Notre Dame, Trustees And Father Jenkins Final Word

May 13, 2009 09:00 AM

Our good friend Frank Walker has written one of the most insightful analyses of the University of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees that I have ever seen. In fact, we are reprinting it below in full so that you can gain a better understanding of the foundational problems that the University of Notre Dame’s leadership is actually dealing with today and has been since the Hesburgh reign.  He writes:

No Likely Support From Notre Dame's Board of Trustees For Rescinding Obama Invite

By Frank Walker 

May 10, 2009 - A great deal of criticism has been leveled at Notre Dame President, Rev John I. Jenkins, for his choice to honor President Obama at this year’s commencement. But Fr. Jenkins, like all university presidents, must consider the will of the school’s governing board. The Notre Dame Board of Trustees is a powerful organization, comprised of top international business owners, chairs of rich endowments, academic leaders, judges, attorneys, faculty, and prominent clergy. These individuals are typically very wealthy, well-connected and highly accomplished; many with broad interests outside the university. A closer look at the board and its affiliations might shed light on just how Notre Dame came to this decision.

Many of the influential alumni on the Notre Dame board are from the nearby Chicago area, and are part of the same Chicago power structure that President Obama ascended. Richard and Peggy Notebaert are leading members of the ND community, and Notebaert is chair of the Notre Dame trustees. While Obama served in the senate, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, received federal funding earmarked by Obama.. Key Obama campaign fundraiser, Frank Clark served on the board of the Notebaert Museum at the time. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where ND trustee Arthur Velasquez is on the board, also received millions in earmarks. Velasquez contributed to Obama’s campaigns in ’04 and ’08.

Chicago power at Notre Dame extends to political posts as well. Justice Ann Claire Williams was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1999 to the U.S. Court of Appeals 7th District. In 2004, she ruled that the Department of Justice could not subpoena hospital abortion records to enforce the ban on partial birth abortions. Left-leaning Chicago politics has a place on the Notre Dame governing board. Currently Ann Claire Williams is receiving serious attention among the top three possible Obama replacements for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

Some Notre Dame board members have made ethical misjudgments in the past. Chicago trustee Philip B. Rooney, Chairman of Claddagh Investments, is former CEO of Waste Management Inc., the world’s largest waste services company. In 2002, Rooney and Waste Management, along with Arthur Andersen, Enron and others, were indicted by the SEC in a massive fraud case. WMI management eventually settled for 30.8 million in penalties. The SEC barred Rooney permanently from being an officer in a public company. He divested most of his own stock before the investigations caused shareholder assets to plummet. Despite this history Rooney retains his board position at Notre Dame today.

ND Trustee Douglas Tong Hsu is chairman of Far Eastern Group, a $32 billion dollar Chinese conglomerate. Hsu’s strong political connections in Taiwan lean toward unification with mainland China. He recently stated that democratic governance is a hindrance to investment, and praised communist China's system for being more favorable to business with its staunch system of rule. In 2006, Hsu was indicted for breach of trust and forgery in connection with a major department store takeover. These charges also involved the Taiwanese first lady, Wu Shu-chen. With Douglas Tong Hsu, the political and business interests of the PRC have influence at Notre Dame. In 2006, ND President Jenkins led a small delegation to East Asia, where they met with Hsu, and travelled to communist Beijing to develop partner programs for the university.

There are Notre Dame trustees who directly support [sic] Obama administration goals. Dr. Mary Anne Fox is chancellor at U[niversity of] C[alifornia] San Diego and Vice-Chair of the National Science Board. Recently Fox announced the opening of a new research facility where the school will cultivate and experiment on human embryonic stem cells. The laboratory will partner with Scripps Research and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA where Fox also sits on the leadership council. In 2007 the Institute hosted a stem cell ethics conference. R. Alta Charo, bioethicist and advisor to the Obama transition team was a key speaker. At UCSD the bio-engineering department has just established a partnership with Tsinghua University in China, to further their research.

Raymond G. Chambers, co-founder of anti-poverty organization Millenium Promise, serves on the ServiceNation leadership council. ServiceNation is a political group that supports the enormous multiplication of federal national service programs in the Obama agenda, including the just-passed Kennedy Serve America Act. The Kennedy act was touted as the “largest expansion of community and national service since the launch of the Civilian Conservation Corps.” In September, Chambers was a panelist at the ServiceNation Summit as special envoy for malaria, United Nations.

Several Notre Dame board members lead American banks and major investment houses, where the federal government has sunk billions in bailout funds and stock purchases. Robert Conway was head of Goldman Sachs (AIG). Philip J. Purcell was formerly CEO of Morgan Stanley and COO of Dean Witter. Enrique Hernandez, Jr. is on the board of Wells Fargo Bank. Business leaders in this sector are under increasing pressure to appeal to the Obama administration, the Treasury Department, and the U.S. Congress for their survival and direction.

In conclusion, a review of the Board of Trustees at Notre Dame does NOT reveal a particularly strong Catholic identity. There are board members whose actions and associations put them in a position directly at odds with Church teaching and in line with the Obama administration. At the Notre Dame board, we see a group of well-connected well-heeled individuals from all sectors of society, and at the most prominent levels. Taking a stand against inviting the President of the United States would likely jeopardize membership in the elite club where they travel. Therefore it is highly unlikely that there will be any movement from within the board to rescind invitation to President Obama.

When I first read this article on May 10, I reflected on the challenge that is currently being faced by those at Notre Dame, both among the faculty and the student body, and it occurred to me that nothing is ever over until the final moment is at hand.  But then I read the May 11 letter that Father Jenkins wrote to each of those who will graduate this Sunday, as well as an obviously much wider audience and I realized that the hour has passed.  In that letter Jenkins said:

Notre Dame has a long custom of conferring honorary degrees on the President of the United States. It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy. It is the University's expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President. In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ, yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society. As St. Peter wrote (I Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order.

At the same time, and born of the same duty, a Catholic university has a special obligation not just to honor the leader but to engage the culture. Carrying out this role of the Catholic university has never been easy or without controversy. When I was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh spoke of the Catholic university as being both a lighthouse and a crossroads. [emphasis added] As a lighthouse, we strive to stand apart and be different, illuminating issues with the moral and spiritual wisdom of the Catholic tradition. Yet, we must also be a crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures. At this crossroads, we must be a place where people of good will are received with charity, are able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.

Much could be said about this letter, but focusing on the entire message that St. Peter was teaching the Disciples of Christ, one could take away an entirely different interpretation.  For example, the Jerusalem Bible, 1 Peter 2:16-17 actually reads as follows: 

God wants you to be good citizens so as to silence what fools are saying in their ignorance.  You are slaves of no one except God, so behave like free men, and never use your freedom as an excuse for wickedness.  Have respect for everyone and love for our community, fear God and honor the emperor.

Father Jenkins may have a different translation, but clearly honoring a leader does not equate with ignoring Catholic identity in the process.  More than 70 Catholic bishops have basically said what St. Peter said, and they have done so without compromising a Catholic’s call to remember that he or she is a slave to no one except God.

Perhaps the lighthouse is now so dim that the crossroads have become impossible to see.  Only God knows.

Back to news