the President did not respond to the Rover’s inquiry regarding Fr. Jenkins’ involvement with the project. But on his personal page on the institute’s website, Fr. Jenkins provided some of his rationale for joining the consortium: “We should strive to combine a commitment to inquiry and dialogue in pursuit of truth with a commitment to show respect and charity toward those with whom we disagree. The most effective way to realize this ideal is not by silencing or excluding those who fail to live up to it, but by showing such respect in our own interactions and by calling others to do the same.”

Aedan Whalen is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies and political science. He loves snowboarding, skydiving, and common good conservatism. He can be reached via email at

Photo Credit: Northwestern University

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