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Constructive debate welcome

Staff Editorial | Friday, March 27, 2009

The Observer’s inbox has been inundated with letters in response to the University’s invitation to the President of the United States to be the principal speaker at this year’s Commencement exercises.

These letters range from expressions of utter outrage and disbelief to mild acceptance, from sheer joy to indifference. Their authors – angered alumni, American Catholics not associated with the University and students – are contributing their viewpoints to a conversation that has – in many respects – reduced itself to a circus.

Of the 612 Letters to the Editor The Observer has received as of 2 p.m. Thursday, 313 have been authored by alumni. Of those letters, 30 percent are supportive of the University’s decision to invite the president and 70 percent are against.

And while more alumni have written to The Observer than students, their voice must not be lost. In fact, of the 282 letters authored by students, the breakdown is a bit different: 73 percent of students who have written Letters to the Editor are supportive of the Obama selection, while 27 percent are against it.

Looking at the senior class’ response, the sentiment is even more extreme: 97 percent of seniors are supportive, 3 percent are not.

There is a clear disconnect between alumni and the student body as a whole on this issue.

This is the seniors’ graduation, their last memories of Notre Dame as a student. Protestors would do well to remember this. Make your views known; healthy debate is welcomed. Photographs of aborted fetuses are not.

The fact remains: President Barack Obama will be the 2009 Commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame, following a long-standing tradition to invite the president to speak.

University President Fr. John Jenkins has described the president’s decision to come to Notre Dame as an “honor;” likewise, the White House released a statement that Obama is equally “honored” to come to campus and address the graduating class. Neither groups have indicated that plans will change.

Yet the debate rages on, and with legitimate reason. According to official University statements, the invitation of the president is not an endorsement of his views pertaining to the protection of life.

However, the question arises: Is it possible to pick and choose what to honor?

There is no such thing as a perfect speaker; all are controversial on some level, regardless of their affiliation to political party or to religion. Take, for example, President George W. Bush, the last sitting president to speak at a University Commencement. A member of the Republican Party, his stance on the death penalty sparked protests in May 2001 when he was on campus.

As it was in 2001, it remains in 2009: there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance.

The University has said it does not accept the president’s views on the protection of life, but it will listen to him, it will respect him, and it will challenge him in the future.

In doing so, the Notre Dame community is in a unique position to have the ear of the president for one afternoon.

University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, without a doubt one of the most influential American Catholics, a man who has fought tirelessly for civil rights in this country and to transform the University into a respected institution of higher learning, said this Friday speaking to a group of alumni, parents and friends of Notre Dame:

“No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University. We are who we are. But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker.”

We must continue that tradition, and show the president, and the world, what Notre Dame is; we will welcome challenges, but retain our character and retain our class in engaging with those who might disagree with us in debate. And we will give the class of 2009 the best possible send off to bring Notre Dame with them when they leave campus in May.

*CORRECTION: The percentages of alumni letters supportive and against the selection were reversed in the original printed version of the editorial. The Observer regrets this error.