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Keeping the door open

Megan Doyle | Friday, September 14, 2012

Editor’s Note: This story is the second installment in a two-part series on University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s legacy at Notre Dame. This series is also the final installment in the “From the Office of the President” series.

The door was always open, and the light was always on.

That was Fr. Ted Hesburgh’s philosophy during the 35 years he inhabited the Office of the President in the Main Building.

“The students were up half the night, so my light was on until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. every night, and the door was open so the kids felt free to come in,” Hesburgh said. “And so most universities … the big problem was that nobody was listening to them, and they couldn’t meet the people in charge. They couldn’t say that to me.”

The 1960s were a turbulent period on college campuses across the nation, a time when students rebelled against administrators at University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

 “I was on many … national organizations for educational development and growth, so I was in daily touch with many of the leaders of higher education,” Hesburgh said. “So all of that was helpful, and it was fortunate that I was around long enough to get to know many of those people as life-long friends, and they were all very helpful of course.”

Like at other schools across the country, anger boiled at Notre Dame. But Hesburgh engaged students rather than ran from them, even as bricks flew through the windows of presidents’ offices at other schools, he said.

At the height of student revolution around the country, Hesburgh penned a letter to the student body in February 1969 outlining Notre Dame’s policy on dissent and protest. The letter, soon known across the country as his “Tough 15-Minute Rule,” also ran in The New York Times.

“I believe that I now have a clear mandate from this University community to see that: (1) our lines of communication between all segments of the community are kept as open as possible, with all legitimate means of communicated dissent assured, expanded and protected; (2) civility and rationality are maintained; and (3) violation of another’s rights or obstruction of the life of the University are outlawed as illegitimate means of dissent in this kind of open society,” the letter stated.

The letter continued to explain any student who did protest, violently or nonviolently, in a way that infringed the rights of others would be given 15 minutes to reconsider and stop his actions. If that student chose not to do so, he could turn in his ID card at the end of 15 minutes and consider himself suspended. Students without ID cards would be charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace on private property.

“May I now say in all sincerity that I never want to see any student expelled from this community because, in many ways, this is always an educative failure,” the letter stated. “Even so, I must likewise be committed to the survival of the University community as one of man’s best hopes in these troubled times.”

More than 40 years after Hesburgh sat down in the early hours of the morning to write that letter, he sat again in his office. The smell of cigar smoke hung in the air. The dome is visible out the west window, shining in the early afternoon sun over Hesburgh’s shoulder.

“I found that students are wonderful people if you understand them,” Hesburgh said. “And what you have to understand is they’re not full-fledged adults. They are people moving toward that goal. … You have to kind of be patient with ’em because they make some mistakes, but you also have to be friends with them so you can help them in their career of growth.”

It’s been 60 years since Hesburgh first sat in the Office of the President. His office is now on the 13th floor of the library, but it still sees a steady stream of students.

They read his newspapers aloud, and he listens.

He tells his stories, and they listen.

“I have found students a delight rather than a menace,” Hesburgh said. “I’ve learned a lot from them. I hope they’ve learned something from me.”