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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

What does Notre Dame stand for?

Everyone who has ever set foot on the campus of Notre Dame has seen the famous photo of Fr. Ted Hesburgh and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two are locked in arms, standing together against racial injustice. The image is plastered around our University, iconic for what it represents.

Less well known is a letter from Hesburgh, a former member of the United States Civil Rights Commission, to the Notre Dame community. The letter was also submitted for print in The New York Times. At the height of the Vietnam War, our University had become embroiled in political protest. A scene not unlike that of hundreds of other colleges across the campus played out at Notre Dame, as men (this was before Notre Dame integrated the sexes) grew out their hair, boycotted the Central Intelligence Agency and DuPont and generally voiced their displeasure with the support, implicit or otherwise, Notre Dame appeared to be lending to the war efforts in Southeast Asia. The letter from Hesburgh contains the line, “Anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or non-violent, will be given 15 minutes of meditation to cease and desist.” The punishment for violating the 15-minute limit will be suspension, with expulsion also outlined as a punishment if the demonstration continues.

My next question is how King would have felt about such a rule against demonstrations. Of course, King was tragically assassinated a year before Hesburgh wrote his letter cracking down on protests. If he had lived, would he have called out his friend Hesburgh for the policy? It is impossible to say, but fair to wonder. As the nation’s civil rights icon, King championed the use of nonviolent protest. He stood tall, literally, in the face of fire hoses and police dogs, to fight for what he believed. At Soldier Field, when King and Hesburgh joined 57,000 others to protest peacefully against civil injustices in America, they did not disperse after a mere 15 minutes.

I have wondered for seven semesters now why this is such a politically apathetic campus. It is easy to assume a university that displays a photo of its most iconic president with the nation’s most iconic civil rights activist would proudly embrace its heritage of nonviolent protest. But this is not the case. Hesburgh’s 15-minute rule makes it clear why.

Recently, when a group of students under the End Hate at Notre Dame banner staged a sit-in to protest parietals and the use of racial slurs, amongst many other issues, Notre Dame Police were called. They informed the protestors that if they did not leave after 15 minutes, they would be arrested, suspended from school and possibly expelled. The same threat was lorded over those protesting the campus housing changes last spring at the Golden Dome.

In no way am I equating demonstrations on campus with the civil rights movement in America. The scope of the current Notre Dame movement is almost infinitely smaller and less urgent than the civil rights movement. But the movement’s small audience does not make it invalid. Seeking a more inclusive campus and a better experience for all Notre Dame family members is a noble and worthy goal. Those who are displeased with the current state of affairs would be smart to take heed from the great civil rights leaders in America to further their cause. 

Our University’s leaders, however, are insistent its students get in line and accept the status quo. Taking a page perhaps from Hesburgh, Fr. John Jenkins seems happy to publicly support nonviolent protest when it fits his vision for the University. How many students does Notre Dame excuse from class to attend the March for Life each winter? Does the march last only 15 minutes before everyone packs back into a University subsidized bus to come back to South Bend? Obviously that is not the case.

It is when a movement no longer makes life easy for the leaders of the University that they seek to squash it. The outdated standard of parietals is an uncomfortable topic. So is sexual assault. So is the use of racial slurs. So is the erasure of local Native American tribes. And so on, and so on.

These are hard concepts to talk about, and the fact that a vocal, passionate group of students is unhappy with the way they are handled at Notre Dame no doubt upsets the University’s leaders. But it does not excuse the way they respond to protests.

Hesburgh’s legacy can be the man who stood side-by-side with King. Or it can be the man who outlawed nonviolent protest, sending students who disobeyed to the draft board during the Vietnam War. But it cannot be both.

Ben Testani is a senior studying international economics, Arabic and Spanish. He comes to Notre Dame via central New York and while currently residing off-campus, will always be a proud Alumni Dawg. He welcomes feedback at or @BenTestani on Twitter.

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