Thirty years ago this summer, the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J. was ordained into the Society of Jesus. During his years as a Jesuit, Niehoff spent time from 1987-1991 as the chief financial officer for the Archdiocese of Nassau, The Bahamas, where he helped to build schools, rectories and churches, train people for ministry work and create its fundraising structure.
“The Bahamas experience was the most exciting part of my Jesuit life because it was the best of the combinations of the pastoral opportunities and the administrative opportunities without being too separate,” Niehoff told The Carroll News in an interview on Wednesday, April 18. Niehoff also said that while the summer heat there made the job demanding, he loved the people and “was able to use my skills to make a difference.”
When he became president of JCU in 2005, Niehoff wanted to use his skills to make a difference in the relationship between the University and University Heights. He believed “reasonableness, openness [and] honesty would work” to solve the ongoing issues between the two. He said, among some residents, the focus was on how JCU had damaged what University Heights used to be, and how they wanted to recover that.
“Before long, I found that there was really no good way forward,” Niehoff said. “It was a lack of being able to focus on mutual benefit because John Carroll is willing and was willing to go forward for mutual benefit, but not to sacrifice everything we needed to for the perceived benefit of a few, and no real benefit for either the City or us.”
After years of wrangling, which even included a lawsuit filed in court by the University against the City, things seem to be looking up, Niehoff said.
University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld agreed, saying the City and the University are currently working together on issues of mutual concen.
“Recently, we worked with the county on the [South] Belvoir Boulevard repaving project scheduled for 2013, focusing on traffic calming measures to be included in the project between the Belvoir dorms and the [student center],” she said.
When Infeld was elected mayor, she said she met with Niehoff soon afterwards and discussed how the City and the University can work toward mutual benefit.
“Since that time I have gotten to know Father Niehoff and the University’s senior staff very well,” Infeld said. “I’ve worked with Father Niehoff and also with many of the vice presidents on all kinds of issues. Our interactions have always been cordial and we have produced results that have been beneficial to the University and to the City. I’m very pleased about that.”
Infeld said she and Niehoff agreed early on to keep channels of communication open and work with each other.
“That pattern has worked and we have many projects that show how our efforts have been beneficial for both the city and the University,” she said.
Niehoff agreed with the mayor’s sentiments, saying that from the beginning of her term, he and the mayor have conversed regularly. “She listens, she tries to find solutions [and] tries to move the city forward,” he said. “There are still significant issues that we’ll need to deal with, not the least of which is to help the City move forward now with John Carroll as a partner … I’m very hopeful going forward.”
Vandalism allegedly caused by JCU students in the neighborhood near Church of the Gesu was unfortunate because the University was making positive progress with the City, Niehoff said. While some neighbors choose to live near the vibrant community that JCU is, he explained, they don’t want their yards destroyed or to be awakened late at night.
“It’s really important for John Carroll that we be reasonable and respectful of trying to do what universities do, and young people trying to do what young people do, but to do that in a way that doesn’t negatively impact others [and] that make[s] all of our conversations more difficult,” Niehoff said.
He addressed the vandalism in a homily during a Sunday Mass he celebrated last semester. But he feels that many in the congregation missed the point of his sermon.
“It seemed to me, relative to what I heard after that homily … some individuals who heard that message heard only the negativity. Whereas it seemed to me that the negativity relative to disappointment was balanced with what I think is almost a constant message from me – because it doesn’t come from me, it comes from the Gospels – of our responsibility for each other and the fact that basically whatever community we want is the one we’re creating,” he said.
Niehoff holds the same view about the recent damage in Murphy Hall. “It’s up to the community to help [those students who vandalize] out. In my experience, that’s the only thing that’s effective,” he said. “Yes, we can put up cameras, we can catch people, we can discipline people and we can put them out, but that isn’t helping the community at all. Nor is it inviting other students to take the responsibility that is theirs to create the environment they want to live in, and the responsibility that is ours to help make that happen.”
Many University Heights residents are expressing concerns over a recent master plan unveiled by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, part of which includes closing Gearity Professional Development School, 2323 Wrenford Avenue (nearly half a mile from JCU’s Belvoir gate). Niehoff said he does not see the University purchasing the property because it wouldn’t serve any of the University’s needs for creating more space for parking, playfields or building apartment-style student housing.
“The neighbors aren’t going to like parking there, it’s not really big enough for playfields that make a meaningful difference to us, and I don’t think we’re going to build apartment-style student housing there,” he said.
Would JCU still want the property even if it didn’t serve those uses? Niehoff responded, “I doubt it.”
Niehoff’s views on …
One topic on which the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., JCU president, will not take a personal stance is the controversial proposal for the University faculty-staff insurance policy coverage of contraception.
On Feb. 14, he received a letter from 47 faculty members requesting that he work with the presidents of other Catholic higher education institutions to encourage less intense rhetoric from American Catholic bishops. The faculty, in the letter, also urged Niehoff to respect religious liberty and support insurance coverage of contraception.
“My concern was that the faculty letter was disrespectful of the bishops and the Church. And so when I talked about respectful debate, you can’t accuse others of being political without being political yourself,” Niehoff said in an interview two weeks ago. “There’s no positive value in my taking a personal position on this because the vast majority of our alumni expect John Carroll to be respectful of the Church.”
Niehoff pointed out that waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision later this year creates uncertainty for the entire health care debate.
“John Carroll’s concern [and] the Jesuits universities’ concern was to have the Department of Health and Human Services talk about which institutions were Catholic enough,” he said. “So the religious liberty thing is about that – it’s about [that] it never was the government’s job to talk about who was really a part of the Church – any Church – and who’s not. In this case, they decided to talk about what the church definition should be. Now, they also decided to trump any religious debate in this regard. That concerns people too. So, I felt in general that these issues were complicated and that all of us need to be respectful of those individuals who disagree with us.”
Niehoff said no discussions have taken place between him and the faculty who signed the letter because the issue is a national issue, not a John Carroll issue. But the conversations, he said, have been with other Catholic and Jesuit schools.
“We need to see what the courts do, and then we need to see what happens legislatively, and we need to see where the bishops are in their conversation about it, as well,” Niehoff said. “For now, we can debate all of the pieces of this. But what’s clear is it isn’t one issue. It’s not really as simple as some would suggest.”
One thing JCU President, the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J. hopes no one doubts, he said, is his commitment to making diversity a high profile issue on campus. In his presidential inauguration address in 2005, Niehoff mentioned an incident that occurred almost two weeks before, when a water balloon was thrown and racial slur was yelled at a custodial employee.
“We do not condone and will not permit such behavior. Individuals who disrespect members of our community will be asked to leave the University,” Niehoff said in his address.
Now, Niehoff said the University has doubled the number of students of color, is slowly hiring more faculty members of color and has increased its hiring of staff members of color.
“I’m confident we have the allies in the community to move us forward,” he said in an interview two weeks ago. “Are we there yet? No. What I’ve said to people who have advocated more activity is I can’t believe that talking about it more will actually change anything.”
Niehoff said he wants to see more diversity programming in the curriculum and student activities, among other things. He also stressed the importance of the new hires in the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion and the need for a chief diversity officer.
“[Where we’re moving toward] is empowering more individuals to be more proactive in moving the community along, realizing that not everyone wants to be a part of an inclusive community,” Niehoff said. “But we’re moving, and we already have moved, and people are invited to come along.”
Director of CSDI, Danielle Carter said she communicates with Niehoff mostly through Vice President for Student Activities Mark McCarthy. But she has received emails from Niehoff.
“[He said] he is very pleased with the work that we do,” Carter said.
Niehoff said he is committed to hiring a chief diversity office for the University, one of the recommendations made by the Institutional Task Force on Diversity in October of 2009.
“To have the president say that we need this [a chief diversity officer] … is huge,” Carter said.
Carter hopes the CDO will be hired within the next school year.