We lost a giant with the passing of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the former President of the University of Notre Dame, on Thursday, February 26. “Father Ted” was a national leader and not simply the head of a major university. He had the courage to challenge a sitting U.S. President, his own Catholic church, and even big time college football. He won two out of three.
After Father Hesburgh spoke out, President Richard M. Nixon backed away from his plan to use federal troops to quell student demonstrations. After Father Hesburgh insisted that the purpose of Catholic higher education was to search for truth and not merely to propagate the faith as the Vatican maintained, his Church backed off. However, big-time football proved too formidable an obstacle for this courageous man, and football’s sorry pattern–low admission standards, lower graduation rates and unacceptable (often criminal) behavior in pursuit of television money–continues unchecked.
The obituary in the New York Times captures the man’s greatness. It notes that “Father Hesburgh was for decades considered the most influential priest in America. In 1986, when he retired after a record 35 years as president of Notre Dame, a survey of 485 university presidents named him the most effective college president in the country.” For more of the story, see the University’s website.
Father Hesburgh advised Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, but proximity to power did not prevent him from speaking truth. As Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he battled the Nixon Administration over busing for purposes of desegregation and other civil rights issues; he eventually resigned from the Commission, a black eye for Nixon.
Will we look upon his like again? That seems questionable, at least in American higher education, where ‘leadership’ seems to be focused on raising money to put up new buildings on campus, and not our pressing social problems.
I hope you will read or re-read “A Deafening Silence,” my blog from May 2012. I wrote it after a 15-year-old New Orleans student we had gotten to know was gunned down–executed– merely because some other kids suspected that she might be able to identify them.
Toward the end of the piece I raised this question:
I want to know where all the leaders have gone. Where are the university presidents, once moral and ethical leaders of our nation? Remember Clark Kerr, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, James Bryant Conant, Fr. Timothy Healy, Bart Giamatti, Kingman Brewster and Robert Maynard Hutchins? The nation once looked to them for counsel, and they were willing to speak forcefully on the key moral issues of our time.
We are living in an age of economic inequality that is unprecedented, but have the Presidents of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago or Princeton spoken out? They must be aware that nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty and being denied a fair shot at what we used to call The American Dream, and yet they are silent.
Gun violence is tearing our urban centers apart, and the blood that’s most often shed seems to be that of promising young children. Why the deafening silence from our leading campuses?
I was on the campus of Notre Dame earlier this week and had the privilege of spending 30 minutes with Fr. Hesburgh, now nearly 95. ‘Father Ted’ happens to be one of my heroes, but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to shake his hand. Though hampered by failing eyesight, he is as bright, strong and forceful as anyone I know, and I walked away from our meeting inspired by him — but depressed by the resounding silence of those occupying university presidential suites today.
Remember, this was seven months before the Newtown massacre, another preventable tragedy that was also followed by a deafening silence most of from American higher education. I wrote about it in early January, 2013.
Neither of these pieces is an anti-gun rant, although I believe we are crazy to make it so easy for just about anyone to get a gun. This is about leadership, or the lack thereof.
But perhaps we will look upon Fr. Hesburgh’s like again. A candidate, in my view, is Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, the long-serving President of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County. He was one of the few Presidents who spoke out forcefully after the Newtown murders, and he has been a consistent, eloquent and effective force for opportunities for students of color, particularly those from low-income communities. His book, “Holding Fast to Dreams,” crossed my desk yesterday in ‘uncorrected page proof’ form. It will be available in May, and I hope many of you will read it and reflect upon the leadership lessons.
Meantime please, a prayer or other appropriate expression for Fr. Hesburgh. Rest in peace….