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What do we owe Indiana?

Editorial Board | Friday, February 25, 2011

In college and at Notre Dame especially, students focus on promoting themselves. Pick me for that leadership role, pick up my résumé, see how well rounded and accomplished I am. But in what context?

The appearance of Evan Bayh, a former U.S. senator and Indiana governor who spoke here Thursday for the Notre Dame Forum, indicates the University’s ties to the state, at least from a top-level leadership standpoint.

But what about students? What do Indiana politics have to do with us?

Bayh’s lecture Thursday night focuses on the broader themes of national politics and globalization. But his visit to campus coincided with a shake-up in Indiana state politics, making his message and his experience in Indiana politics especially relevant.

With a dozen labor and education bills up in the air now that Indiana Democrats have fled the state (the General Assembly’s rules require at least two-thirds of a chamber’s members to be present for a quorum), who knows what will happen next.

Seriously, who knows? Most of us certainly don’t.

One of the bills under fire from Democrats has to do with the agreements entered by unions and employers that would require all employee’s to pay collective-bargaining fees. Most likely no current Notre Dame student is part of a union.

The other bills, if passed, would bring “historic changes to education, such as increasing the number of charter schools and creating tax-funded vouchers for private school tuition” and change the formula for funding public schools, according to a Feb. 23 story in the South Bend Tribune. What does it matter to us, since we’re at a private university? Why should we care?

The University and student government frequently stress the importance of community relations. As a college community, we examine this on a local level — engaging law enforcement in discussions about student arrests, serving the community through the Robinson Center and collaborating on larger projects like Eddy Street Commons and Innovation Park.

But we are part of a larger community as well. Shake-ups in Indiana’s government will affect Notre Dame, whether it’s state funding cuts for research or tax hikes or industry in cities like South Bend getting pulled into labor disputes. If it’s too difficult to get research off the ground and too expensive to live in a small city in Indiana, our university becomes less attractive to potential faculty.

We’ve heard it before: Be a good citizen of South Bend, shovel your sidewalks — that kind of thing. They’re good sentiments, but they are ultimately hollow, since most of us know we’ll move on from Indiana after our four years here.

So what do we owe Indiana? Our attention? A cursory glance at headlines? Even that’s difficult, of course, when the only Tribune we can easily read on campus comes from Chicago, not South Bend.

Bayh said Thursday night that he did not run for reelection in 2010 because partisanship had become too prominent in government. The current turmoil in the state of Indiana only proves this observation to be true.

“I hope we focus on the fact that we’re Americans first and not Republicans or Democrats first,” Bayh said.

Again, what does this mean for Notre Dame students? Maybe politicians could learn from Bayh’s ideas, but do students hold strong partisan beliefs?

Bayh’s talk expressed concern not only about a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats, but also about a growing gap between informed and uninformed citizens.

“All of us need to know more about what’s going on to make informed decisions about who’s going to lead us,” he said.

Notre Dame is a part of a bigger city, state and nation. It even plays a role in the globalization Bayh addressed.

However much we just want to drop in, pick up the tools and skills and memories we want and then ditch the Bend for the rest of the world, Notre Dame is not simply some oasis, floating free of the real world and its problems.