Notre Dame should be more political, which means inviting Joe Biden
Vince Mallett | Friday, February 26, 2021
For Notre Dame, or any Catholic institution, to express unqualified support for President Biden’s agenda would be unconscionable. In just his first 37 days, the President has taken the dangerously unjust actions of breaking promises on immigration and expanding taxpayer support for abortion. Fr. Jenkins described the latter as “deeply disappointing.” In my opinion, the University and her president should call out political injustice more frequently, and in much stronger terms.
For example, let’s consider a recent political event to which the University responded in a terrifyingly mild manner. A ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ flag was flown at last month’s violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Fr. Jenkins’ statement condemned the assault on our democracy but failed to mention the flag. I, for one, will never forget the horror I felt when I saw the same flag that I have in my bedroom flying at a terrorist event.
For Fr. Jenkins to refrain from explicitly denying the association between Notre Dame and anti-democratic white-supremacist violence only deepened that horror. InsideHigherEd.com ran a column decrying the lukewarm tone of Fr. Jenkins’ and other university presidents seen by the author as allies of then-President Trump; Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s Vice President of Communications, replied to point out the various times Fr. Jenkins has criticized then-President Trump, but still failed to mention the presence of a Notre Dame flag at the event in question.
The University of Notre Dame constantly tells its students to be a force for good in the world while refusing to use its massive influence to do anything beyond applying gentle pressure and releasing weak public statements. The institution acts as little as possible so as to please as many as possible.
I’m reminded of when I used to go to water parks growing up. The parks always had some sort of cliff that one simply jumped off of to fall in a pool twenty feet below. Wanting to look cool for my older brothers and cousins, I would talk myself up about how brave I was going to be and how many times I was going to jump off that cliff, even though I was, and still am, severely terrified of heights. Yet, every time I would get to the front of the line at the top, I would end up paralyzed by fear and refuse to jump in.
Sometimes, Notre Dame seems to me like that scared little boy afraid to take a leap, even after bragging about how many times he would jump. We talk a big game about bravery and standing up for what is right, but do we actually do so, or do we back away from every opportunity to get involved? I certainly believe that it is too often the latter. The first step to changing that pattern is to invite President Biden to speak at the 2021 commencement ceremony.
To see why, one first must recognize Notre Dame’s long history of inviting U.S. presidents to speak at our commencement in their first year of office. Six presidents have done so: Presidents Carter, Reagan, G.W. Bush and Obama spoke in their first year in office, and Presidents Eisenhower and G.H.W. Bush spoke in their last year in office. For those keeping track, that’s two Democrats and four Republicans.
Those speeches involved our institution in the highest levels of American political life and encouraged our graduates to aspire to tackling injustice at the largest scales imaginable. When a president gives the commencement address at a graduation ceremony, the graduates recognize that powerful positions, which provide opportunities for profoundly positive change, are within their reach.
Notre Dame should invite every U.S. president to deliver the commencement address at its graduation ceremony in their first year of office, regardless of the president’s political positions. This is not because the University should be politically neutral, but precisely because the University has an obligation to be political, and that obligation demands that we do not cut ourselves off from the world simply because of its sin.
In a Nov. 2016 interview, Fr. Jenkins questioned the tradition of inviting presidents to graduation and referred to the controversy surrounding President Obama’s 2009 speech as a “political circus.” In my opinion, that is exactly the wrong idea. Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony is not an apolitical event. Our University’s graduates are going out into the world to fight for good, and the celebration of that transition should recognize that fight, not simply revel in empty pomp and circumstance.
I hope that President Biden is invited to be our commencement speaker this year, and I hope he accepts the invitation. I know that this means we will have countless protests, counter-protests and speeches, annoying media coverage, disappointed alumni and vitriolic comments on the Observer website. All of these are good things; an increase in open political discussion on our campus should be welcomed.
The University can, and should, make itself clear that it strongly opposes significant parts of President Biden’s agenda. The student body can, and should, maintain a constructive discourse about that agenda, our political condition overall and the actions we must take to advance the cause of justice. That is all perfectly compatible with, and even would be supported by, our invitation to the president. Notre Dame talks a lot of talk, but constantly shirks away from genuine political involvement so as not to seem offensive or divisive. Talk is not adequate to tackle the injustices of our day. Let’s walk the walk.
Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy, with a minor in constitutional studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article said the University has hosted five presidential commencement rather than six, and George H. W. Bush spoke during his first year in office rather than his last. The Observer regrets these errors.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.