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Notre Dame’s civic disengagement

| Thursday, February 27, 2020

Notre Dame is woefully unprepared to host the first Presidential debate of 2020. Not in terms of their capacity to physically execute an event like this, but due to the fact that the University has zero clue on how to handle political engagement, much less political conflict.

Allow me to share a story explaining what I mean:

In November 2019, Notre Dame welcomed Nancy Thomas of Tufts University, an expert on youth political engagement and voting. Thomas met with several different groups on campus, from the Office of the President, to the Community Engagement Coordination Council, to a group of students who worked diligently on campus to promote political engagement. As the co-chair of ND Votes, I was naturally very interested to know Thomas’s thoughts on our strengths and weaknesses as a campus, especially ahead of an election with some of the highest anticipated turnout in decades. 

What Thomas expressed to me was a truth that I had always felt, but never had the words to actualize what I was experiencing. She said that Notre Dame had the quietest group of administrators she had ever presented to, and she has visited hundreds of colleges and universities while presenting on this topic. I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of these meetings, and it was resoundingly obvious how little Notre Dame faculty, staff and administrators wished to speak about politics. 

At one event, Thomas asked faculty from various areas of the University to share how they would respond to potentially difficult situations, such as students feeling unwelcome in their classroom because of their political beliefs or racially insensitive remarks made by one student directed at another. After being given several minutes to write responses to all of the hypothetical situations, Thomas asked these faculty members to share. Of the 25 or so in attendance, probably only five or six gave a response to any of the prompts. Others looked uncomfortable and most did not engage for the entirety of this two-hour training. I was the only student in the room.

I share this anecdote not to cast aspersions on the silent faculty, but to illustrate the culture of disengagement that permeates every corner of this University. It seemed to me most people in the University were hesitant to engage on the mere subject of engaging in politics — not even the political discussion itself. Perhaps this stems from the fear of being called “too liberal” or “too conservative” or any other deviation from a non-offensive, tepid middle ground the University all too often stakes out. 

This culture has enveloped Notre Dame to the point where even I, a political science student and the leader of an organization whose mission is the promotion of civil discourse, choose the path of least resistance and stay quiet on political topics when they arise. The repercussions of this extend beyond discomfort. When politics are shied away from, they become less salient in people’s minds. And when politics are not salient, the probability one votes drops dramatically. And when people don’t start voting at a young age, they are far less likely to start voting as they get older. In the 2018 midterms, we saw exactly that: a voting rate among students that was less than the national average and less than other comparable universities — including University of Michigan and USC

While I can sit here all day and criticize the University, the fact of the matter is that it is on us to cultivate the environment we wish to see. In fact, rejecting the culture of silence the University has foisted on students is perhaps the most elegant act of rebellion I can imagine. But we know this will not happen naturally, at least not in this climate. So that is why ND Votes, Student Government, BridgeND, College Democrats and College Republicans have joined forces to bring you Civics in Action, a new initiative to encourage political discussions on campus. A trained facilitator in each dorm will lead a series of conversations, offering an accessible, nonjudgemental dialogue on issues that matter. 

So if talking about, thinking about or even existing in this current political climate stresses you out, we urge you not to disengage. In the vacuum left by the University, we have the power to shape the discourse in the way we want. Let’s work towards cultivating an inclusive, respectful environment — one dorm conversation at a time. 

To sign up, be on the lookout for your ND Votes’ liaison’s email, or follow @ndvotes on Instagram to find the link to sign up.

Sheila Gregory, co-chair of ND Votes


Feb. 24

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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