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Invitation demeans Notre Dame


When I was doing my graduate work at Notre Dame, faculty and university officials often stressed the significance of Catholic social teaching, particularly the preferential option for the poor. Back at the university to give a lecture at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, I was surprised to discover that President George W. Bush had been invited to be the 2001 Commencement speaker.

Following the Supreme Court’s dubious decision to hand the election to Bush, a party of affluent Notre Dame alumni (which included local Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer) hurried down to Texas to kiss Caesar’s hem and to extend the invitation.

The invitation was accepted. President Bush is to address the May 20 commencement and receive an honorary doctorate of laws from the university.

Government professor Peter Walshe, who throughout the 1980s confronted the university on its continued investment in apartheid South Africa, decided not to keep quiet. He is spearheading a campaign to expose this initiative as indicative of the university’s drift away from its Catholic mission. Together with a few other faculty members, he drafted a petition, which is now posted on the Web for faculty, students, staff and alumni to sign at http://www.petitiononline.com/ndbush/petition.html

In the petition, the faculty members relay their anger with the invitation extended by Holy Cross Fr. Edward A. Malloy, Notre Dame president. Bush administration policies, the petition states, will “give a huge tax refund to the rich, cut by 86 percent programs that provide health care access for the uninsured, abandon the environment -- both nationally and globally -- to the predatory drive for corporate profits, and promote another arms race with its Strategic Defense Initiative, and contradict Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university. Furthermore, Fr. Malloy’s invitation demeans Notre Dame, coming as the Bush administration pursues its ruthless agenda in the immediate aftermath of a deceitful campaign that promised ‘compassionate conservatism.’ ”

The petition concludes with its insistence that all future invitations to address the commencement ceremony will be determined in consultation with the faculty. What faculty members are trying to do is to take back some of the power that has been divested from them by the administration, so that they can influence the decision-making process at Notre Dame and redirect the university’s agenda back to issues pertaining to social justice. They are not interested in the administration’s incessant attempts to emulate the Ivy League.

So far only a few faculty members have signed the petition. Symptomatically, the response from the Department of Government has been woeful. While George W. Bush has fans in the department, the pervasive lack of support epitomizes the cautious careerism of the professorate characterizing many universities in the United States. In contrast, a number of years ago, at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, where I teach, vocal faculty protest frustrated an attempt to confer an honorary doctorate on Ariel Sharon.

At this moment, however, attention should focus on labor activist Msgr. George Higgins. At the May 20 commencement, he will be honored for his contribution to trade unionism as the recipient of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. Higgins will be on the dais with the president as the laudatory citation for Bush is read. In this setting, Higgins unwittingly becomes the fig leaf for Notre Dame’s decision to honor a president who is implementing policies that are in stark opposition to Catholic social teaching. Before Higgins attends the commencement, I hope he will ask himself one simple question: What would Jesus have him do?

Although not a Christian myself, it seems to me that at least one issue is blatantly clear in the New Testament: Jesus’ economic teachings. Higgins should, I believe, refuse Notre Dame’s invitation to attend the commencement ceremony.

Neve Gordon received his doctorate in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and is currently teaching politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001