"Learn every day"

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., reflects on 19 years as president

In October, it was announced that Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., would step down from his role as the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame. He has shaped and grown the University and its impact over the past 19 years in research, global engagement, and by attracting super faculty and the highest caliber students, just to name a few.

In this special episode of Notre Dame Stories, Father Jenkins reflects on his tenure with host Jenna Liberto. 

Read the transcript

Transcript formatted for readability.

Jenna Liberto: In October it was announced that Reverend John Jenkins would step down from his role as the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame. Since then we've had a chance to reflect on the ways he shaped and grown our University and its impact over the past 19 years.

To name just a few: Notre Dame was invited to join the nation's most prestigious association of research universities, the caliber of admitted students is higher than it's ever been and the University continues to attract superb faculty, and the University continues to increase its Global engagement both here on campus and around the world. While we could continue to list his accomplishments, we can think of nothing better than to invite Father John to reflect with us on his tenure, in this special episode of Notre Dame Stories.

Father John, thank you so much for your time. It's so great to see you.

Father John: It's great to be here with you, Jenna, thanks for your time.

Jenna Liberto: Absolutely. Now it's been six months since the announcement that you are stepping down as president. Have you had the chance to reflect yet, or has it just been far too busy?

Father John: You know, it has been busy. You're closing out stuff and you're coming to the end and you're also working on transition with Father Bob so, there's a lot to do. However, I think, to the extent I've had time to reflect, I think, I look forward to the change but it is bittersweet. I've enjoyed the job. I've loved the people I've worked with and I will miss them but...but I do look forward to the transition and something new and getting back to things I did before like teaching and reading and writing.

Jenna Liberto: We're going to get right into some of your career highlights which are just such points of pride for the Notre Dame campus community. Now we had Jeff Rhoads our vice president for research on our last podcast and you put him at the helm at such a critical time for our University. We've seen a 338% increase in research funding during your time here and, of course, the University was invited to be part of the Association of American Universities—the AAU—the most prestigious research association in the country.

I know that was a longstanding goal for you so, could you talk about your road map to get there, and then, what is it about our body of work as a university that puts us in that elite group?

Father John: Well, it's...it was, when we came in, in 2005, we recognized that Notre Dame's reputation was largely its undergraduate education, which was superb and recognized as such, and we wanted to continue that, but the area of growth was really in our research. Now, it must be said, we had some superb scholars at Notre Dame at the time in the humanities and in the sciences. But we were less comprehensive and strong in the sciences—which is really where you get [the] most attention—but, you know, the humanities are extremely important at the same time.

So I.. one of my... the great days of Notre Dame was when I hired Tom Burish as Provost in 2005—and Tom was masterful. He had been provost at Vanderbilt. He had been president at Washington and Lee. So he was highly experienced and, really, Tom kind of had a sense of, you know, OK, how do we build this? Because the humanities, philosophy, theology, etc., they're a little, frankly, less expensive than buying a lab and a research team. And so, you needed to be thoughtful and pick your spots in science and engineering.

And we did that, and we invested in a significant way, made some great hires—those hires attracted other people—but it was a sort of gradual build as... but it was a gradual build but a dramatic increase, as you mentioned, just great great increase. And really, the credit goes to Tom's vision, but also, the deans during that time really emphasized it. And our faculty, they're the ones that are...really, it's recognition for them more than it is for me. And we just have superb faculty and ever more impact of our research here at Notre Dame.

Jenna Liberto: And you must be excited to see how that grows. We're just at the beginning, really.

Father John: It is. It is. You know, there's this image from this book I read when I first came in of a flywheel and, you know, when you start the flywheel, you're just pushing and it's...you don't get, you know, it doesn't go very fast. But as you get momentum, it goes faster and faster. And I feel that's where we are, that we've got some momentum here. Jeff Rhoads and John McGreevy will continue that trajectory and I think they'll just build on what we've accomplished so far.

Jenna Liberto: Notre Dame has been committed to connecting research to not just the graduate experience but the undergraduate experience as well. I'd like to talk about our students for a little bit—the unsurpassed undergraduate experience. It's such a hallmark of this University and, over the past two decades, we've made advances in the caliber of the undergraduate student body as well. So I just want to read you some highlights—if that's OK—first.

Father John: Sure.

Jenna Liberto: Close to 90% of admitted students are in the top 5% in National test scores. That's up from about 60% in 2005. Notre Dame has produced 60 prestigious scholars including six Rhodes Scholars since 2014, and we've had a 97% increase in International students during your time as president, that includes both undergraduates and graduate students.

So our body...our student body is evolving, but your focus has always been on student success—that's been central—and you've said before, I know, Father John, that interactions with students give you energy, and how could they not? But can you tell me a little a little bit about what kinds of interactions give you energy, and what interactions do you cherish most with our students?

Father John: Well I, you know, I would say, you know, research has been, as we mentioned, a great story. But you know, you can't improve the research at the expense of the undergraduate studies and I, one of the things I'm most proud of is that we haven't done that. There's this commitment, as you mentioned. Students are ever more involved in the scholarly work of our faculty which helps their education. And they're just a talented group, there's no doubt about it, it's just a talented group.

But I, I think I'm most proud of the fact that they combine those abilities—which are significant—and the great teaching with a, sort of—we say we educate the head and the heart—with a sense of purpose in their lives, I hope, a sense of service, a sense of wanting to have an impact for good in the world. I see that in our undergraduates and I hope that continues. It is impossible to spend time with these young people and not be...find their energy infectious, find their hope and their aspirations infectious, their promise...

That's one of the great things of working at a university is working with young people and helping them to chart their path and helping them to grow and seeing their...You know, they come as, I often say, they come as kids—they come right out of high school—but they really leave as adults. And to be, to walk with them during that transition to adulthood is one of the great privileges anyone has.

Jenna Liberto: And you really do get to have authentic, genuine interactions, I've seen them.

Father John: No, yeah, I do. I do.

Jenna Liberto: That must be special for you.

Father John: I, actually, if I look forward to one thing, it's the fact that I'll have a little more time for that because that's really why it's interesting. It's interesting because you get to know these young people, you get to walk with them on their path, you get to see them grow and, as I often say, I'll say it this time at graduation, my proudest moments are when I meet one of our graduates and they talk about the great work they're doing and—whether it's medicine or business or, you know, service of various kinds—and just to see the tremendous work that they're doing. So I just get great gratification from that.

Jenna Liberto: There may be no more important ingredient in student success and the success of our faculty and staff, I would say, than creating a sort of community where everyone feels like they belong. Could you talk about why your work in diversity, equity, and inclusion is so important to you, and then why it's so important for Notre Dame right now?

Father John: Well, you know, I want to give credit to a lot of people. One person is Hugh Page who's our vice president for institutional transformation works in this area. And one of...the thing about this diversity, equity, inclusion, it's not just something that we at Notre Dame should be concerned with now or at this present moment, it really comes from the core of who we say we are and who we want to be. Hugh has used some lines, some words from Dr. Martin Luther King, the "beloved community," it sort of has a scriptural resonance that, you know, it's not just that we treat people equally or fairly—though we should do that, we must do that, and I think we do try our best to do that—but they're part of a community where they feel and are beloved, that they're welcomed into this community as a whole person.

That's true regardless of who you are, regardless of your group, regardless of your background, regardless of what you bring, and that comes from the core of our mission. You know, it's not just a legal commitment. It's not just a, I don't know, something we "check off." It's the kind of community we want to be and that is essential to what makes Notre Dame special. That is, a community where you're not...you don't just work but you're part of a community.

Now, we're not perfect, and I'd be the first to admit that, and we have much to grow. But, at least in terms of our commitment, it comes from the very core of who we say we are and our mission.

Jenna Liberto:  I know you've talked about how important it is that Notre Dame not just be a local or a regional or even a national university, but that we have truly a global impact. As you look back over your  19 years, can you reflect for us on how Notre Dame has grown to be a global university?

Father John: Well, you know, that was one of our key emphases from the earliest days. Again, Tom Burish was a great partner this, you know, to "internationalize" Notre Dame. And we had created these Global Gateways around the world where Notre Dame would have a presence in Rome and in Beijing and Latin America and in London, so that it would present Notre Dame to those places but also take those places and help us take in what is there, and so...be a, kind of, network of international interaction. So that's been very important. There's been more research in that area. I think our faculty and our student body has become more international.

Why do we do this? Well, obviously, we're a global world and, you know, their interactions are global. We have to prepare our students for the world that they'll live in. But even at a deeper level, Catholic university—"Catholic" means "universal"—it's a...the connections we have are, certainly in terms of our state, in terms of our national identity, all those things but, really, it's a human family—and we should be connected with the whole human family. And being more international helps our students and helps Notre Dame to be more interconnected with the global human family.

Jenna Liberto: You have led Notre Dame to become a preeminent research university but always in the context of our Catholic identity. While some of our peers, including some of our peers in the AAU, have moved away from their religious affiliations, Notre Dame has stood firm. Why is it so important that we keep our Catholic identity as our North Star?

Father John: Well, look, it is, I've often said, it's one of our great assets. And I want to say, first of all, that that doesn't mean our Catholic identity doesn't mean that, you know, people who aren't Catholics are not welcome at Notre Dame, are not part... they are very much part of the family. But we're rooted in a tradition that gives us a clarity about our Mission, a consistency in our purpose and, it gives us a sort of moral direction. I mean, you know, in the broadest sense, that it gives us, sort of, "norms."

You know, we care about the poor, we care about a sustainable planet, we care about Democratic institutions. Not because it's an interesting topic to study, but rather, because it's good for humanity and it's, sort of, morally imperative that we do these things. That's... and the wonderful thing, if I'm proud of anything, is that there's just a broad recognition that that's who we are. Some people aren't Catholics, some aren't believers, but they [say] "OK. That's what we do. That's who we are."

And that...that I say is, it's one of our greatest assets because it allows us to focus and it gives us a distinctive voice. It makes us different and I think it's been one of the great strengths of Notre Dame and will continue to be that.

Jenna Liberto: There are so many moments and milestones we've talked about that are sources of pride for our campus community and alumni and friends. And you mentioned our North Star is being a pride point for you. Is there anything else that you haven't mentioned that is just really something that you feel great about in your heart as you go into your next chapter?

Father John: Well, I could mention a hundred things that I remember in terms of great successes but I think the thing overriding I'd say,—I kind of mentioned it but I'd repeat it—is that, you know, a lot of places, a lot of great universities have become great at research by, kind of, diminishing undergraduate...the importance of undergraduate teaching and the quality of undergraduate teaching.

And there's the temptation because you want to reward the great researchers but, you know, teaching is second, takes a second—a backseat. I don't think we've done that. I really think our faculty at Notre Dame know that–that teaching students is is absolutely critical so, that we've held those things in balance, but the third thing is, as we mentioned, the Catholic mission. That, you know, you can emphasize academic excellence—both teaching and research—and, kind of, turn away from this broader set of commitments that come from our Catholic mission. I don't think we've done that. I think we...those three things have stayed in balance and are equal parts of what we say we are, what we want to do, and how we understand ourselves.

And that's a hard thing to kind of...It's easy to do one of those things, but to do two and then three is pretty challenging. But, I quote our coach—our football coach—Marcus Freeman, he says, "Choose hard." Choose hard. I think, if I'm most proud of anything, is that we've "chose hard" and we've had some success at that.

Jenna Liberto: What excites you about your next phase of life?

Father John: Well, to be honest, what most excites me is having the time to go back to reading books, to writing, and to thinking, and to teaching. The thing about this job—which I've loved—is that your time is pretty heavily scheduled. And so you're always...There's a clock ticking in your head, you got to do the next thing, get on the next thing. So you don't have that time to really just reflect on things or to spend time, as much time with students as you'd like and so, I look forward to getting back and being a faculty member because it's a wonderful thing to be. So I think that's the thing that most excites me.

Also the fact that, you know, I won't get those calls at night or whatever that there's this problem or that problem. I could say, "Well, that's somebody else's problem."

Jenna Liberto: That it will be.

Father John: Yes.

Jenna Liberto: Now, Father Bob Dowd takes over as president on June 1. And during your time as president, you've certainly had a lot of members of the campus community and beyond praying for you. So my question for you is, what is your prayer for Father Bob now?

Father John: Well, you know, I'd say, you know, you don't come into these jobs fully prepared, you know? I wasn't. Though Bob's worked very hard in the past six months and he'll be well. But you're real...It's a learning curve. And so, I always felt that, however the day went, whatever stumbles and mistakes, or whatever happened...Come the next day knowing more and being better prepared.

So learn each day so that the next day you come in you're better prepared to do your job. And I think that attitude—and Bob will have it—is just learn every day and come in the next day better prepared to do your job. He'll be prepared when he starts but I think for anybody who takes a job like this we've got a lot to learn.

Jenna Liberto: Learn each day, we will take that to heart. Thank you for your time, Father John. Thank you for your time leading Our Lady's University.

Father John: Jenna, it's been a pleasure. I want to thank you for this conversation but I want to thank every member of the Notre Dame family for all they've done to make my time as president so successful. I know it's not me, I know it's them, and I couldn't be more grateful to them. And I just feel I've had the greatest blessing of working with such wonderful people.

Jenna Liberto: We're grateful as well, thank you.

Thanks for joining us for Notre Dame Stories, the official podcast of the University of Notre Dame. Find us on stories.nd.edu and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Notre Dame Stories is created by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. With Executive Producer Andy Fuller, Content Coordinator Staci Stickovich, Editors Michael Wiens and Jessica Sieff, Videographers Zach Dudka and Tony Fuller. Our music is by Alex Mansour. And I'm your host Jenna Liberto.

Notre Dame Stories is the official podcast of the University of Notre Dame. It was created by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. Hosted by Jenna Liberto with Executive Producer Andy Fuller, content coordination by Staci Stickovich, edited by Michael Wiens and Jessica Sieff, videography by Tony Fuller and Zach Dudka. Original music is by Alex Mansour. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Posted In: