Father Jenkins to be first Notre Dame president to deliver address

The Notre Dame Board of Trustees has appointed retiring Notre Dame President, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., to give the commencement address to this year’s graduating class. 

Since the announcement, many members of the class of 2024 have expressed frustration with the choice. The Rover spoke with 100 Notre Dame seniors representing all 32 residence halls, polled randomly in public spaces around campus. Of those surveyed, only four supported the decision and 84 did not, with 12 remaining indifferent. 

Many expressed that they felt cheated once again, just as they were cheated out of their high school graduations in the spring of 2020 and forced to navigate their first year of college amid severe COVID restrictions

Many seniors asked a similar question: Wouldn’t Fr. Jenkins have spoken anyway? In the past, Fr. Jenkins offered remarks at commencement before introducing the year’s speaker, as well as given the homily at the baccalaureate Mass. 

One Keenan senior told the Rover, “Our class had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Junior Parents’ Weekend (JPW) dinner last year, where he reflected on the major events of his presidency that coincided with our class’s time at Notre Dame.” 

“I honestly don’t know what more he could possibly add that he didn’t already cover last year, and I fully expect him to reiterate a lot of that speech,” he continued.

Father Jenkins’ JPW speech focused largely on the class of 2024’s legacy as the “COVID class,” a sentiment many seniors claimed they were tired of hearing, which many students felt was reductive and unfair. A former student senator from Lyons Hall expanded on this complaint: “Fr. Jenkins means something very different to our class than to any other class, and that’s mainly because he was our leader during COVID. He set the tone for our four years on this campus, and to a large extent that tone was seen as insincere, especially following the incident at the White House Rose Garden.” 

“We are so much more than just the class who made it through COVID,” a Walsh resident lamented.

Insourcing is an almost-unprecedented move for the university. An outgoing president has never been asked to give the address, and the last time a Holy Cross priest gave the commencement address was in 1945, with Graduate Dean Phillip S. Moore. The announcement from the Board of Trustees acknowledged this anomaly, saying, “While Notre Dame typically selects a distinguished speaker external to the university, we believe at this moment Fr. Jenkins’ leadership and exemplary service to the university make him a most fitting choice.”

“Every year, Notre Dame has the opportunity to invite a speaker from around the globe,” an O’Neill senior challenged. “This seems like a cop-out.” Nearly one third of the students with whom the Rover spoke echoed that sentiment.

Many seniors wanted someone with insight about life outside of Notre Dame, after college, in the “real world” into which they are about to enter. “Father Jenkins wouldn’t really be that,” a student from Alumni said. “I feel like my perspective wasn’t considered when making the decision as to what speaker would appeal to the majority of the class,” said another. 

A Letter from the Editorial Board of the Observer similarly condemned the choice of Fr. Jenkins as the Commencement speaker arguing the benefits of an outside voice for a graduating senior class. 

Of the four students who supported the decision, two contended that Fr. Jenkins did his best with the hand he was dealt. “I have a lot of respect for him as an individual. I really respect that he decided to keep us open during COVID,” one Baumer resident commented. The two others merely said he was a better choice than President Joe Biden. 

Still, some asked: Why this year? And why Fr. Jenkins? “He didn’t do anything totally transformative,” said an RA in Pasquerilla West. Some have speculated that the decision may be an attempt by the university to enshrine Jenkins’ legacy along Notre Dame icons like Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. 

Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., author of Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses—a collection of 24 notable commencement speeches—recalled in an interview with the Rover that even Hesburgh was not chosen as speaker for his outgoing 1987 class, but rather offered a “charge” to the class before introducing Derek Bok, the chosen speaker. 

Perhaps the chair of the Board of Trustees wanted to elevate Fr. Jenkins’s remarks in some way, but this is a perplexing decision and denies the senior class the opportunity to hear from a distinguished speaker from beyond the university,” Fr. Miscamble remarked.

“Looking on the brighter side, however, this decision means that our commencement speaker will not be some pro-choice figure at odds with the university’s deepest commitments. We can be grateful for that,” he chimed. 

A Farley resident cited examples of leadership counter to the university’s mission, “From all of the awful COVID policies and the drag show, I don’t think he has really been an inspiring figure.” A Keenan senior worried the choice might be an “an attempt to endorse the direction that Fr. Jenkins has taken the university, which has all-too often prioritized academic prestige over her Catholic identity.” He continued, “My class’ graduation is being used to cement Jenkins’ legacy.”

Others wondered if the growing polarization between political parties made it impossible to choose someone with whom the entire student population would be content. “It seems more representative of politics within the administration than a choice for us,” a Cavanaugh senior stated. More than one-in-five of those interviewed asked why Taylor Swift couldn’t have been invited as a neutral party. 

Despite strong opposition from the senior class, a few students wished to call on Fr. Jenkins to use this platform to make up for past mistakes and reinvigorate an appreciation for the Catholic identity of Notre Dame. A Baumer senior thanked Jenkins for his courage in opening the university in the fall of 2020, “I hope the courage he showed then is revealed in his address,” he said, “this is an opportunity for Jenkins to solidify the Catholic identity and direction of the university, and call us to that same courageous Catholic leadership.”

Fr. Jenkins will rank among six United States presidents, one vice president, five archbishops, six governors, 10 senators, 14 Cabinet members, two directors of the Peace Corps, six heads of state, and many other exceptional individuals who have previously delivered the address. 

Merlot Fogarty is a senior studying theology, political science, and constitutional studies. A strong non-compliant throughout the COVID regime (and many other controversial happenings), she is simply grateful to Fr. Jenkins for not kicking her out of Notre Dame. Contact her at merlot.fogarty@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

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