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What Notre Dame's Trustee Resignation Means

Controversy Over School's Pro-Life Identity Continues

BY Joan Frawley Desmond

Register Senior Editor

July 3-16, 2011 Issue | Posted 6/24/11 at 6:29 PM

 

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After critics conducted a month-long campaign that raised questions about the suitability of a new member of the board of trustees at the University of Notre Dame, that trustee abruptly resigned June 8.

Roxanne Martino is a Notre Dame alumna and successful money manager who made sizable donations to pro-abortion political-action committees.

The university posted a terse notice announcing the resignation on its website: “Roxanne Martino has resigned from the University of Notre Dame Board of Trustees, effective immediately, in the wake of reports criticizing donations she has made to organizations that characterize themselves as pro-choice.”

Martino’s resignation ended the latest chapter in an increasingly public struggle over the religious identity and institutional direction of the nation’s pre-eminent Catholic university. But critics vowed to continue to challenge policies they view as hostile to the university’s storied legacy.

The campaign to expose troubling details about Martino’s history of financial support for pro-abortion political organizations was initiated by the Cardinal Newman Society. Two years earlier, after Notre Dame announced plans to honor President Barack Obama at its 2009 commencement exercises, the Cardinal Newman Society launched a website and a petition campaign that provided a forum for a groundswell of outrage from Catholics who repudiated the president’s commitment to abortion rights. Many U.S. bishops publicly rebuked the university.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, expressed a measure of relief that an individual with a history of financial support for pro-abortion organizations would not be setting policy for the university. But he asserted that the administration’s handling of the controversy provided little reassurance that a broad reassessment of other troubling actions was under way: “Since the Obama controversy, we have raised numerous concerns that have been brushed off by the university. For example, Notre Dame just announced that Daniel J. Myers, a sociology professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters — who had repeatedly sponsored the Vagina Monologues — has been promoted to vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs.”


Ignorance an Excuse?

The Cardinal Newman Society and alumni groups concerned about Martino’s record say their unease has been deepened by the university’s refusal to address the charges leveled by critics in an open and transparent manner.

Both Martino and Richard Notebaert, chairman of the board of trustees, also issued statements marking her resignation, but no apologies or explanations were offered to the Notre Dame fellows that approved her appointment or the concerned Notre Dame alumni who sought and received assurance that she had not knowingly donated to pro-abortion organizations.

Nor did their public statements provide evidence to bolster perhaps the most curious assertion made by university officials: Martino, a top investment-fund executive with billions of dollars under management, remained unaware of the political goals of Emily’s List and the Chicago-based Personal PAC, despite donating an estimated $27,000 over many years, increasing the likelihood that she would have received detailed communications about their political mission.

“Ms. Martino has served Notre Dame in many ways over the years and is highly regarded as someone who is absolutely dedicated in every way to the Catholic mission of this university,” said Notebaert in a statement that applauded the former trustee’s record of community service.

Martino’s statement stipulated that she remained “fully committed to all aspects of Catholic teaching and to the mission of Notre Dame.” She did not explain how she squared her Catholic faith with her financial commitments to pro-abortion political groups.

Bill Dempsey, the president of the Sycamore Trust, a group of reform-minded Notre Dame alumni who seek to strengthen the university’s Catholic identity, suggested that the lack of transparency raised additional questions.

“The university cannot even bring itself to concede that Emily’s List and the Illinois State Personal PAC are pro-choice. The university says these groups ‘characterize themselves as pro-choice,’ as in he says he is Christian. Is the suggestion that Ms. Martino just did not believe them?” observed Dempsey.

He noted that the statements issued by Martino and Notebaert made no attempt to set the record straight about her contributions or how they might pose problems for her appointment to the board of trustees of a Catholic university.

“There is not the faintest hint that her actions bore upon her qualifications for the board of the university,” said Dempsey. Rather, the statements “seem to be saying that her association with pro-abortion organizations is fully in harmony with the mission of this Catholic university.

“Unhappily, this is of a piece with Mr. Notebaert’s actions, joined in by Father Jenkins, throughout this scandalous episode.”


No Comment

Asked to respond to the concerns raised by the university’s critics, Martino, Notebaert and Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the university, declined to comment. Dennis Brown, a university spokesman, offered no additional information in an email message: “We issued a news release on this matter yesterday and have nothing more to add.”

The apparent disparity between the university’s press release and the public record of Martino’s political contributions underscores the challenges and opportunities created by the Internet. It is a new era of heightened transparency and faster distribution of reports and arguments critical of institutions such as Notre Dame that once were able to withhold sensitive information.

Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, professor of history and president of the Notre Dame chapter of University Faculty for Life, spoke of the controversy in a presentation at Alumni Day in May. He spoke of the need to keep Notre Dame a pro-life institution as part of its Catholic identity. Several members of the board of trustees were present at Father Miscamble’s talk.

Following Martino’s resignation, Father Miscamble said he was “grateful” that Martino “had the decency to resign from the board of trustees, but very disappointed that she included no apology in her statement for her sad record of donations to Emily’s List and other virulently pro-abortion PACs like Illinois State Personal PAC.”

“There is clearly a need for a serious investigation as to how this appointment was made and how similar appointments can be avoided in the future. Such action will be supported by all those who love Notre Dame and want it to be an unambiguously pro-life institution,” said Father Miscamble.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which is in the process of increasing its journalistic investigations of Catholic colleges’ policies and practices, began researching Martino, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Investment Management, shortly after her appointment to the board of trustees was announced in late April.

Subsequently, the Newman Society posted the results of an Internet search of Martino’s political contribution history on City-Data.com, which revealed sizable donations to Emily’s List between 2005 and 2008. On its website, Emily’s List states that it is “dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office.”

In the wake of the 2009 controversy provoked by Obama’s presence at the commencement exercises, Father Jenkins appointed a “Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life” to identify ways for Notre Dame to “increase and manifest” a commitment to a culture of life.  In 2010, the university also published the task force’s “Institutional Statement Supporting the Choice for Life” and the “University of Notre Dame Principles for Institutional Charitable Activity.” 

Committed alumni like Bill Dempsey and Bill McGurn — The Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush who wrote a widely circulated op-ed for the National Catholic Register demanding answers to questions about Martino’s political donations — are enthusiastic about a new initiative, the Guadalupe Project, which will form and train a new generation of pro-life leaders at the South Bend campus.

Martino’s resignation has closed one chapter in the fight to shore up Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. But Dempsey still wants answers to some troubling questions.

“We still don’t know what information Father Jenkins or Mr. Notebaert had when they put this information out to the Notre Dame fellows — the people who elect members of the board of trustees. But we do know that the fellows claim they didn’t know about Ms. Martino’s contributions.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.