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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Through the needle's eye

Three years ago this fall, I met with University President Fr. John Jenkins to discuss what I saw as an important human rights issue: the University’s contract with Coca-Cola. I was motivated by human rights violations committed by Coca-Cola’s bottlers in Colombia, which have prompted university boycotts internationally. The bottling companies, which Coca-Cola continues to approve for operations, have hired paramilitary squads to murder union leaders and abduct and torture their families in an effort to drive down the workers’ already low wages.

Seeing as how I was meeting with a priest at a University that prides itself on its commitment to social justice, I thought he would be interested in what I had to say. The reality differed somewhat from my expectations. After calling me “arrogant” for thinking I knew enough about the issue, but before kicking me out of his office, Jenkins made it clear to me that any reassessment of the Coke contract was impossible in light of the University’s relationship to Donald Keough. Former President and Chief Operating Officer of the Coca-Cola Company, Keough has long sat on the University’s board of trustees. Not to make myself appear totally innocent, I may have responded by insinuating that Jenkins cared more about a donor’s money than the lives and dignity of poor (Catholic) workers.

It was therefore with some dark humor that I read Fr. Jenkins’s remarks fawning over Donald Keough last year when Keough donated $30 million for the construction of “Jenkins Hall,” due to begin this spring. Tragically, neither the Colombian workers being whipped into line nor the small Indian farmers having their water stolen were able to field a competing donation in the President’s honor.

One thing Fr. Jenkins said has stuck with me. When I told him about the dozens of universities domestically and internationally that have cut their contracts with Coca-Cola in response to these murders, he responded, “Notre Dame isn’t like other universities.” Maybe I was just thrown off by the force of his condescension, but this confused me. When discussing football or academics, the administration brags that Notre Dame is one of the top universities in the country. But apparently when discussing human rights, we don’t compare ourselves to the riff-raff.

Notre Dame certainly isn’t the worst place for human rights. The Center for Social Concerns runs a number of programs focusing on poverty and injustice. “Catholic social teaching” is touted to the point where it’s impossible to discuss human rights on campus without it dominating the conversation. The University has even boycotted Chinese goods over labor concerns.

In its own dealings, however, the University has a long way to go. As the largest employer in the region, Notre Dame has a great deal of influence on working conditions. While maintaining an air of neutrality, the administration has long fought labor unions on its own campus. They have also stone-walled efforts to win a living wage for campus workers. As for the investments on its $9.8 billion endowment, the University does its best to fight transparency. This is understandable, given the headache chief investment officer Scott Malpass had to go through when it came out that the University had invested in HEI Hotels, which has been accused of violating labor rights to cut costs.

The University panders to rich donors and seems obsessed with growing its already extensive wealth. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is recorded as admonishing a rich man and telling him that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. For a University that claims to be founded in these beliefs, Notre Dame has been awfully kind to rich men. When the rich man in the Bible asked what he must do, Jesus responded that he must sell all his things and give the money to the poor. This passage is understandably difficult for a University that caters disproportionately to the children of the wealthy.

I invite the Notre Dame community, including my friend Fr. Jenkins, to do some self-reflection. Do we need expensive new buildings? Do we need $10 billion stockpiled in capital investments? Should a University committed to social justice be one of the richest in the world? Is there anyone else who could use those resources more? Would Jesus side with a rich executive or a poor worker? Maybe then we can reassess our position and commit ourselves to human dignity.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.