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Student reaction mixed; groups take action

Madeline Buckley | Sunday, May 10, 2009

Since the University announced President Barack Obama will deliver the 2009 Commencement address on March 20, the outpouring of student response – both critical and supportive – has been steady and passionate.

The Observer reported having received 282 Letters to the Editor penned by students – 73 percent in support of the decision to host Obama and 27 against – in a March 27 editorial.

A recent count by The Observer shows 345 Letters to the Editor authored by students with 74 percent in favor of the invitation and 29 against as of April 23.

As Letters to the Editor from individual students poured in, two student groups sprung up to formally lead student response: ND Response, which is critical of the University’s invitation to Obama, and the Progressive Leadership Council, formed from student groups on campus in support of the decision.

Junior Mary Daly, a leader of ND Response, said the aim of the coalition is to “keep the dialogue going,” and she said she believes the group has been successful in the past month.

“Our goal wasn’t to get the invitation rescinded,” Daly said. “Yeah, maybe that’s the ideal, but our goal was more to create the dialogue, to challenge people to really think about the issue or issues surrounding the invitation to president Obama.”

In the weeks following the University’s announcement, ND Response held a prayer rally in front of the Main Building and the first March for Life on Notre Dame’s campus.

The group also started a Web site, NDresponse.com, to continually update supporters of the coalition, Daly said.

“We kept the conversation alive,” she said. “I think that is successful. We got people to think about what’s going on on our campus and how our campus affects the broader society.”

Sophomore Khai Thomas, incoming president of the Black Cultural Arts Council (BCAC), helped organize the Progressive Leadership Council to combat criticism of University President Fr. John Jenkins’ invitation to Obama, but he also cited dialogue as a key aim of the group.

“At Notre Dame, we create dialogue,” he said. “This issue has created dialogue.”

Henry Vasquez, president of the Notre Dame College Democrats and a leader of the Council, said the group seeks to show support for the University without politicizing the Commencement ceremony.

“The whole point is to stress that this is not a political issue,” Vasquez said. “This is about being American citizens and supporting our president and the pluralistic nature of our country.”

Thomas helped organize a petition, which gathered about 1,150 signatures, for students to show support of Obama as Commencement speaker, and he met with Jenkins along with 14 other students as a gesture of support.

“The goal was to present [Jenkins] with the fact that there are people on campus, groups and coalitions that are in agreement with him,” he said. “This is a historical moment on campus.”

Prior to meeting with the Progressive Leadership Council, Jenkins extended an invitation to meet with ND Response, but he rescinded the invitation after the group made requests in reply, according to an April 17 Observer report.

The Observer reported that Jenkins withdrew the invitation because the requests were interpreted as a “set of demands as a precondition to the meeting,” but Daly told The Observer the requests were misinterpreted.

With less than a month until the Commencement ceremony, both ND Response and the Progressive Leadership Council continue to make plans.

“We are hoping to have some event during Commencement weekend,” Daly said. “We’re just trying to keep the dialogue going. We’re trying to get awareness on the issue of what it means to be a Catholic university.”

The coalition is in the “process of securing official approval” to stage a demonstration on campus on the day of Commencement, according to the ND Response Web site.

Vasquez said he and several other student leaders of the Progressive Leadership Council organized a group to meet Obama at the South Bend Regional Airport when the president arrives on May 17.

“There will be a group of volunteers made up of some students, but mostly adults from the community at the airport to greet and welcome the president when the plane lands,” he said. “And then they will go and do three hours of service.”

As the groups continue to lead student response on both sides of the controversy, leaders from both ND Response and the Progressive Leadership Council said the ultimate aim of the dialogue is that it be constructive.

“All of our goals were positive goals and constructive goals,” Daly said. “Not negative or destructive.”