Notre Dame and The Nation: How We Protest, Think, and Resist

Author: Tessa Bangs and Cassidy McDonald

Notre Dame and The Nation: How We Protest, Think, and Resist

Father Ted’s call for activism hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Father Jenkins’ resides on the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Is it possible that both methods are equally effective?

Fifty-three years ago, the then-president of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the front lines of a Soldier Field civil rights rally, holding hands and joining forces in the largest movement of an era filled with activism.

Today, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. responds to national unrest and political movements in his own way, behind the scenes. He writes letters to the nation and to the faculty Senate, meets privately with politicians and knows that his words will resonate as the representation of the preeminent Catholic research university in the nation and in the world. But the very identity of Notre Dame is in conflict. Under Hesburgh, Notre Dame joined the ranks of the most prominent research universities in this nation, with Catholicism remaining its guiding principle. Through the principles of Catholic social teaching, social justice is written into the mission of a Notre Dame education — thereby inherently promoting activism and social discourse.

Research seeks to expand the mind and promote new knowledge and new types of thought. Catholicism, however, is built on conservatism and respect for tradition. How does the school’s research mission reconcile itself with a university built around orthodoxy? It is no longer the 1960s.

Massive social movements are not the status quo as they once were. President Trump’s administration in six weeks, however, has challenged the complacency that has fallen over the country and university campuses. At Notre Dame, the student activist group We Stand For has led a surge of progressive organizing and demonstration. Leaders of the group say there is a legacy of activism at Notre Dame, but they also suggest the school is resistant to protest. (They cite a conservative bias, which they believe stems from Notre Dame’s lack of socioeconomic diversity.)

At Notre Dame, discourse often finds a home not only in picket lines, but also in Facebook groups, on editorial pages and in the classroom. Hesburgh succeeded in his mission: Notre Dame is now a top, internationally-recognized research university. And it has not let go of its Catholic identity.

But what does that Catholic identity mean for campus activism? Should the school be home to reserved, thoughtful discourse, or rowdy, electrifying protest? How can a research institution remain committed to tradition? And how should the school interact with national politics? Should professors simply research and observe, or do they have a duty to act on what they discover?

Scholastic dove in:

How a President Deals with a President: Jenkins and the executive office

In 2013, Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility.” The message has come to define his legacy as a president.

He wrote, “Civility is sometimes derided in the modern world, where bluntness and even coarseness have somehow come to be celebrated in many quarters. But civility is not a minor virtue. It is not an attempt to impose someone’s notion of courtesy, and it is certainly not an attempt to suppress speech. Civility is what allows speech to be heard. It is an appeal to citizens never to express or incite hatred, which is more dangerous to the country than any external enemy.”

If Jenkins could be described in only one word, “civil” would not be a bad choice. His political involvement is intentionally bipartisan. For instance, he serves on the board of directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates. And his reserved nature has come to define the way many students think of him. This winter, a meme circulated on Facebook that juxtaposed a photo of Jenkins — pensively examining a model of Campus Crossroads — and Hesburgh — mouth agape, singing, in his famous photo with King. Paul Browne, Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications, says, “He is a very deliberative, thoughtful person.”

A current subject of contemplation? The fate of undocumented students. Browne says the administration feels particularly obligated to protect these students.

“In the case of the DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals) students, we reached out to them,” Browne says. “We’ve invited them here.”

But on Feb. 7, Jenkins declined to designate the campus a “sanctuary campus,” citing the school’s inability to break the law. Later, he urged the Notre Dame community to support the bipartisan BRIDGE Act (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act), which would temporarily protect DACA students from deportation. Browne says that Jenkins, members of the administration and Notre Dame’s personal lobbyist, John Sturm, meet periodically with politicians and have discussed the BRIDGE Act.

But some say Jenkins isn’t doing enough. They criticize his refusal to break the law, arguing that a higher moral authority should be more important than the rule of law. Browne says, “I think Father Jenkins would be supportive of individuals who engage in civil disobedience as a matter of conscience — however, as an institution, he has a broader obligation … He cannot just say he will blanketly disobey laws on a selective basis.”

Browne adds, “And the board of trustees, I don’t think, would support efforts to turn the university into an instrument of selective disobedience.”

The administration is careful not to appear to engage in partisanship. Jenkins prompted outrage when he invited President Barack Obama to speak at the 2009 Commencement, and drew similar criticism for allowing a “Queer Film Festival,” 2005’s The Vagina Monologues and a 2014 Ann Coulter lecture. In his decisions, he invoked academic freedom.

Jenkins played offense this September when he penned another Wall Street Journal opinion piece, arguing that the National Collegiate Athletic Association should not dictate decisions of morality — particularly, its opposition to a bill that requires transgender people to use bathrooms that align with their sex, not their gender.

He wrote, “While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

But Browne says transgender issues weren’t his focus. “It wasn’t about transgender specifically. It was the role of the athletic conferences trying to — in Father John’s view — usurping the universities making those decisions,” he says.

This year, Jenkins found himself in the awkward position of publicly deciding whether to invite President Donald Trump to speak at Commencement. Browne would not reveal whether a decision had been made, but he says the school’s choice will be based on the potential speaker’s involvement in public service, contributions to scholarship (if the speaker is an academic) and their vision for a better world.

“Frankly, it comes down to availability, too,” Browne says. In the past, commencement speakers have been announced at various dates. Browne says the school wanted to announce John Boehner while he was still in office in September, while Obama was announced in mid-March.

UPDATE: After this story went to press, the school announced that Vice President and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence will receive an honorary degree and will deliver Notre Dame's Commencement Address May 21. 

Jenkins said in a press release, “With his own brand of reserved dignity, Mike Pence instilled confidence on the state level then, and on the world stage now. We are proud to welcome him to represent the new administration.”​​​​​​

Activism on Campus: How much we protest and what it matters

As far as college campuses go, Notre Dame is no hotbed of radical unrest. Sure, there are protests — and seemingly more right now than in years prior. Steadfast and separate groups protest the school’s possible commencement speaker, climate change divestment, pro-life policies, protections for undocumented immigrants and other issues. But on a scale of one to Berkeley, many would place Notre Dame somewhere in the middle.

Michael Zuckert, a professor of political science, works primarily in the fields of political theory and constitutional studies. He says there’s activism on campus but it’s largely that of the “social dogood-ism” variety. (Think eradicating poverty, promoting education or ending homelessness: causes that are difficult to oppose on moral grounds.) He thinks this type of activism is wonderful, but reflects a lesser desire for conflict. The school lacks radicalism, and he’s not sure whether that’s good or bad. On one hand, he says, fewer protests mean fewer distractions from bipartisan classroom discussion, but on the other hand, he says, “this campus lacks a kind of zest.”

Long before he came to Notre Dame, Zuckert was the vice chair of a local Republican party chapter and worked on a Republican campaign. In graduate school, he also worked as a researcher on the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights. (Hesburgh was technically his boss, but they never met. “A lot of people between me and him,” Zuckert says.) And before he came to Notre Dame, he taught at Carleton College — a small liberal arts college that, true to its breed, is extremely liberal.

Zuckert tries to avoid using his classroom as a forum for his personal beliefs. (“I am so antiTrump,” he says.) But because he teaches political science, he fears he could have too much influence over his students.

“It is a problem of how close one gets to becoming a soap box,” he says. “What we teach and what we do are interrelated in ways that threaten to cross a line.”

But Notre Dame, contrary to popular belief, does not exist in a bubble. Ultimately, professors and students must decide how to engage in politics — national, and local.

Bridging the Town-and-Gown Divide

The so-called ‘town-and-gown divide’ is a historical term used to describe university towns across the world, with the “town,” those members of a community not associated with the university, separated from the “gown,” the members of a university community who reside in that specific place.

Notre Dame has its own divide with the city of South Bend. Issues of post-industrialization, racial divide and urban poverty have plagued the city and introduced both opportunity and tension into the university-town relationship. It seems unlikely, then, that a polarizing figure like Donald Trump — who won many votes in Indiana — could be the one to help to bridge this town-and-gown divide. Associate Professor of American Studies Jason Ruiz, however, thinks that that’s exactly the case.

“One thing I have seen in response to [President] Trump’s actions since Jan. 20 — and even before, even in November — is a dissolving, I think, of those barriers that we are always complaining about: the separating of Notre Dame from local people,” Ruiz says. “I’ve been surprised and heartened at the collaboration between people organizing on this campus and people organizing in the local community.”

Ruiz himself has helped to lead much of that organization, even gaining national recognition after a feature in the Washington Post. He participated in the Women’s March on South Bend on Jan. 21. The next week, President Trump issued an executive order, enacting a 90- day travel ban for citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, as well as a 120-day suspension of thee established refugee program.

Responses across the country were swift and vast: Images of protests breaking out at international airports dominated the news, as did reports of immigration lawyers offering pro bono services on the ground. I

n South Bend, Ruiz — along with other university leaders and community organizations — saw the need for a local protest. With four hours’ notice, they planned a spontaneous protest to take place in front of the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend; 400 people showed up. For Ruiz, these issues are personal.

Protecting his students is one of the major motivations for Ruiz to take action. Another is his own family history: His grandfather was an undocumented immigrant — something which Ruiz came to terms with following this election.

“My grandfather was a laborer. He did day labor most of his life. And two generations later, I’m a professor at Notre Dame,” Ruiz says. “That to me is a driving force behind my activism now. Because I have benefitted from someone crossing the border without proper documentation personally, and I think that’s helped me find a voice for students on this campus who are undocumented.”

Ruiz also spearheaded the movement that called for Jenkins to declare Notre Dame a sanctuary campus, which aimed to protect the rights of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and other undocumented students. Jenkins recently chose not to do so; instead he encouraged members of the community to contact their representatives and support the passage of the BRIDGE Act (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act), but Ruiz stresses that they are on the same side of this issue.

“We both want to find ways to support undocumented students at Notre Dame. Though I am disappointed that we won’t be declared a sanctuary campus, I am eager to see some more specifics about how the administration will continue to admit and fund undocumented students,” Ruiz says. “I am especially eager to see their plans for what happens after DACA is cancelled, as many of us expect to happen.”

Ruiz protects undocumented students by agitating — waking up those around him and calling them to action. But that type of work is emotionally draining. He says, “I think we’re going to have to pick and choose our battles. For me, personally, the challenge is going beyond my own group in order to agitate … I’m personally trying to muster up the energy to support people who belong to groups that are being targeted and to which I don’t belong.”

Is it the Duty of a Faculty Member to Agitate?

Perin Gurel, assistant professor of American studies, says she is non-partisan. She sees the mission of a professor as doing research and then reflecting the best of an area’s scholarship to one’s students. And she sees the educational mission as the following: to break the town-and-gown divide; to experience different peoples; to fight ignorance and bigotry. Notre Dame’s own mission has another layer on top of this: It holds social justice as one of its main tenets, thus influencing all that the university’s members do.

Gurel sees that specific mission as transcending partisan politics. In a time as contentious as this one, however, where issues that provoke bigotry, xenophobia and ignorance run so rampant, Gurel sees politics as almost impossible to avoid. In a broad sense, she says, “The politics come to us even if we don’t go to it.”

Her colleague in American studies, Jason Ruiz, says that in the classroom, he strives to hear both sides of every story and to never tell students what to think. One example of this was when he taught the Introduction to American Studies course on Nov. 9, with over 100 students enrolled. Ruiz made it into an open forum, inviting campus community members and leaders, and simply sought to listen. “I tried to say as little as possible,” he says. “Instead of lecturing at a lectern like I normally do, I pulled up a chair and sort of sat on the edge of the stage… And I just tried to foster conversation.”

Students spoke about why they voted for Trump; others spoke about being mortified by the results of the election, according to Ruiz. He recalled conducting a poll in that same class on the Monday prior to the election as to who the students thought would win.

When asked, more than 100 hands went up for Hillary Clinton. Two hands went up for Trump. Despite their personal leanings, then, one thing the students had in common was this: Given the opportunity to predict the future, nearly all of them had gotten it wrong.

Though Ruiz has his personal motivators for being an active agitator to many recent announcements, he does not see that as the necessary responsibility or duty of a faculty member.

“I think some people just want to come here and teach biology, or teach math or teach history. And that’s completely their right,” he says. “It’s not their duty. I can say I found a sense of responsibility to my grandfather and to my students.”

Echo Chambers & Diversity of Thought

Recently, thought leaders like former Harvard President Larry Summers and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof have warned of “echo chambers” on campus, arguing that universities have become too homogenous in their mostly liberal political makeup.

Many professors at Notre Dame, however, argue that the problem is more complex.

Is the seed of the problem in Catholicism and research?

Patrick Deneen, associate professor of political science, believes the very nature of a research university is what attracts liberal academics. Research, at its core, is about progress and new thought.

That’s why Notre Dame itself is a contradiction The university’s mission reconciles Catholic orthodoxy with a research university’s aim to promote new thought. Deneen sees a clear danger in that — particularly, in valuing new information to the extent that it overtakes old wisdom.

Before coming to Notre Dame, Deneen taught at Georgetown University. He left, he says, largely because the school had begun to abandon its traditional, Catholic identity. He worries about the possibility that Notre Dame will do the same.

“I think that the real danger at Notre Dame is in our pursuit of being a top-ranked research university and we risk losing values specific to Notre Dame,” he says.

For example, at Georgetown, student counseling and spiritual life were separate from teaching, but he thinks professors at Notre Dame have more leeway to work with students on both intellectual and spiritual issues.

Deneen says the university should not try to emulate Harvard or Duke, because those schools are secular.

“How can we be our own model?” asks Deneen, and contribute to both the intellectual and spiritual lives of the students?

Deneen feels that a university should be a steward of tradition and value “the idea that the past can teach us something.” At Notre Dame, he says, “we uniquely value tradition, martyrs, history and theology,” which can sometimes make Notre Dame look suspect in the eyes of the rest of the world, but that is something that should make the university proud.

He suggests there is a liberal echo chamber on campus: “At a time when we valorize or we praise diversity on campus, we seem to be quite willing to have a form of monoculture which directly goes against the mission of the university,” he says.

Joseph Buttigieg — William R. Kenan Jr. professor of English, director of the PhD in literature program, director of Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program and co-director of the Italian studies program — has far more liberal views, but likewise, values old texts, particularly Antonio Gramsci’s.

He thinks those works can help warn us about modern-day totalitarian threats. Buttigieg, who is the father of South Bend’s mayor, specializes in the relationship between culture and politics. He has authored a book about James Joyce called A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective, and is the editor of a set of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci was an Italian Marxist theorist and politician.

“If you use those ideas for today, it’s a very worrisome situation. If we look at civil society and try and figure out what it tells us about our political situation we see that civil society has become horribly corrupted,” he says. “We no longer have a population that agrees on basic facts. We have a very strong current that says facts don’t matter so on the very basis of rational exchange and debate is gone.”

This warning of sorts is something that Deneen believes faculty members have a duty to teach their students about.

“As a professor, especially in the political science field… I do think I have a responsibility to articulate why, for example, right now I think liberal democracy seems to be in a crisis.”

He expounded upon this democratic crisis: “Probably a solid majority of American citizens no longer believes that we’re free… The tools of liberalism seem to have made us their tools.”

Buttigieg also believes it is the duty of an educator to take stands on current events, saying, “You cannot be neutral.”

“You have to have the courage of your views. We can teach the history of ideas but we cannot live as if everything is just ideas. We have to make decisions. You have to say whether or not it’s justifiable for a state to use the police to take a mother away from her family just because she lacks documents.”

Dr. Joseph Buttigieg: "We Cannot Live As if Everything Is Just Ideas."

Originally from the island nation of Malta, Professor Joseph Buttigieg is an expert in political theory. His son, meanwhile, practices politics in reality.

South Bend’s Mayor Peter Buttigieg recently ended a notable campaign for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Convention. Mayor Pete, as he is popularly called, is a rising star for the Democratic Party. He attended Harvard and Oxford, was a Rhodes Scholar and is a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote that he appeared to be concocted in a laboratory to make a perfect presidential candidate.

It is an idea that his father greets with a hearty laugh. He describes Pete’s childhood as one filled with reading, travel and good teachers, noting that Pete has always moved in circles interested in politics.

Dr. Buttigieg, despite his own academic expertise, says he does not often give his son political advice. “We follow. We read. But I can’t give Peter good advice. I wouldn’t know diddly on how strategic things work,” he says. “I can do theoretical: ‘In Aristotle’s politics’ …. But I don’t think that would be exactly helpful.”

In short, Buttigieg notes that, “For him, politics is real. For me, it’s ideas.”

Professor Buttigieg has been on the faculty at Notre Dame throughout its rise into the top university ranks — as activism has surged and fallen in the United States, and as research has become more and more prominent here on campus.

He arrived at Notre Dame with his wife in 1980. (She got a job at Notre Dame as a linguistics professor and was ultimately on faculty for 29 years.) They never expected to stay. “I never intended to stay here, but the university was always getting better,” he says.

Back then, some of the faculty questioned the direction the university was going in under Hesburgh. “Some of the older or more traditional faculty said, ‘Oh, this is going to ruin the university because it will dilute the emphasis we place on teaching and on caring for undergraduates,’” Buttigieg describes. “In fact, what happened was that we could do both.”

For Buttigieg, this emphasis on research and undergraduate advising and teaching is not contradictory; instead, the two work in concert with one another.

He argues that if anyone ever feels absolute about a topic, that, in and of itself, demands more information. This, then, is a duty of the teacher. “Often, if you feel very certain about something you’ve got a problem… A teacher has a duty to show complexity.” Buttigieg says, “If you appreciate complexity, you will be able to talk to someone who differs from you as long as that person is not using slogans” — that is, thinking with equal complexity.

Buttigieg will retire from his role as director of the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program at the end of the academic year, but continue his research and translation of the journals of theorist Gramsci. 

Buttigieg has studied historical tyranny, and he sees today’s political context as particularly worrisome. He sees Gramsci's words as a warning.

All of this together gives Buttigieg a personal view of what the responsibilities of members of a civil society are.

He says, “Public discourse needs to be rescued from this polarization and the remedy to that is not to find a middle ground but to argue cogently — which is not the same as to say, ‘Oh, there’s two sides to each coin. Sometimes there aren’t two sides.’”

The university serves as a space in society for that discourse to occur.