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Love thee. However …

| Friday, April 24, 2015

At the risk of closing my Viewpoint career on a negative note, I need to thank my dad for teaching me the tone op-eds require, my mom for teaching me rhetoric and restraint, my philosophy professors for showing me that making arguments is like laying bricks, The Observer’s editors for two years of space, latitude and encouragement; my friends for revisions and new topics; and every Main Building decider who has ever given me material for a column. This one is for you.

The second floor study lounge in St. Edward’s Hall is called the Gregorian because of a nearly floor-to-ceiling mural on the east wall painted in 1883 by Luigi Gregori, the Italian artist who also painted the Main Building murals. The mural depicts an exchange of gold rings between Fr. Edward Sorin and a head-dressed Potowatami man in front of an icy lake. Fr. Sorin, I had always assumed or been told or both, was buying the Potowatomi’s land to build our University.

Until this week I had no idea the Native American is actually giving Fr. Sorin the rings for baptizing his children. There’s a plaque next to the painting saying as much. The friend who pointed this out to me asked, “Isn’t that corrupter than sin?”

Frankly I don’t know. I’m just disappointed I’d never stopped to read the plaque.

The story here isn’t about the morality of paying for sacraments. It’s about adopting a disposition instinctively against accepting things as they first appear. Writing for Viewpoint has been my best attempt to turn that disposition toward something we are taught to take as given — the sublime greatness of the University of Notre Dame. I’ve tried to follow two rules: don’t give a complaint without a solution, and don’t offer anything unrealistic.

These are some things I’ve proposed.

Students who want to study abroad in their junior year spring semesters should not have to apply until the fall of their junior year.

Parietals do not serve their desired functions during final exam weeks and, absent a massive increase in study spaces, should be removed during those days.

The Leprechaun Legion overstepped its mandate when it changed the football ticketing policy, and having the officers of this “voice of the student body to the athletic department” on the athletic department’s payroll is a conflict of interest.

Eliminating Zahm’s common rooms without consulting residents and subsequently stonewalling their attempts at an adult conversation was bad precedent.

Good Samaritan policies explicitly belong in du Lac.

Notre Dame should make four classes per semester standard, not five.

Campus Crossroads is a flawed arrangement.

Notre Dame should take the lead nationally on reducing its advertised tuition.

“Viewpoint wars” are worth having.

There are topics I missed. The Irish Guard was gutted last May with insufficient notice or warrant. One day this February, the University failed to plow six inches of snow from the night before, preventing students in wheelchairs from getting to class.

These are the problems we have the luxury of having. We can only discuss them in a place that has the resources to address them (and sometimes to create them). The world awaiting us has more pressing and horrific woes, but ours are nonetheless legitimate. And if our university educations are supposed to acquaint us with some intangible something — grit, practical knowledge, minds that can separate the important from the not— then falling back on the idea that in four years or less these issues will cease to matter can’t be our best choice.

I have no illusions Notre Dame is a democracy, but too many crucial and costly decisions have been made in the last four years with negligible student input and no pretense of transparency. If this is ever to stop, The Observer must be a part of it. On that we have more work to do.

Shortly after a runoff was announced in the 2014 Student Body President election, Mia Lillis, class of 2014, a Cavanaugh Hall RA and supporter of the Olivia LaMagna-Rohan Anderson ticket, wrote “Round2,” a parody of Kanye West’s “Bound2,” to boost her favorite ticket. The post got a sizable amount of traffic due to its creative angle. “Bound 2” opens with the line “All them other n****s lame and you know it now.” Largely preserving this wording, Lillis opened her piece with “All them other tickets lame and you know it now.” That became the basis of the allegation brought before Judicial Council by the Lauren Vidal-Matt Devine ticket that their opponents had violated Student Government Constitution, which prohibits “insulting or defaming other candidates.” In turn, the Vidal-Devine ticket was accused of exceeding their $200 pre-runoff spending limit by paying to promote their campaign page’s Facebook posts.

In its only news article on the matter, The Observer was passive on both tickets’ violations, content to quote the Judicial Council press release: LaMagna-Anderson “violated the Constitution by insulting the opposing ticket in a Facebook post by a supporter’”.

In describing allegations against Vidal-Devine, the paper quoted the press release again. The story concluded with quotes from the candidates. Both tickets deleted the posts. 

The Observer played into the illusion that the facts of two hearings were unknowable to anyone outside the room and chose to let Judicial Council dictate the story to them. The paper let go of an interesting story and arguably fell into false equivalency. The only real follow-up was a staff editorial arguing that clearer election rules would reduce campaign violations, and ever-so-lightly implying that this looked like a case of equal punishments for unequal crimes. That’s worth something, but it’s also a missed opportunity to describe the process and prices of social media campaigns, catalogue what gets construed as “insulting and defaming other candidates” and profile the exertion and premeditation involved in seeking student government’s highest post. The reporters shorted the readers on the interesting stuff.

I don’t think The Observer got that close to the situation without knowing what was going on and being able to report all the facts in a proper journalistic way. Rather, I think that, as students, the reporters are not interested in undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the people who will represent them in student government, nor in hurting people they call friends.

These are the conflicting loyalties that arise when writing for a student paper. They are real, but they shouldn’t steer us. I regret that after typing 1,000 words on this exact topic last year, I chose not to submit the piece. The reasons above were my reasons. I’m not innocent here either.

But we all stand to gain from The Observer digging deeper into these kinds of stories and becoming the site for informed student judgment and new student ideas. In the elections case, campaigns simply won’t violate the rules if they know that they will face something more than demonstrably weak Judicial Council sanctions. In the broader, more important case of repeated and costly missteps by the University administration, The Observer is our shot to airdrop transparency, accountability and students’ common sense into the picture of the administration’s decisions.

The Observer can gain credibility among the student body as the serious source of Notre Dame news. Our paper is not the Harvard Crimson, but I don’t think that’s for lack of talent or because original reporting isn’t a fun way to spend your time. I think it’s because The Observer has here and elsewhere chosen politeness over persistence, pursuing an angle of less resistance in reporting the facts. The paper’s motto, “to uncover the truth and report it accurately,” loses its teeth when reporters stop digging and when editors opt not to go forward with pertinent information. This is what accountability requires. The stakes are high.

I’m hopeful though, because every weekday we have a print edition as extensive as any other school’s and because on this campus The Observers readership rivals the New York Times. Because a rankings-conscious administration with growing pains and identity crises and $10 billion in the bank will almost certainly continue to cut corners on student self-governance. Because the news coverage over the last couple of weeks — from Fr. Hesburgh’s death to sexual assault incidences and discussions to the head-scratcher court ruling exempting Notre Dame Security Police from open records requests — has shown us capable of covering the campus. Because covering the campus is a worthy thing to do.

The good news, in short, is this: the guarantee that Our Lady’s University will continue to have a story worth telling, and that we have the freedom to choose how we tell it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

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