Jack Colwell: Notre Dame ponders an invitation to Trump
Thursday, February 02, 2017 9:31 AM
SOUTH BEND – “The University of Notre Dame confers the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, on the 45th president of the United States ... Donald J. Trump.”
Q. Will those words be spoken by the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame president, on May 21 at the university’s 172nd commencement?
A. Only if two things happen: Jenkins invites Trump as commencement speaker and Trump accepts the invitation.
Q. Are an invitation and acceptance likely?
A. We don’t know what could be in the works – negotiations with the White House? – but neither invitation nor acceptance was regarded as either likely or impossible as strong opinions were heard on campus, including differing views in letters to the Observer, the student newspaper.
Q. Some students want Trump invited?
A. Sure. Some, even if not liking all of the divisive things Trump has said and done, think the university should follow a tradition of inviting presidents to speak at commencement, especially newly elected presidents.
Q. An example?
A. In a letter to the Observer, junior Maximilian Towey wrote, “I’m trying to think who’s under more pressure at ND right now: Brian Kelly or Father Jenkins? One is coming off a 4-8 football season despite markedly high preseason expectations, while the other is confronted with the quandary of either abiding by the Notre Dame tradition of inviting the United States president for commencement, or shirking this tradition to keep perhaps the most polarizing figure in America off our campus.” Towey said it was right to invite President Obama as 2009 speaker, despite some protests then, and that “we owe the same courtesy to his controversial successor.”
Q. There’s disagreement with that?
A. Sure is. Thousands of students and faculty members have signed petitions urging Jenkins not to invite Trump. Junior Liam Maher presented that view in the Observer, responding to Towey: “The author errs in normalizing Trump’s behavior so as to compare it to the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama. The latter was criticized primarily due to his political policies (read: his stance on abortion), whereas the former stirs controversy through his blatant disregard for people and their human dignity.” Maher said that inviting Trump would go beyond politics and condone “language of hate, fear, selfishness and anger.”
Q. What has Father Jenkins said?
A. He is weighing the invitation tradition against what Trump at commencement would mean for graduates and their parents. He said there was “a bit of a political circus” with Obama in 2009 and: “My concern a little bit is that, should the new president come, it may be even more of a circus.”
Q. Would Trump bring more protest at commencement than there was in ’09?
A. More by far. Most of the Obama protest took place before commencement, such as with a plane flying around and around campus for days with an anti-abortion sign. A brief attempt in the audience to interrupt Obama was put down by graduates drowning out the few protesters with a loud, proud claim: “We are ND!” Most students were content that Obama, no matter his political views, was being recognized as the first African-American president and was there really to honor the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, a giant in civil rights.
Q. Wouldn’t students be content with honoring Trump for achieving the presidency?
A. Some would. Some wouldn’t. Strong sentiment against Trump on deportation was shown by both the student senate and faculty senate urging that the university be declared a “sanctuary campus” to protect undocumented students against any Trump efforts to remove them. Some students walked out of class in a demonstration calling on Jenkins to declare sanctuary status. They wouldn’t be silent during a Trump appearance.
Q. Would Trump come, if invited?
A. He might not. He doesn’t think kindly of those who criticize him. There would be a lot of criticism at Notre Dame. But if he came, he would answer back.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.