Campus Scenes

When Towers Fall — At Notre Dame

Does the Catholic mission of a Catholic institution still have meaning?

By 6.20.11

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In the fall of 2010, a shock wave went through the community of the University of Notre Dame. A junior, Declan Sullivan, was killed when the tower, an elevated scissor lift, upon which he was standing to videotape a football practice fell over due to a strong wind. The university administration commissioned a six-month investigation the results of which were released on April 18. Among other things, the investigation recommended that specific personnel be charged with obtaining timely information on meteorological conditions, that such information be shared with various personnel, and that various personnel be required to make decisions based upon the information.

Because these same lessons were not applied in a different context 11 days later, other towers at the University are falling. On April 29, at the spring meeting of the Board of Trustees, Roxanne Martino, was elected to the Board. In announcing her election, the University's press release stated:

Martino joined Aurora Investment Management in 1990 and now leads the Chicago firm, which manages more than $8 billion in funds of hedge funds designed to meet various investment mandates, including multi-strategy formats. She previously worked for seven years as a senior manager with Coopers & Lybrand and for more than six years at Grosvenor Capital Management, where she was a general partner.

Martino earned a bachelor's degree in business from Notre Dame and a master's of business administration degree from the University of Chicago. She has served as a member and chair of the advisory council for Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, is a member of the Executive Education advisory board at Notre Dame, and serves on the investment subcommittee of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services.

Ms. Martino's position as trustee was short-lived. She resigned on June 8. (Given her reasons for resigning, one would think that the other two roles with the University and her role with Catholic Relief Services identified in the press release announcing her election as trustee would also be terminated.)

What happened between April 29 and June 8? On May 11, the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to renewing and strengthening the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges, disclosed that Ms. Martino had given large sums of money on a regular basis for eight years or so to pro-abortion groups such as Emily's List. A storm arose and is blowing down the twin towers of the Chairman of the Board, Richard Notebaert, and the President, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (a Holy Cross Father).

Nine days later, on May 20, Project Sycamore, an organization devoted to maintaining Notre Dame's Catholic identity, reported that Ms. Martino had been donating to Emily's List since 1998. On the same day, an alumnus and columnist, William McGurn, supplied Notebaert's defense of the election of Martino, quoting his email to other trustees:

First, it's inaccurate to characterize Roxanne Martino as pro-choice. Ms. Martino (along with her husband, Rocco) is a Notre Dame graduate, and she is fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of life. 

She has through the years contributed to organizations that provide a wide range of important services and support to women. She did not realize, however, that several of these organizations also take a pro-choice position. This is not her personal position, and she will now review all of her contributions to ensure that she does not again inadvertently support these kinds of activities in the future.

On June 1 and again on June 3, McGurn published additional reports. In the June 1st report, he quoted an email from Father Jenkins to concerned alumni that quoted nearly verbatim Chairman Notabaert's email. In his June 3rd report, McGurn observed that Ms. Martino had given money to yet another pro-abortion organization, Illinois Personal Pac.

In a column (dated June 10), George Weigel quoted an email from Chairman Notebaert to McGurn: Martino is precisely "the sort of person we want on our board": someone who is "a Notre Dame graduate, loving parent, dedicated to national and international service, a highly regarded professional in her field, and committed to all Catholic teachings."

In the University's June 8 press release announcing Ms. Martino's resignation, Ms. Martino is quoted as saying:

I dearly love my alma mater and remain fully committed to all aspects of Catholic teaching and to the mission of Notre Dame. I had looked forward to contributing in this new role, but the current controversy just doesn't allow me to be effective.

I beg your pardon, Ms. Martino. It is not the controversy that doesn't allow you to be effective, it is your underlying behavior that doesn't allow you to be an effective trustee of a Catholic institution.

And Chairman Notebaert is quoted in the press release as saying:

Ms. Martino has served Notre Dame in many ways over the years and is highly regarded as someone who is absolutely dedicated in every way to the Catholic mission of this University.… She has lived her life and faith in an exemplary way, including the counsel and support she has provided to Notre Dame, many other Catholic institutions and Thresholds, an organization that provides programs for thousands of people with severe mental illness.

In recommending to the full Board the election of Ms. Martino as a trustee, Chairman Notebaert and Father Jenkins did not apply the recommendations made in the investigation of Declan Sullivan's death. Either they did not obtain information about Ms. Martino's donations or, although they obtained the information, they did not share it with the Board members. And when the storm arose, they compounded their breach of duty by flailing around and making the stupidest of arguments: Ms. Martino supports Church teaching on the sanctity of life and she did not know the organizations were pro-abortion.

One would expect that the chairman of a board of trustees and president of a university would act as towers to the students, providing a vision over the field of life. But these two men have fallen -- at least twice now. In 2009, they honored pro-abortion President Obama at the commencement. They compounded this error by allowing the arrest of 88 people on that occasion, including an elderly priest, in clerical garb, kneeling, reciting the prayers of the rosary. (Rather impossible to determine if he was demonstrating but for the fact he was out of place.) And now they have striven to bring a pro-abortion supporter to the University they believed to be someone highly capable of being entrusted with its Catholic mission now and well into the future.

One would also expect that the faculty of a Catholic institution would be protective of the institution's Catholic mission. But not the faculty of the University of Notre Dame. Three times in recent years now, the faculty has dissed Catholicism and its efforts to protect human life:

• On April 16, 2008, one day before Pope Benedict's address on April 17 at the Catholic University of America to presidents of Catholic universities (an event Father Jenkins attended), the University Faculty Senate issued a "Faculty Response to University Initiative on Hiring Faculty." It resolved "The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity" and no numerical goal in hiring Catholic faculty should be permitted. The faculty is willing to "compromise aspirations" (affirmative action) in order to achieve gender, racial, and ethnic diversity, but not Catholic identity, among the faculty. (If then South Bend-Fort Wayne Bishop D'Arcy's characterization of the invitation to President Obama in 2009 as the university's choice of "prestige over truth" is correct, and it is, then the election of Ms. Martino reflected the university's choice of "gender and diversity over truth.")

• In 2009, the faculty senate roundly supported the decision to honor President Obama.

• On March 1, 2011, the faculty senate, by a vote of 22 to 8, disapproved of a resolution that would have supported two of the pro-life initiatives undertaken by Father Jenkins after he had dishonored himself and the University with the honor given Obama: his appearances at the 2010 and 2011 Marches for Life in Washington, D.C., and the establishment of a Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life.

Notre Dame has a saying that "their blood is in the bricks," meaning that the founders and early faculty's lifeblood was spent to start and sustain the place as a Catholic institution. (My forebears attended the school beginning in the 1860s.) If the current faculty cannot bring themselves to support Notre Dame's Catholic mission, they should do the honorable thing and leave.

Last fall, Notre Dame did everything it could to prevent the perception that it had acted in reckless disregard of the physical safety of one of its students, especially in order to promote football. Can it permit itself to be perceived to act in reckless disregard of its fiduciary duty to students, parents, benefactors and alumni/ae to maintain its raison d'être, its exceptionalism, as a Catholic institution?

Postscript for readers who are not Catholic. Do you have a dog in this fight? Yes, on two bases. First, the American people are well-served by having institutions of every sort -- educational, charitable, medical, etc. -- run by organizations of every sort, including religious denominations. If Notre Dame becomes yet another formerly religious elite college (with a veneer of Catholicism), that is, if the bell tolls for Notre Dame, do not "send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (John Donne)

Second, the American people, young and old, need to see promises being kept across generations. Their hope is founded not in change, but in continuity. The founders and benefactors and administrators of our institutions make commitments and set expectations. These commitments and expectations must be kept. This is why the Bass family brought a suit against Yale and the Robertson family brought a suit against Princeton. When Notre Dame changed hands from the Congregation of the Holy Cross to lay trustees in 1967, solemn commitments were made to continue the University as a Catholic institution. The lay trustees, and the members of the Holy Cross Order who are also trustees, have vows. Paraphrasing Robert Frost, "The secular woods may be lovely, dark and deep. But Notre Dame has promises to keep."

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.