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Coping with a conservative campus

| Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

A TA of mine once joked during our discussion section, “I forgot. This is Notre Dame — you’re all conservatives and don’t care about people.” While the class all laughed along in good humor at what was obviously not a serious comment, there was an air of truth to this statement — an implicit acknowledgment that our campus climate is indeed more conservative than most. When the data analytics website Niche ranked the 50 most conservative colleges in American in 2020, institutions such as Brigham Young University–Idaho, Cedarville University and Liberty University topped the list, while Notre Dame was nowhere to be found. Still, there seems to be a conservative feel to campus, one that cannot necessarily be quantified or ranked.

A friend recently lamented the socially conservative atmosphere she has observed on campus, complaining about the stigma around using dating apps and how she and other students feel the need to hide their tattoos despite tattoos being fairly common among our generation. The conservative character of our school is not simply limited to culture; it also translates to policies and politics. As one of the most recent examples, in a letter to the editor, a student voiced opposition to the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Although another student wrote a response to that letter, “Say yes to the Equality Act,” the original letter demonstrates that social conservatism runs strong at our Catholic University. 

The conservative-progressive divide at Notre Dame has been especially acute over the past several months — throughout the confirmation of Professor Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and the transition from the Trump presidency to the Biden one. As our nation has come to a political reckoning, so has our University. Pieces such as “Fighting for every inch of existence” highlight the struggle for inclusion and full participation in the Notre Dame community that LGBTQ+ students face and remind us of the urgent need for concrete protections for our LGBTQ+ peers rather than the wishy-washy statements of the past. 

All of this can be quite frustrating to progressive students at Notre Dame and to members of marginalized groups. Clearly, Notre Dame is no UC Berkeley. If you came to college in hopes of basking in a progressive paradise, I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that this isn’t quite the place. If you are upset by Notre Dame’s relative conservativeness compared to other elite universities, however, don’t be so quick to trade in South Bend for the Bay Area, or to wish you could. I challenge you to view going to a school such as Notre Dame not as a nuisance or obstacle, but as an opportunity. If you feel Notre Dame is not the place you would like it to be, don’t give up on it. Make it better. Make it what it should be. This is part of the power we all possess. In fact, it is the duty we have — to make campus more welcoming for those around us and those who will come after us. 

The political divisions at Notre Dame, which are more substantial than those at predominantly progressive schools, can actually help us prepare to engage with our national politics. While more progressive universities might offer a temporary refuge from talks of small government, rugged individualism, traditional marriage and the March for Life, when four years are up, a politically conflicted nation awaits. Broader America and the world as a whole are not all progress, goodness and inclusion — a fact you do not need me to point out. Even though Joe Biden emerged victorious comfortably in this past election, securing 81,283,098 votes, 74,222,958 Americans voted for Donald Trump. The election of 2012 tells a similar story: Republican Mitt Romney received 60,933,504 votes to President Obama’s 65,915,785. While both of these elections were clear Democratic victories, the tens of millions of votes the Republican candidates received indicate that support for both major political parties runs strong in America. According to Pew Research Center, “Overall, 34% of registered voters identify as independents, 33% as Democrats and 29% as Republicans.” This political climate is more in line with what we see at Notre Dame as opposed to somewhere such as UC Berkeley. So, in a way, we can view our University as a microcosm for America and use it as a practice ground to fight for a better nation. 

Pursuing justice in our lives will require active involvement and effort to right the wrongs around us. It has no definitive start date — say, graduation. It begins when we decide that we care. Many of the social and political clashes on the Notre Dame campus reflect those in which our country is embroiled on a larger scale. Just as our campus grapples with issues of racial justice, LGBTQ+ protections and women’s rights, so does our country. Our duty to take a stance on these issues on campus parallels our civic responsibilities of holding accountable people in power and demanding policy that is responsive to people’s needs. The conservative-progressive struggle is not simply a four-year phenomenon into which we have gotten ourselves stuck by choosing to attend a school that is not purely progressive, but rather, an enduring feature of our nation that will remain a part of our lives long after we have secured our diplomas.

It might seem more comfortable to avoid or escape Notre Dame’s conservative culture, but if we do, the problems will remain — left to be dealt with by others. Let’s embrace this opportunity as a head start to a lifelong journey of activism and engagement. The fact that we notice injustices and exclusion on campus does not mean that we shouldn’t be here — that it’s time to transfer or that we made the wrong decision to attend a Catholic university in the Midwest. Exactly the opposite: It means we belong here to see that these problems are fixed and progress is made. When the going gets tough, don’t get discouraged — and don’t go to California, as much as I personally would love to. Stay right here and make this a place of which you are proud. 

Eva Analitis is a junior in Lyons Hall majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.

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

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