Identity and Freedom: Notre Dame's President on University Controversies

By Jenkins, John I. | National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Identity and Freedom: Notre Dame's President on University Controversies


Jenkins, John I., National Catholic Reporter


The following talk was presented to the University of Notre Dame faculty Jan. 23 by Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, the university's new president.

Thank you for your presence here today. Despite the fact that universities at the start of the 21st century have become complicated and diffuse organizations, they nevertheless remain in essence communities of scholars and students in conversation about significant issues. If we lose sight of that simple reality, we will have lost our soul. I want to speak to you today about issues of importance for our community, and I will ask for your views today and in the weeks ahead. Your presence here, despite your busy schedules and many responsibilities, is an indication that we have not lost our sense of ourselves as an intellectual community.

I will speak today about issues arising from the Queer Film Festival and "The Vagina Monologues." I will speak not only about these particular events, but also about the deeper issues they raise regarding academic freedom and our character as a Catholic university. Whatever one thinks about these two events, few issues are more important for this community than these. Today and in the discussion of coming weeks we seek above all the deeper principles that take account of academic freedom and our Catholic character--the principles that guide decisions not only about the events currently at issue, but also about others in the future.

In addition to these very important issues, there is something else at stake. As I begin my presidency, I am aware that as I make particular decisions and undertake initiatives, I am establishing patterns and expectations for how I will lead in this position. Consequently, it is important not only what decisions I make, but how I make them. On matters of significance, I will always strive to make decisions, consonant with my authority, according to my most informed and considered judgment about what is best for this university and its mission. I will not lead by consensus, nor by majority vote, nor in response to the pressures that individuals or groups inside or outside the university may bring to bear. However, prior to making a decision on an important matter, I will, as appropriate and practicable, strive to solicit and listen to the views of relevant individuals and groups. Central to the obligations of my office are the twin responsibilities of listening to the views of members of this community prior to a decision, and then making that decision.

Today I meet with you, the faculty, and I will offer my thoughts on the issues at hand. At the end of my address, I will take your questions and listen to your comments. In coming weeks, I hope you will respond by e-mail or letter to what I say. Tomorrow I will meet with the students and ask for their views as well. I will also make a statement available to the alumni and invite their response. While I will not be able to respond to every letter and e-mail, I will read them all. After an adequate period of time for response and for reflection on the responses received, I will make a final decision on the issue at hand and will announce the principles that will guide future decisions at the university.

A sacred value

Academic freedom is essential to a university. It ensures that faculty have the ability to research, create, teach and express themselves in accord with their own best judgment. Appropriately applied to students, it ensures that they have the opportunity to inquire, express opinions, explore ideas and engage in discussion. Recognition of academic freedom in higher education has been hard-won for centuries, and it must be vigorously defended. It is a sacred value. We will do all we can to protect it at Notre Dame.

Precisely because academic freedom is such a sacred value, we must be clear about its appropriate limits. I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance.

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Identity and Freedom: Notre Dame's President on University Controversies
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