Theodore Hesburgh : THE PRESIDENT EMERITUS
Shelia Flynn | Wednesday, February 18, 2004
In 1934, when a first-year student fresh out of Syracuse, N.Y. stepped onto Notre Dame’s campus, he wasn’t looking ahead to the day when he would become University President.
He wasn’t looking ahead to the time when he would travel the globe, visiting everywhere from China to the South Pole.
He wasn’t looking ahead to the ceremonies in which he would be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal or the Medal of Freedom.
Theodore Hesburgh was simply looking around him. And a conspicuous absence in the University community became glaringly obvious.
“I asked one of the administrators why we didn’t have any black students,” Hesburgh said. “He said, ‘All the white ones … so many of them are from the South, they’d all leave.'”
There wasn’t a single black on campus – not in the student body, not in the faculty, not in the Main Building, not even working on the grounds, Hesburgh said.
“It was a totally white society,” he said.
But 18 years later, when Hesburgh had returned to Notre Dame as the rector of Farley Hall, that homogeneity was beginning to change – albeit slowly. And the administrator’s prophesy was quickly proven wrong.
“I had only one problem,” Hesburgh said. “I was just taking over Farley Hall as rector, and I got a call … the first day before school began from a lady in New Orleans with a French name.”
The woman, whose white son lived in Farley, told Hesburgh she had heard that a black student was also residing in the dormitory. Hesburgh confirmed that information.
“She said, ‘Well, if he’s still there tomorrow morning, you send my son home,'” Hesburgh said.”I said, ‘We’ll miss him.'”
The white student left, and the issue was resolved. Ten years later, Hesburgh met that student – who had become a doctor after attending Tulane – who said his mother’s decision was the “dumbest” thing she had ever done.
Very few people, however, made such a “dumb” mistake, Hesburgh said, regarding issues of civil rights at the University.
“The students were on the side of the angels, as far as civil rights,” Hesburgh said.
They had a strong and influential role model in Hesburgh. He served as chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and played an integral role in passing progressive equal rights legislation. At the time, Hesburgh said, Notre Dame was a “pretty lively place,” with bonfires, rallies and huge support of social change across the faculty and students.
“I got off all right because they knew I was the civil rights commissioner – that I was pressing for all the things that could be done,” Hesburgh said.
And despite his very vocal and prominent position on civil rights issues, Hesburgh said he never really faced opposition from more conservative factions, whether they be alumni, parents or students, themselves.
“I’m sure there may have been some, but they didn’t come to me because they knew it wouldn’t have done much good,” Hesburgh said.
He stood firm on the issue of coeducation, as well, handling it in much the same way. Just as there were no black students on campus when Hesburgh first arrived, there were no females – at least during the academic year.
“They used to loosen up a little bit in the summertime and let nuns come in and do a little summer school,” Hesburgh said.
To him, though, that was simply not good enough. When he assumed the presidency, he decided to do something about it, first attempting a merger with Saint Mary’s College, and when that didn’t work, opening Notre Dame up to women. He ignored objections and pushed ahead.
“The place was so macho, a lot of people thought it was going to pot,” Hesburgh said.
The transition proceeded fairly smoothly, however, and Hesburgh said any opposing sentiment gradually eroded.
“Some had their sons turned down and their daughters accepted, so that took care of that problem in a hurry,” Hesburgh said.
The male chauvinism that had long pervaded the University lasted a few more years, Hesburgh said, but that, too, soon deteriorated.
“There were so few women that the women that survived those first four or five years, until they got more numbers here, were able to survive at any male chauvinistic place in the world,” Hesburgh said. “They were used to it being one woman and 35 guys.”
And now the almost equal representation on campus, Hesburgh said, is one of the most significant changes in the University community.
“Now, I think that everybody just takes it for granted,” he said of the co-educational environment.
He also said that, if males even tried to express a discriminatory attitude at this point in time at the University, they would be far from successful.
“I don’t think they’d get away with it,” Hesburgh said. “You girls would stand up and cuff them.”
Despite such momentous strides, however, Hesburgh said there is still more that can be done to further gender equality at Notre Dame. He said battles continue to be fought, and progress is an ever-evolving phenomenon at the University.
“I pushed behind the scenes as hard as I could until we had a woman student body president,” Hesburgh said. “I think we’re where we ought to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.
“In a way, women could have more influence around here than they do.”
That same opinion, he said, applies to minority students. He said the challenge is to now elect both black and Hispanic student body presidents.
“You only have to win that battle once,” Hesburgh said.
Other, more subtle, challenges, however, continue to face the Notre Dame community on a daily basis, he said. While minority percentages have increased and the face of the student body is changing, Hesburgh said the new test will be to institute actual and full integration. All ethnic groups and minorities must mingle and interact, bolstering true diversity through a visible commitment to equality.
“I think there ought to be more intercultural relationships here,” Hesburgh said, citing the benefits of cross-cultural learning gained from sharing a room with a person from a different culture, race or country.
“Coming to Notre Dame ought to teach everybody that they’re living in a very mixed-up world, and that we have to know how to live in such a world to live peacefully,” he said. “It’d be wonderful if people could leave here with friends from other cultures and other religions and other nationalities.”
The Catholic religion, however, should be the foundation for this entire integration and equality, Hesburgh said.
“We believe in equal rights for human beings, not because of their color, nationality or their sex, but because they’re human beings,” Hesburgh said. “And on that basis, I think we’re bound to come out on the right side of these questions. And I think we do.”