“Learn every day.” Father John reflects on 19 years as president


Jenna Liberto, Director of Internal Communications, does a podcast interview with University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I Jenkins, C.S.C., at ND Studios. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

“I always felt that however the day went, whatever stumbles or mistakes or whatever happened, [you] come [back] the next day knowing more and being better prepared,” Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., says as he settles into the final questions of our interview in ND Studios.

“Learn every day” was his mantra as the University’s new leader 19 years ago. It’s one he has carried throughout his almost two decades as president and the same wish he now shares with his successor, Rev. Bob Dowd, C.S.C.

“I’d say you don’t come into these jobs fully prepared. I wasn’t. Bob’s worked very hard in the past six months, but it’s a learning curve. 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.”

Then, from where do we learn? The more appropriate question may be “from whom?” Listening to Father John reflect on highlights of his time at the helm of Our Lady’s University, that answer is clear: from those around us.

There’s an astoundingly robust list of accomplishments on his resume, from the unmatched growth in research to the heightened caliber of admitted students to increased global impact. You can read more about those on page eight. But Father Jenkins quickly shares his pride for those milestones in the context of his fellow University staff and faculty members — and their teams — who made them happen.

“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. So one of the great days at Notre Dame was when I hired Tom Burish as provost; Tom was masterful. He had been provost at Vanderbilt, he had been president at Washington and Lee [University]. So he was highly experienced, and really, Tom had a sense of ‘how do we build this?’”

What followed were strategic investments in science and engineering, great hires and incremental progress driven by faculty and staff. The result: Notre Dame’s invitation last summer to join the Association of American Universities, the most prestigious research association in the country. It was a longstanding goal for Father Jenkins, and a significant milestone in the University’s current trajectory.

“It’s a recognition for [our faculty] more than it is for me. We just have superb faculty and evermore impact of our research here at Notre Dame,” he says. “There’s this image from this book I read of a flywheel, and when you start the flywheel, you’re just pushing and 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. [Vice President for Research] Jeff Rhoads and [Provost] John McGreevy will continue that trajectory, and I think they’ll just build on what we’ve accomplished so far.”

Read further reflections from Father Jenkins in NDWorks Quarterly, on campus ahead of Commencement. You can also watch the full interview, including what he says he’ll miss most about the role of president — and what he won’t mind giving up — on the Notre Dame Stories Podcast below. For more from this series, visit Notre Dame Stories online or search Notre Dame Stories wherever you listen to podcasts.