Lest anyone think that the current graduation speaker controversy at the University of Notre Dame is merely a matter of partisan politics and media hype, it is worth a closer look. What is happening right now in South Bend, Ind., is not simply a critical moment of truth for a vaunted institution; it is also one of the greatest case studies ever about organizational identity and core principles.
When Jerry Porras and Jim Collins published their classic book Built to Last almost 20 years ago, they made the case that enduring institutions succeed by adhering to a core ideology, a combination of core values and core purpose. And one of the best ways to tell whether an organization is serious about those principles — and not merely using them as marketing fodder on posters and in brochures — is to see whether the organization will stand by them even in the face of punishment and criticism.
One company known for its adherence to core values is Southwest Airlines. There is a legendary story about an unhappy customer who sent a letter to Herb Kelleher, the founder and then CEO, complaining about the jokes that a flight attendant was mixing into his pre-flight safety announcements. Keep in mind that humor is and has always been a core value at Southwest.
Most CEOs in Kelleher’s situation would have sent the customer a note thanking her for her input, reminding her that she was a valued frequent flyer, and assuring her that safety was indeed important to the airline.
They might also call the local gate agents at the offending airport to remind them to keep the announcements appropriate. But Kelleher took a different approach, sending the woman a letter with just three words in it: “We’ll miss you.” There was no way he was going to violate one of his company’s core principles simply to please a constituency that didn’t appreciate the organization’s culture. To do so would be to sell its soul.
This brings us to Notre Dame and the unenviable situation facing Father Jenkins, the school’s current leader.
The first question that Father Jenkins must answer is this: What is at the core of your institution, and what are you willing to be punished and criticized for defending?
There are two clear choices.
One choice is the central teachings of the Catholic Church and the school’s reputation of faithfulness to those teachings. The other is the school’s reputation among academia and the media as an elite educational institution open to all points of view.
As much as some people would like to believe that Father Jenkins can have his cake and eat it too, there is no avoiding the dilemma that one principle will have to take priority over the other. And regardless of which way he goes, he will be criticized; he’ll just need to decide whose criticism matters more.
A second question that Father Jenkins needs to answer is this: Are there any issues that, if a president or politician were to support, would justify rescinding his invitation? Or does prestige and intellectual tolerance trump all other values? A hypothetical might help Father Jenkins here.
Suppose that a U.S. president held views that were clearly racist. Would Notre Dame still invite him to speak? And would it defend that decision by touting his other good qualities and his presidential stature? I would guess not. Why? Because one of the central teachings of Christ and the Church is that all people deserve love and dignity, something that racism always violates. Or would it be because it was politically incorrect and would provoke an outcry — and rightly so — from the media and academia?
What about a president who had made it clear through his words and actions that he was completely indifferent to the plight of the poor and to those with AIDS? Would he be awarded an honorary doctorate in the humanities? I don’t think so. Why? Because those views would fly in the face of the teachings of Christ and the Church. Or, again, would it be because of the criticism it would provoke from the world?
All of this begs the question: Are racism and indifference to the poor worse than abortion? In the eyes of much of the mainstream media and many people in the secular world, probably. But in the eyes of those who are faithful to the teachings of Christ and the Church he founded, one could never make that case. Father Jenkins would certainly agree with this.
So why would he even consider having President Obama speak, let alone honor him with a degree, even after so many have expressed their horror?
For one, there is the pain of the criticism he would have to endure, something none of us should underestimate. Rescinding Obama’s invitation would provoke a backlash from the media and members of academia, some of whom are on his own faculty who would say it was inconsistent, even racist. After all, Presidents Carter and Clinton were both pro-choice/pro-abortion, and they were allowed to speak. Is Obama different because he is African-American?
Regardless of whether the other pro-choice presidents should have been invited, it is undeniable that Obama goes far beyond them when it comes to his views on life. He has vowed, as one of the primary goals of his administration, to destroy every restriction on abortion put in place over the past 30 years, including the ban on the barbaric and grotesque procedure of partial-birth abortion. He has cast the deciding vote on two occasions to block the providing of care to babies who were born alive after failed abortion attempts. He is threatening to force doctors, nurses and Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and to do away with their conscience rights.
He has dismissed the life of an unborn child by referring to it as a “punishment” that someone who makes a “mistake” shouldn’t have to endure.
Now, regardless of one’s personal views on the issue of abortion, it is an objective fact that when it comes to matters of protecting the lives of the unborn, partially born, and “mistakenly born,” Barack Obama is more radical than any president or mainstream politician in American history. This is why Father Jenkins’ decision is so momentous and will have such a profound and irreversible impact on the school.
He will either bow to the pressures of the secular and academic world and honor his invitation to the president, choosing to disenfranchise those who see Notre Dame as Catholic first and academic second, or he should even now politely and humbly rescind his invitation to the president and make it clear to the world that more than the need to please academia and the media, it is the adherence to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church that is really at the core of the university. That would speak louder than any poster, brochure or half-time television commercial ever could.
Patrick Lencioni is the author of seven best-selling business books, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and a Harvard Business Review contributor.