Notre Dame President steps down after 19-year tenure
The Office of the President announced on October 13 that Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. will step down from his role as President of the University of Notre Dame at the conclusion of the 2023–2024 academic year. He has served as president of the university since 2005.
Fr. Jenkins was a member of the Notre Dame Department of Philosophy since 1990, and at the conclusion of his presidency, he will “return to teaching and ministry at the university,” according to the press release announcing his retirement from the position.
Fr. Jenkins assumed the role of university president amidst concern at the diminishing number of Catholic faculty at the university. A 2006 Notre Dame Magazine article stated that Fr. Jenkins had “noted with concern an erosion of Catholic faculty over the last 30 years, from near 85 percent to 53 percent.” Although that percentage did not vastly increase in Jenkins tenure, the proportion has remained steady: 54 percent of faculty were identified as Catholic in 2019.
Amidst this fear of falling religiosity, Fr. Jenkins noted in his 2005 inaugural address as president that, while there are other great universities that began as religious institutions, “nearly all have left that founding character behind.”
He continued, “One finds among them a disconnect between the academic enterprise and an overarching religious and moral framework that orients academic activity and defines a good human life. My presidency will be driven by a whole-hearted commitment to uniting and integrating these two indispensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning: academic excellence and religious faith.”
During his presidency, Notre Dame has seen growth in many respects. The “nearly $4 billion” endowment that Fr. Jenkins touted in this opening address is now an estimated $19 billion. And despite the reworking of the U.S. New & World Report Rankings in favor of state schools over private institutions, Notre Dame has remained in the top-20 of national universities.
Yet Fr. Jenkins’ presidency has not been without its controversies, as all sides of the political spectrum have criticized him at different moments in his tenure.
In 2008, the university’s decision to invite President Barack Obama as the commencement speaker, which Jenkins defended, was met with large-scale protest from pro-life students and alumni of Notre Dame.
But in 2011, Notre Dame sued the Obama administration over their extension of the Health and Human Services mandate to cover “abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures” in employee health insurance. In a 2011 press release, Jenkins stated, “If we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions.”
However, shortly after winning exemption from the mandate via this suit, Notre Dame decided to cover “simple contraceptives” in their insurance, as announced by Fr. Jenkins in 2018.
Perhaps the most notable and controversial decision that Fr. Jenkins made in the latter few years of his presidency, however, was explained in a May 2020 opinion article in The New York Times, titled “We’re Opening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk.”
Notre Dame was one of the few universities in the country to return for fully in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. Fr. Jenkins noted in this article, “To possess the virtue of courage is to be able to choose the proper mean between these extremes—to know what risks are worth taking, and why.”
He further stated, “I’d hope for wide agreement that the education of young people—the future leaders of our society—is worth risking a good deal.”
Another of Fr. Jenkins’ notable appearances in the national media came in much shorter form, in December of 2022. The day after two Notre Dame professors wrote an article in favor of wide access to abortion in The Chicago Tribune on December 5, 2022. Fr. Jenkins responded with a brief letter to the editor.
He stated, “Tamara Kay and Susan Ostermann are, of course, free to express their opinions on our campus or in any public forum. Because they choose to identify themselves as Notre Dame faculty members, I write to state unequivocally that their essay does not reflect the views and values of the University of Notre Dame in its tone, arguments or assertions.”
After nearly 19 years in the public spotlight, Fr. Jenkins will resume his role in the Notre Dame philosophy department, where his primary research interests are philosophical theology and medieval philosophy, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas. Fr Jenkins’ most notable academic publication is his 2007 work from Cambridge University Press, Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas.
W. Joseph DeReuil is a senior from a southeastern suburb of St. Paul, MN, named West St. Paul. He is deciding whether to finish his classics or philosophy major next spring. Email him your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. by Matt Cashore, Courtesy of Notre Dame News
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