(OSV News) – The longtime president of the University of Notre Dame will step down at the end of the current academic year to return to teaching and ministry at the school.
Father John I. Jenkins, a Holy Cross priest, announced the news on Friday, October 13, according a statement released by university officials.
Elected in 2005 as the university’s 17th president, Father Jenkins was most recently reelected by Notre Dame’s trustees to his fourth five-year term effective July 1, 2020.
Father Jenkins said his tenure as president had been “both a privilege and a calling.”
Under Father Jenkins’ leadership, Notre Dame saw significant growth and expansion, particularly in its research initiatives, global engagement, student diversity, and financial resources. The school was admitted this year to the Association of American Universities, which represents the nation’s leading research universities.
At the same time, Father Jenkins faced criticism at points during his tenure. Following a lawsuit filed by the university, he applauded a 2017 Trump administration expansion of the religious freedom exemption from a 2012 U.S. Health and Human Services mandate requiring most employers to include contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations in their employee health plans. However, Father Jenkins opted to allow third-party administrators to provide such coverage, saying the “university’s interest has never been in preventing access to those who make conscientious decisions to use contraceptives,” but was rather “to avoid being compelled by the federal government to be the agent in their provision.”
A 2016 decision by Father Jenkins to award then-Vice President Joe Biden the Laetare Medal – the oldest and most prestigious award for American Catholics – was rebuked by Bishop Rhoades, who said in a lengthy statement that it was “wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal.”
Similarly, a 2009 commencement address by President Barack Obama (part of the university’s custom of having U.S. presidents speak at the school graduation while in office) sparked backlash.
While in Rome participating in the Synod of Bishops, Bishop Rhoades issued a statement extending his “prayerful best wishes” to Father Jenkins “after 19 years of dedicated leadership and service.” Bishop Rhoades continued: “I am grateful that, in promoting the growth of research at the university, Father Jenkins has promoted the moral, spiritual, and religious dimensions of that research, an important part of Notre Dame’s distinctive Catholic identity. I am also grateful for Father Jenkins’ commitment to the pastoral ministry at Notre Dame and the spiritual welfare of the students, his dedication to Notre Dame’s service of our local Church as well as the wider Church throughout the world, and for his advocacy of civility in public discourse, so much needed in our nation and world today. I am personally happy that Father Jenkins will continue his priestly ministry here in our diocese, teaching and serving at Notre Dame.”
University officials noted in the school’s statement that John B. Veihmeyer, the retired chairman of KPMG International, has been elected as chair of Notre Dame’s board of trustees, effective June 2024 and succeeding current chair John J. Brennan.
Father Jenkins has throughout his career promoted civil discourse and has served as a longtime member of the Commission on Presidential Debates. In addition, he has been a leading national voice on college athletics. In a March 23, 2023, New York Times opinion piece he co-wrote with Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletics director, Father Jenkins called on universities “to reaffirm that student-athletes are students first and to ensure that their athletic programs serve the schools’ broader educational mission, not the other way around.”
Father Jenkins is a member of the university’s philosophy department, teaching on ancient and medieval philosophy, the relationship between faith and reason, and the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Notre Dame, along with a doctorate of philosophy from Oxford University and a master of divinity and licentiate in sacred theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in California.
His writings include the book “Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas,” as well as scholarly articles for The Journal of Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy and Theology, and the Journal of Religious Ethics.
Father Jenkins also has written on Catholic higher education, noting in a 2015 journal article that while “Catholic colleges and universities face significant challenges in the present context of American higher education,” such institutions, which are “situated in the Catholic intellectual life … can enjoy substantive orientation in their academic endeavors while fostering serious inquiry and vigorous debate.”
A search is now underway for the university’s next president, who will be elected by the trustees from among the priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which founded the school in 1842. The school’s governance was transferred in 1967 from the congregation to a two-tiered board of lay and religious trustees and fellows.
In his statement, Bishop Rhoades said he is “praying for the Board of Trustees in its search for a new president and for the Congregation of Holy Cross. I am most grateful for their commitment to maintain and strengthen the Catholic character of the University of Notre Dame.”
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