Skip to content

The University of Notre Dame announced last month the founding of a new center for the study of ethics, named for and led by the university’s soon-to-retire president, Fr. John Jenkins C.S.C. 

Fr. Jenkins hailed the new institution, telling The Pillar it will form the university’s “distinctively Catholic voice” as it speaks into the “great moral debates of the day.”  

The current Main Building with a golden dome
The Main Building at the University of Notre Dame. Credit: Matthew Rice/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

But some faculty and staff at Notre Dame say the new Jenkins Center for Virtue Ethics will crowd out the school’s existing ethics center, the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

Some faculty have told The Pillar that the Jenkins Center is being framed as academically serious, and given serious resources, while the academic work of the deNicola Center is downplayed, and the center has been prevented by Notre Dame from adding academic positions.

Observers critical of the new center warn that the university is pivoting away from one of the key sources of the Notre Dame’s Catholic character.

Leave a comment

As it prepares to launch, Fr. Jenkins described the work of his new namesake center with similarity to descriptions of the dCEC.

Jenkins told The Pillar that, “Notre Dame aspires to educate the whole person—mind, heart, and spirit—and this demands that we do all we can to help students cultivate moral virtues.” 

“Moreover, we say that our Catholic mission should inform scholarly work at Notre Dame, and an important way the university will do this is to become a global intellectual leader in the philosophical and theological tradition of virtue ethics,” Jenkins said.

In short, Fr. Jenkins hopes, “The [Jenkins] Center will help give Notre Dame a distinctively Catholic voice on the great moral debates of the day.”

To distinguish the work of the Jenkins Center from the de Nicola Center, professor Meghan Sullivan, who is director of the university’s “Ethics Initiative,” under which the Jenkins Center was established, seemed to some on campus to downplay the academic aspects of the de Nicola Center’s work on campus. 

The existing de Nicola Center will help students and faculty in their “engagement with Catholic Culture,” Sullivan told the student run Irish Rover, whereas the Jenkins Center “will be a university-wide center that focuses primarily on supporting best-in-class research and teaching in ethics, and working directly with deans, key departments, and faculty leaders across the university.”


Professors Jenny Martin and O. Carter Snead, the incoming and outgoing directors of the dCEC, objected to Sullivan’s framing of their institution’s role on campus. 

In an April 25 op-ed, they insisted: “By its charter, the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture was founded 25 years ago as an academic center.” This claim is especially supported by the work of their Senior Distinguished Fellows—Mary Anne Glendon, John Finnis, and Alasdair MacIntyre—the last of whom is famously the author of ‘After Virtue’ and ‘Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity.’”

Several academics who have collaborated with Notre Dame over the past two decades agreed with the objection raised by Martin and Snead.

Glendon— Professor of Law Emerita at Harvard University, who is also the former chair of the U.S. State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights and a member of U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics — told The Pillar that the de Nicola Center’s “research and programs have earned it an international reputation as the most interesting center for genuinely interdisciplinary dialogue, featuring a wide array of perspectives while remaining firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition.” 

The de Nicola Center is also a primary partner of Stanford University’s “Boundaries of Humanity” project. 

Dr. William Hurlbut, the director of that project, described the importance of this partnership: “The dCEC addresses crucial questions at their most fundamental level and explores them with the full breadth of perspectives, from ancient to modern, and from both theological to biological. They do this while drawing together for their events an extraordinary range of scientists and scholars, and a large audience of deeply engaged students, faculty, and laypeople.”

Harvard history professor James Hankins described his time as a visiting fellow at the de Nicola Center. 

For Hankins, “The main attraction [to work at the dCEC] was the freedom to work on my book, ‘Virtue Politics,’ which was published by Harvard University Press the following year.” 

His position at the dCEC provided Hankins “the opportunity to talk with Alasdair about my book and one of his own mentors, Elizabeth Anscombe, who had essentially invented virtue ethics.”

Professor Zena Hitz of St. Johns College in Annapolis completed her book, ‘Lost in Thought,’ while a visiting fellow as the dCEC. 

Hitz recounted: “The dCEC gave me leisure and peace, free from obligations, to write my book. More than that, they provided an intellectual community at the highest standard, so that I was encouraged to think harder and more carefully than I might have done elsewhere.” 

Princeton professor Robert George referred to the dCEC as “the most outstanding university-based center for the study of ethics in the United States.”

And Notre Dame professor David O’Connor argued that the framing of the Jenkins Center does not successfully distinguish its place on campus from that of the dCEC. 

O’Connor described the Jenkins Center as “subsuming the institutional space that has been occupied by the de Nicola Center.” 

Leave a comment

But despite the dCEC’s academic work, Jenkins dismissed concerns about the two centers’ overlap, reaffirming Sullivan’s description of the distinction. 

“The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture will continue to perform its unique mission on campus, which includes creating spaces for students and faculty to deepen their engagement with Catholic culture,” Jenkins explained. The Jenkins Center, on the other hand, “will support ethics research and best practices in the teaching of ethics, and will also work to bring Catholic scholarship into conversation with approaches to virtue ethics that originate in other major faith traditions.”

Jenkins also expressed hope that the two centers, along with various departments and research initiatives, “will collaborate to create a powerful ecosystem for studying ethics at Notre Dame.”

Martin and Snead, for their part, spoke positively about such possible collaboration with the Jenkins Center, explaining “The dCEC has a rich history of collaboration with partners on campus and off (e.g., with the Wilson Sheehan Laboratory for Economic Opportunity on research focused on maternal group homes or with Stanford’s ‘Boundaries of Humanity’ initiative). We always welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with others on projects that explore the deepest and most pressing questions concerning human flourishing, dignity, and the common good.”

In support of its academic aspirations, Father Jenkins described that the Jenkins Center “will establish faculty positions for leading ethicists and support research projects that advance our understanding of this tradition and its application to many emerging ethical issues.” 

But professors Martin and Snead suggested that the dCEC already fills that role at Notre Dame.

In addition to their support of the research and projects described above, Martin and Snead’s op-ed noted, “The dCEC has provided funding to recruit, hire, and retain outstanding regular faculty both at the entry and senior levels. Currently, the de Nicola Center sponsors nine faculty lines (including two endowed chairs) in the Colleges of Arts & Letters, the College of Science, the Law School, and the Keough School.” 

The dCEC sponsors these faculty members who are then hired into various academic departments at Notre Dame. 

The mechanics of how the Jenkins Center will establish faculty positions are unclear. 

The press release which announced the establishment of the Jenkins Center said that the center would be a “signature element of the Notre Dame Ethics Initiative, which emerged from the University’s strategic framework” —and which would be led by retiring university president Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. 

In fall 2023 under the Ethics Initiative, before the Jenkins Center was announced, Notre Dame planned to “make strategic hiring investments in departments and area groups.” But now that the Jenkins Center has been established under the Ethics Initiative, it has not been made clear whether the Jenkins Center will hire faculty through standard departmental job searches or if the center will be able to hire faculty directly. 

The Ethics Initiative also announced last fall that it would “work to establish an ethics institute.”

Institutes at Notre Dame, such as the McGrath Institute for Church Life, typically can hire faculty directly to serve as “Professor of the Practice.” 

Centers, such as the dCEC, are usually unable to hire faculty directly, relying instead upon other departments or institutes in the university to hire the faculty members whom they fund. It is unknown whether the Jenkins Center will follow this distinction.

During the 2023–2024 academic year, the dCEC sought permission to establish its own faculty position, seeking to expand its academic work on campus. 

Despite Fr. Jenkins’ and Professor Sullivan’s claims that the dCEC is primarily concerned with engaging with Catholic Culture rather than academic, the university denied the attempt to create a faculty position. 

The provost did not allow the dCEC to create a position for its proposed hire, Jason Baxter, after he had spent two years teaching at Notre Dame. Instead Baxter became the director of the Center for Beauty and Culture, at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Baxter told The Pillar that he wished the dCEC had had more flexibility at Notre Dame. 

“I was excited that dCEC wanted to sponsor me, so I could continue to teach my courses in theology and literature at the university.” He continued: “I think if the dCEC were allowed more freedom in making the [Congregation of] Holy Cross’s historical mission a part of Notre Dame, the university would be more vital and more characteristic. No one needs some copy-cat, Catholic attempt to mirror some other allegedly elite research university.”

For his part, Fr. Jenkins noted “universities such as Princeton and Oxford” which “also have dedicated interdisciplinary research centers which support faculty and students as they tackle ambitious research and teaching initiatives in ethics,” as precedent for the new center. 

But “no other university has a major ethics center dedicated to research in virtue ethics,” he argued “which is the most powerful, enduring contribution of the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Share The Pillar

Notre Dame professor Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., disagreed that no elite university has such a center, because, he told the Irish Rover, Notre Dame itself has that center in the dCEC.

“There is no need for a new center of this sort because the dCEC has long addressed the whole area of virtue ethics.”

Father Miscamble further called the Jenkins Center a “rather ill-considered venture assumed hurriedly to take advantage of Fr. John Jenkins’ retirement.” 

Jenkins himself confirmed that his namesake center is a newly conceived idea.

Jenkins told The Pillar that while the plans for the center “arise from commitments at the core of Notre Dame’s mission” which he “has long emphasized,” the “plans for a center are new.”

Miscamble’s concern — that the Jenkins Center might create a redundancy — matches a concern outlined in the 10-year strategic framework released by Notre Dame last fall, which has been cited as the Jenkins Center’s inspiration. 

Rather than continue the rapid formation of new centers and institutes at the university, which marked the past decades of Notre Dame, the framework outlined that the university will focus instead on “more thoughtful collaboration as well as the consolidation of related programs.” 

But whether the Jenkins Center will simply hire new faculty into the university and collaborate with the dCEC and other centers on campus, or if the concerns that its establishment is intended to sideline the dCEC are justified, remains to be seen.

Subscribe now

Comments 20