By Frank Walker
May 10, 2009 - A great deal of criticism has been leveled at Notre Dame President, Rev John I. Jenkins, for his choice to honor President Obama at this year’s commencement. But Fr. Jenkins, like all university presidents, must consider the will of the school’s governing board. The Notre Dame Board of Trustees is a powerful organization, comprised of top international business owners, chairs of rich endowments, academic leaders, judges, attorneys, faculty, and prominent clergy. These individuals are typically very wealthy, well-connected and highly accomplished; many with broad interests outside the university. A closer look at the board and its affiliations might shed light on just how Notre Dame came to this decision.
Many of the influential alumni on the Notre Dame board are from the nearby Chicago area, and are part of the same Chicago power structure that President Obama ascended. Richard and Peggy Notebaert are leading members of the ND community, and Notebaert is chair of the Notre Dame trustees. While Obama served in the senate, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, received federal funding earmarked by Obama.. Key Obama campaign fundraiser, Frank Clark served on the board of the Notebaert Museum at the time. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where ND trustee Arthur Velasquez is on the board, also received millions in earmarks. Velasquez contributed to Obama’s campaigns in 04 and 08.
Chicago power at Notre Dame extends to political posts as well. Justice Ann Claire Williams was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1999 to the U.S. Court of Appeals 7th District. In 2004 she ruled that the Department of Justice could not subpoena hospital abortion records to enforce the ban on partial birth abortions. Left-leaning Chicago politics has a place on the Notre Dame governing board. Currently Ann Claire Williams is receiving serious attention among the top three possible Obama replacements for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
Some Notre Dame board members have made ethical misjudgments in the past. Chicago trustee Philip B. Rooney, Chairman of Claddagh Investments, is former CEO of Waste Management Inc., the world’s largest waste services company. In 2002 Rooney and Waste Management, along with Arthur Andersen, Enron and others, were indicted by the SEC in a massive fraud case. WMI management eventually settled for 30.8 million in penalties. The SEC barred Rooney permanently from being an officer in a public company. He divested most of his own stock before the investigations caused shareholder assets to plummet. Despite this history Rooney retains his board position at Notre Dame today.
ND Trustee Douglas Tong Hsu is chairman of Far Eastern Group, a 32-billion dollar Chinese conglomerate. Hsu’s strong political connections in Taiwan lean toward unification with mainland China. He recently stated that democratic governance is a hindrance to investment, and praised communist China's system for being more favorable to business with its staunch system of rule. In 2006 Hsu was indicted for breach of trust and forgery in connection with a major department store takeover. These charges also involved the Taiwanese first lady, Wu Shu-chen. With Douglas Tong Hsu, the political and business interests of the PRC have influence at Notre Dame. In 2006, ND President Jenkins led a small delegation to East Asia, where they met with Hsu, and travelled to communist Beijing to develop partner programs for the university.
There are Notre Dame trustees who directly support Obama administration goals. Dr. Mary Anne Fox is chancellor at UC San Diego and Vice-Chair of the National Science Board. Recently Fox announced the opening of a new research facility where the school will cultivate and experiment on human embryonic stem cells. The laboratory will partner with Scripps Research and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA where Fox also sits on the leadership council. In 2007 the Institute hosted a stem cell ethics conference. R. Alta Charo, bioethicist and advisor to the Obama transition team was a key speaker. At UCSD the bio-engineering department has just established a partnership with Tsinghua University in China, to further their research.
Raymond G. Chambers, co-founder of anti-poverty organization Millenium Promise, serves on the ServiceNation leadership council. ServiceNation is a political group that supports the enormous multiplication of federal national service programs in the Obama agenda, including the just-passed Kennedy Serve America Act. The Kennedy act was touted as the “largest expansion of community and national service since the launch of the Civilian Conservation Corps.” In September, Chambers was a panelist at the ServiceNation Summit as special envoy for malaria, United Nations.
Several Notre Dame board members lead American banks and major investment houses, where the federal government has sunk billions in bailout funds and stock purchases. Robert Conway was head of Goldman Sachs (AIG). Philip J. Purcell was formerly CEO of Morgan Stanley and COO of Dean Witter. Enrique Hernandez Jr. is on the board of Wells Fargo Bank. Business leaders in this sector are under increasing pressure to appeal to the Obama administration, the Treasury Department, and the US Congress for their survival and direction.
In conclusion, a review of the Board of Trustees at Notre Dame does NOT reveal a particularly strong Catholic identity. There are board members whose actions and associations put them in a position directly at odds with Church teaching and in line with the Obama administration. At the Notre Dame board we see a group of well-connected well-heeled individuals from all sectors of society, and at the most prominent levels. Taking a stand against inviting the President of the United States would likely jeopardize membership in the elite club where they travel. Therefore it is highly unlikely that there will be any movement from within the board to rescind invitation to President Obama.