Father Jenkins describes his unexpected path to the presidency

NOW: Father Jenkins describes his unexpected path to the presidency


Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., is one of the most influential people in the world but his path to presidency actually came as a surprise. Father Jenkins discussed his time as a student and professor at Notre Dame and why campus always felt like home.

Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, never dreamed he would one day become president of one of the most prestigious Catholic universities traveling around the world shaking hands with global leaders.

He was just 1 of 12 kids growing up in Omaha, Nebraska.

A popular student at Creighton Preparatory School, Father Jenkins was actively involved in sports.

A member on the state championship swim team, he also played soccer and football and was even named prom king of the class of 1972.

After graduation he went to Creighton University where his father was a member of the medical school staff.

During his sophomore year Father Jenkins followed his brother Tom's lead and transferred to the University of Notre Dame.

"I think I was attracted by the academic quality of the place, that was clear. By the sense of community, by the sense of moral purpose of education that was meaningful to me. And also, it's engagement at the time in the great issues of the time that I wanted in a college. So it was a combination of things that made it attractive to me," Father Jenkins said.

And immediately, it felt like home.

"The campus itself was just so beautiful and you can't come on it without that sense that it's a special place. I wouldn't name a particular place or anything but it was more just the feel of the place. It was a serious place but there was a sense of community, people belonged to one another and I had a sense of belonging to something bigger," Father Jenkins said.

Was his experience 'typical' on campus?

"Oh sure, my experience was pretty typical," Father Jenkins said. "I played interhall football, I was a swimmer in high school so I swam a little bit. I was engaged in clubs and just hung out like any student would do. I liked to play sports, we played basketball, that was kind of a nice release. I did find it a very intellectually engaging campus. There was always a speaker, topics to discuss. It was great in that way. I had wonderful teachers so it was great in that way. I will say it was and it still is now, but it was challenging, so you had to put your nose to the grindstone."

Father Jenkins was a big football fan even traveling to an away game at Northwestern.

He experienced the tail end of Ara Parseghian's tenure.

"He was more than a football coach, he was an important figure, an iconic figure," Father Jenkins said.

Father Jenkins graduated with his undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1976 and completed his masters at Notre Dame in 1978.

"I had a sense of where am I going? As I say after you graduate you sort of have to answer those questions. You know you didn't want to drift. That led to the process of reflection. I posed it to myself, 'What would be a meaningful life? What would be a significant life?' Not just a job or just doing things but what would have consequence? And that's what led me to this," Father Jenkins said.

He was ordained a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1983.

"It was sort of walking down a path and trying to find one's direction and finally it coalescing at a certain point," Father Jenkins said.

That's when the rest of Father Jenkins' life began to take shape.

After earning a doctoral degree from Oxford University, he returned to Notre Dame as a philosophy professor and eventually worked his way up through the administration ranks.

Did he ever imagine he would become president of the university?

"No, no it never entered my mind. It was never, 'Oh it's a possibility.' I was a philosophy major and I was quite interested in philosophy and I did dream of being a professor. I kind of admired my professors and that was a dream of mine. But to be the president of Notre Dame? The thought didn't even cross my mind. It didn't even enter my vision," Father Jenkins said.

What wasn't even a dream became a reality in 2005 when he was elected the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame.

"I tell our students life is full surprises. You really can't over plan your life because things come in that you didn't anticipate. You find you're good at things you didn't think you were good at, so you can't over plan. You have to have a plan but allow, you know, new possibilities to enter and be open to those," Father Jenkins said.

Father Jenkins said the accomplishment he's most proud of is the team he's built around him.

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