“The Moving Finger Writes….”

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….

8 thoughts on ““The Moving Finger Writes….”

  1. Hesburgh was a giant no question.

    But his football legacy is a little nuanced. Yes he wanted to see college football standards elevated. But not to the point where he wanted ND to withdraw, or to the point of fielding inferior teams.

    He wrote after the national championship 1964 season: “there is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football.” He wanted things to be done the right way – integrate the team, have higher academic standards than other big-time schools, no cheating, etc – but there is no question he wanted to win. He took steps to bring in big-time coaches – like Ara and Lou Holtz. And ND won several national championships on his watch.

    Thanks for making note of this titan.

    I admired him greatly.


    • Appreciate your posting this. He was a fierce competitor in everything, I understand, but standards and ethics trumped winning. On his watch, Notre Dame proved you could win on many levels, including academics and sports.


  2. The death of Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame at 97 is an occasion for thinking about a life well and truly lived. I came to know him when he was chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and I was the Scholar-in-Residence in the early l970s. I am a political scientist who has closely watched and studied government, especially on civil rights issues, for more than forty years and often been involved in major cases and policy disputes at all levels of government. I have seen some of the best and the worst our society has to offer in terms of moral vision and courage (and observed the general inclination to avoid the issues if possible) and Hesburgh was remarkable. He was appointed to the Commission by President Eisenhower and President Nixon initially supported him as Commission chair because he had been tough on students trying to occupy campus buildings. Hesburgh was a profoundly faithful, but self-critical, Catholic and an amazing builder of a major university, but he knew discrimination was a sin and he was unambiguously committed to rooting it out of the society. I vividly remember one session of the Commission on a sensitive issue when after a serious discussion he looked around and said to the commissioners something like “we know what the morally right decision is, don’t we” (the only time I’ve seen anything like this in D.C.) and the conversation ended and the decision was made. He was famous among Commission staff because he was unpretentious and incredibly accessible.y He lived in a room on campus and if anyone had a message sent by the end of the day it would be put under his door and there would be an answer the next day, no matter who the person was.
    When President Nixon began to implement his “Southern strategy” which was to transform the GOP and make its base in the white South a central element was adopting Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace’s attack on what he called “forced busing,” and beginning to transfer the courts into what became enemies of civil rights, Commission President Hesburgh spoke out unambiguously, calling it what it was and was rewarded by being the very first target for dismissal after Nixon’s reelection– a badge of honor. He continued to very actively support and speak out about civil rights and had a special concern for Latinos and the immigration crisis of the l980s. I had a chance to see him on the campus several times later and he was always strongly interested and committed to civil rights from the depth of his heart. I have been around higher education long enough to know that very few could touch this level of commitment.


  3. Nice piece, John. My father would have had a lot to add about his greatness.

    I will also add that I think Fr. Hesburgh would have approved of you looking forward and highlighting new effective leaders in this piece.


  4. Worth noting about Freeman Hrabowski that his dedication to Justice is lifelong. as a 12 year sold self-described geek or nerd in Birmingham AL he was alone one of the young people who in erase sooner to Dr. King was arrested


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