SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — John Jenkins had two questions on his mind when he received his philosophy degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1976: ‘’What kind of life would be deeply meaningful? What kind of life would be so important to me that I’d be willing to give my life for it?’’
The answer dawned as he pursued a master’s degree at Notre Dame: a life in the priesthood. A life dedicated to teaching young people — a life at Notre Dame.
He became the school’s 17th president Friday — just the third man since 1952 to lead perhaps the nation’s best-known Roman Catholic university.
Jenkins, 51, takes over at a time of enormous growth. Student and faculty numbers have risen steadily, the university’s endowment has grown from $456 million in 1987 to $3 billion this year, and the campus has expanded its fabled football stadium and added new research laboratories, student housing and a performing arts center.
Much of that growth occurred under the Rev. Edward Malloy, who led the university for 18 years. He succeeded the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who held the job for 35 years and oversaw key changes, including the admission of female students, while serving as an adviser to popes and presidents.
Jenkins doesn’t dwell on the legacy he inherits.
‘’If I thought about those things, I’d get very nervous. My approach is to think one year at a time, one week at a time, even one day at a time,‘’ Jenkins said. ’’What do we have to do today to fulfill the mission of Notre Dame? I just don’t allow myself to think a lot about those long tenures of my predecessors.’’
Like most of his predecessors, Jenkins is a Notre Dame graduate. Hesburgh attended just two years, but the last president not to attend the university was the Rev. Thomas E. Walsh (1881-93).
Jenkins’ familiarity with the university will serve him well, Malloy said.
’’It’s helpful in a university of this kind to be familiar with and comfortable in the world of the academy,’’ Malloy said.
Andrew McKenna, a longtime board of trustees member, agreed.
‘’It was clear to us that he understood the Notre Dame culture. He went to school there, he was ordained a priest there, he taught there, he was a member of the provost’s office there, so a lot of things about the place he understands,‘’ he said. ’’I think what Father Jenkins will have to do is get his own stamp on the university.’’
Jenkins said he will wait until his inauguration ceremonies Sept. 22-23 to outline his goals.
‘’I think we’re at a moment in Notre Dame’s history where we have the potential to move ahead dramatically — it’s a great university — while remaining faithful to the Catholic character of the university,‘’ he said. ’’I think that’s the thing we have to focus on.’’
Jenkins said the Catholic character should permeate every part of life at Notre Dame, whether it is studying religion, literature or technology.
‘’At Notre Dame you can have conversations that bring in faith and morality as well as the kind of technical or scientific or intellectual issues in an integrated away,’’ he said. ‘’We are really distinctive in that and it’s a tremendous contribution we can make to society and the world.’’
The approach also can cause controversy, as Malloy discovered when he allowed ‘’The Vagina Monologues’’ and a Queer Film Festival on campus. The decision, which Malloy never discussed publicly, drew criticism from Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese and others. Supporters argued that academic freedom is necessary on a college campus, even a Catholic college campus.
Jenkins said he’s prepared for criticism as he puts his stamp on the university.
‘’Father Hesburgh gave me great advice on this,’’ Jenkins said. ‘’He said, ’Look, be thoughtful, take in all the points of view, take in all the evidence you can, then make the best decision you can, then don’t worry about it. Don’t listen to the criticism, don’t listen to the praise, just make the best decision you can.’ That’s what I’m going to do.’’