No, South Bend Tribune, Trump Should Not Be Invited to Speak at Notre Dame

Last week, I co-authored a letter to Father John Jenkins, CSC, President of the University of Notre Dame. We expressed our opposition to the possibility that President-elect Donald J. Trump might be invited to deliver the Commencement address at my graduation in May.

Notre Dame has developed a tradition of inviting newly-elected Presidents to give the Commencement address immediately following their inauguration. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama accepted this invitation. Before them, Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter, and H.W. Bush all also spoke at Commencement ceremonies during their presidencies.

Naturally, then, it was to be expected that Father Jenkins and the University would invite the new President to speak at Commencement in 2017. During my four years at Notre Dame, I was constantly excited about this possibility — regardless of who was elected.

I thought that the new occupant of the Oval Office would be an incredible Commencement speaker, and a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. I prepared for the possibility that a Republican might win the White House, and that I might not agree with everything that he or she would say.

I knew that there would be backlash, and I was prepared either way. College is a time to challenge oneself in the pursuit of learning; we must engage with those who hold differing opinions, and we must push ourselves to justify our own. I resolved to welcome the new president, even if our views did not align.

In the spirit of Father Theodore Hesburgh — a peacemaker, an activist, the man who made Notre Dame what it is today, and a personal hero of mine — I vowed to continue in the pursuit of that endless conversation:

“Notre Dame can and must be a crossroads where all the vital intellectual currents of our time meet in dialogue, where the great issues of the Church and the world today are plumbed to their depths, where every sincere inquirer is welcomed and listened to and respected by a serious consideration of what he has to say about his belief or unbelief, his certainty or un-certainty; where differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, respect and even love; a place where the endless conversation is harbored and not foreclosed.”
- Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., 1975

Father Hesburgh shared with us his vision of this University constantly striving to do good in the world. We would be a beacon of hope, as our graduates and community members went into the world to fight for change. We would challenge our ideas and embrace those of others, so that we might continue to grow in our endeavors.

When Donald Trump was elected, then, I struggled with the possibility of his Commencement address.

On the one hand, the Office of the President must be respected. As an aspiring public servant, I would betray my own calling were I to ignore the President of the United States as my Commencement speaker.

On the other hand, here is a man with whom I vehemently disagree. More importantly, here is a man who has little respect for our rule of law and for those who oppose him.

I saw merit to both arguments, and I struggled with making a decision regarding my own Commencement. I had hoped that Father Jenkins would not invite the President-elect, and that I would not even have to make this decision.

Then, last week, rumors started flying. Father Jenkins was quoted in The Observer discussing a potential invitation, and it was clear that he is seriously grappling with this possibility. So, we decided to act.

We wrote to Father Jenkins, and we gathered more than 3500 signatures in support. We expressed our profound opposition to granting the President-elect the incredible honor of serving as our Commencement speaker. He does not stand for the values of Notre Dame, and he would represent a serious threat to the safety of many students and community members.

President-elect Trump has demonstrated a complete inability to serve as President. He is wholly unqualified, as he rejects briefings from intelligence officials, bullies local union leaders on Twitter, and breaks with decades of United States’ foreign policy.

He has continued to degrade women, treating them as though they are lesser than men. He has given white nationalists a mainstream platform, elevating Steve Bannon to a senior White House role. He has refused to denounce the violence in his name, as Muslims, immigrants, students, women, people of color, and so many more are the target of intimidation and hate.

My decision was much easier than I thought. I cannot share the same stage as that man, and I refuse to let my Commencement ceremony — the celebration of four years of hard work at the school that I love — be ruined by his presence.

This decision is not a matter of partisan differences, nor is it a rejection of others’ opinions. It is not merely opposition to the fact that Donald Trump won the Presidency.

Rather, this decision is one out of pride, love, and admiration for my school. Notre Dame is a prominent and respected university for a reason; it does not compromise its values in the pursuit of higher learning.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I read the opinion of the South Bend Tribune Editorial Board, as they argued that President-elect Trump should be invited as Commencement speaker.

In their opinion, this invitation was a matter of free speech. To them, “free speech can be messy. And that’s ok.”

To them, this invitation represented an opportunity to engage in the “free exchange of ideas.”

The only potential problems, they wrote, were that it might “come with some headaches,” including protests and an enhanced media spotlight.

Instead of ensuring the safety of our undocumented students, or protecting the rights of our LGBT brothers and sisters, we should listen to a man who built his entire candidacy attacking these very communities? Give me a break, South Bend Tribune.

Free speech does not protect hatred and bigotry; the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation in the 10 days after Donald Trump was elected.

Are these vile and gross acts the “headaches” that you wrote about?

Is that what you meant when you wrote that “free speech can be messy?”

Because that is most certainly not “ok,” as you wrote.

We in the Notre Dame community do not stand for discrimination of any kind. We do not stand for hatred and bigotry, nor do we stand for the ignorance of the President-elect.

Yes, we should respect the office of the newly elected President. Free speech should be respected, too. After all, that’s why our democracy has lasted this long.

But honoring the President-elect at Commencement is not the same as engaging in political discourse. Instead, it would elevate the hateful rhetoric of his campaign, his supporters, and his soon-to-be presidency. This speech would not simply be an opportunity to hear from the President and challenge our ideas. No, it would be much more than that.

Commencement speakers are conferred an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the most explicit endorsement of their life’s work and the values that guide them.

Commencement speakers at Notre Dame represent our community on the world’s stage. They are held in the same regard as past, current, and future graduates, many of whom have changed the world for the better.

Commencement speakers at Notre Dame are tasked with the pursuit of Father Hesburgh’s endless conversation. They are given the same responsibilities as the graduates they address, striving for a better world.

The Editorial Board cited Father Hesburgh from 2009, when there was tremendous outrage at the invitation of President Barack Obama to deliver the Commencement address. Father Hesburgh said that the university is “like a common place where people who disagree can get together, instead of throwing bricks at one another.”

Father Hesburgh was right then, and he is now.

Father Hesburgh was also right when he decided to admit women to Notre Dame in 1972.

Father Hesburgh was also right when he criticized President Nixon’s policies in Vietnam.

Father Hesburgh was also right when he stood arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., calling for equal rights in the 1960s.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chicago, 1964

President-elect Trump built his candidacy by spitting on the legacy of Father Hesburgh. An invitation to speak at Commencement at Notre Dame, then, would be a serious affront to the progress that Father Hesburgh made in his decades of service.

The perversion of Father Hesburgh’s mission by the South Bend Tribune Editorial Board is not only laughable, but it is disgusting.

I hope that I don’t cause them some headaches. Free speech is messy, after all.