Ah, the hallowed halls of Notre Dame.
The name alone can send shivers up the spine of anyone among its lengthy alumni rolls.
The stories are legendary, and the list of respected and famed alumni could go on and on. The pride is there, too, at the famed football stadium, replete with Knute Rockne’s ghost, and the picturesque campus, which has long been one of the most popular and traditional in the realm of American higher education.
Notre Dame, while founded by a Frenchman and member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, has largely been adopted by Irish America. Nicknames aside, the school has long been viewed as “the” bastion of higher education for college-bound Irish Americans.
In keeping with that, the school boasts one of the largest and most comprehensive Irish studies programs in the country.
The University entered a new chapter last month, when the Rev. John I. Jenkins C.S.C., was installed as president. Only the 17th in the school’s 163-year history, Jenkins, who is 51, was elected in April 2004, after the 18-year incumbent, the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, announced his plans to retire.
Jenkins will now preside over the more than 1,000 acres of campus, and all its lushly manicured lawns and the towers that teem with knowledge. He will inevitably have his work cut out for him, though, in what is one of higher education’s most visible roles.
A man of the mind
Having served the previous four years as Notre Dame’s vice president and an associate provost, Jenkins is well acquainted with his surroundings.
Prior to those assignments, he had been the religious superior of the Holy Cross priests and brothers at Notre Dame for three years. In that latter capacity, he was a Fellow and Trustee of the University, posts he willingly relinquished to assume his duties in the administration.
As with many of the school’s most high-profile administrators, Jenkins’s history with Notre Dame extends further back than that.
Joining the faculty in 1990, he taught both medieval studies and philosophy – both long-time passions. When he attended Notre Dame in the 1970s for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, before opting for further study in divinity school, he discovered that philosophy was his calling.
Jenkins entered the seminary in 1978 and began a five-year period of what is known as discernment, which Jenkins said solidified his desire to become a priest.
“I do think my ordination in 1983 was important,” Jenkins told the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. “It is what I am most fundamentally, a priest and all that means. So that was an extremely important part of my life.”
He earned his master of divinity degree from Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
After earning two degrees from England’s Oxford University, he taught in Notre Dame’s program in London.
Jenkins’s academic work eventually led to “Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas, (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and he’s also had articles published in the Journal of Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy and Theology, and the Journal of Religious Ethics. He delivered the annual Aquinas Lecture at the University of Dallas in January 2000.
Jenkins told the Detroit News that he had two questions on his mind when he received his first philosophy degree from the 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?”
Jenkins said it was while earning his master’s degree at the same university that he stumbled upon the answer and decided to pursue the priesthood, knowing full well that he would be integrating his scholarly pursuits into his calling as well.
Jenkins had what he recalled as a fun childhood, growing up the third eldest of 12 children — six boys and six girls. Born and raised in Omaha, Neb., the Jenkins family was a tightly-knit one.
Jenkins was not drawn to the medical path trod by his father, a gastroenterologist, and grandfather, who was on the faculty of Creighton University’s Medical School, opting instead to attend the college he now leads.
On the horizon
Jenkins plans to outline much of his vision for Notre Dame at his official inauguration ceremony, which will be held over two days, Sept. 22-23. The inaugural celebration will feature a dinner, an academic forum and a Mass along with Jenkins’s formal address.
Jenkins will no doubt look to keep Notre Dame in its lofty post as one of America’s topped-ranked colleges. At last count, U.S. News and World Report, considered to be the authority thanks to their annual list of the best colleges and universities, pegged Notre Dame the 18th in the country. Hardly surprisingly, the college’s own admissions office reports that it receives five applicants for every seat in the freshman class.
Fundraising, a vital part of high education today, is also going to be a focus. Notre Dame had done extremely well under its former leader, something Jenkins hopes to continue.
It is a time of strong growth for the University as a whole. Staff and faculty numbers are rising and the all-important endowment has grown from $456 million in 1987 to $3 billion. Construction buzzes throughout the campus, and Jenkins said he only hopes to take the job, and all its responsibility, one day at a time.
Notre Dame’s Office of News and Information quoted Jenkins as saying: “I thank the Board of Trustees for the tremendous honor and responsibility of leading the University of Notre Dame.”
Andrew McKenna, a member of the University’s board of trustee, returned the favor, and said: “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 Fr. Jenkins will have to do is get his own stamp on the university,” McKenna added.
Jenkins will, undoubtedly, be able to wax philosophical on that.