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Our voice at the Forum

Observer Staff | Friday, September 7, 2012

In a recent interview with The Observer, University President Fr. John Jenkins said he felt the 2012-2013 Forum would be a reminder to students that the temptation to “check out” of discussion on American politics and major issues is one to be avoided.
“I think Notre Dame students tend to be a thoughtful group and people of conviction, maybe not firebrands on one or another issue, but I think they can provide a thoughtful voice,” he said.
This fall, Jenkins announced the newest Forum theme: “A More Perfect Union.” The year’s Forum events will focus on the United States democracy and its future, with special focus on 2012 as a presidential election year. The Forum, established by the Office of the President in 2005, has since brought experts to campus to share their ideas on critical issues ranging from education to immigration.
Notre Dame is the type of institution perfect for a conversation about the future of American democracy. We are a campus united under the gleaming image of the Mother of God, but we are also a campus of young voters and educated debate.
It should be our natural instinct to fuse the two issues, religion and politics, as we approach an election. That conversation should happen here at Our Lady’s University, a premier college that is both quintessentially Catholic and quintessentially American.
Notre Dame is also at a crossroads with the federal government unlike it ever has been before. This spring, Jenkins filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the University against the Department of Health and Human Services, challenging the relationship between the government and religious freedom established in the recent Affordable Care Act. In doing so, Jenkins inserted the University’s voice into a conversation about the rights of the federal government and the place of religious freedom in democracy.
The national conversation on this issue now includes Our Lady’s University.
This week, the President’s Forum hosted its first event, “Conviction & Compromise: Being a Person of Faith in a Liberal Democracy.” Important figures, in not only the Christian faith, but also the Jewish faith, congregated on our campus to discuss the way religion should intertwine with political life in our democracy.
The voices of the experts present at the panel discussion were thoughtful and informed. But in the midst of their voices, our voice got lost. Only two students had the opportunity to ask questions at Tuesday’s event. We have the ability and responsibility to be the people of conviction Jenkins described – to be that thoughtful voice. But the debate between panelists, however informative, overtook the chance for student participation at this first Forum event.
We are the students of Our Lady’s University. How do we answer Jenkins’ challenge? How do we add our unique voice to these conversations, just as he has added the University’s voice to the national stage? Thus far, the Forum has not provided an adequate outlet for student voices and ideas.
Successful events that elicit student participation often happen at Notre Dame. The Center for Social Concerns often fosters discourse between visiting speakers and students. The Holy Votes debate, in many ways a precursor to this Forum’s subject matter, incorporated students in its conversations along with the four featured professors. Smaller events based around the Forum, such as weekly lunches in the Department of Political Science, allow for more casual conversation among students. These events should be an example to the Forum’s organizers on productive conversation between students and experts.
The University needs the Forum to be a means to answer the president’s call to be a thoughtful voice during this important moment in the history of our institution and our nation. But students also need to check into the conversation, to speak up on the issues that are critical at this point in time and to be ready with questions for the esteemed Forum guests. Students should take the opportunity to inform and shape not only their views on today’s issues, but also the views of religious and political leaders.
We are Our Lady’s University, a premier college that is both Catholic and American. Check in, because our voice needs to be heard.