Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: Notre Dame shuts down diverse views by rejecting Trump and protesting Pence

A police officer pushes back Notre Dame senior Doug Randolph, a former Notre Dame football player, as students protest an event featuring Charles Murray, a controversial conservative speaker, writer and academic, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
A police officer pushes back Notre Dame senior Doug Randolph, a former Notre Dame football player, as students protest an event featuring Charles Murray, a controversial conservative speaker, writer and academic, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. AP

It’s all over conservative media that the tender shoots at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, are quaking in fear because the former governor of their state, Vice President Mike Pence, is this year’s commencement speaker.

The Federalist, National Review, The Blaze, the Daily Caller, Hot Air and Fox News Insider are among the outlets that ran similar stories describing the supposed panic on Notre Dame Avenue. Actually, all of these stories quote only one student, the same student, who mentioned in an interview in the campus newspaper that she and “many” others will feel “unsafe” with Pence on campus.

I not only doubt that but also have every confidence that most left-leaning seniors will still show up to collect their diplomas, just as outraged conservatives did when President Barack Obama was the commencement speaker in 2009. The tradition of Notre Dame inviting — and then protesting — the new president goes back decades. In fact, we’ve invited every American president since Dwight Eisenhower, and six have addressed the graduating class.

The Rev. John Jenkins, the university’s current president, said in December that he was still mulling whether to continue that tradition by inviting President Donald Trump. He recalled Obama’s visit as a “bit of a political circus,” which it certainly was, and worried that having his successor on campus “may be even more of a circus.” Yup, it would have been.

In the end, he gave into pressure from a student petition that declared Trump “unfit to set foot on our campus” and argued that inviting him would pose a safety risk to immigrants.

Presumably, the president would not have shown up with ICE agents in tow. And purity tests for invited guests are contrary to the whole idea of the university, where we go to learn what we do not know and be exposed to ideas we do not hold.

The first time I saw Trump on the campaign trail, before he’d even announced he was running, was on a college campus in Iowa where he advised students that if they worked hard, they might buy an even bigger plane than he has. To say that this is not how I see Catholic or Notre Dame or American values is an understatement. Yet I wish Notre Dame had invited him and let the students see the emptiness of his vision up close. The marketplace of ideas is a free-for-all, or should be.

But more and more, students and even faculty around the country don’t see it that way. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which keeps track of attempts to disinvite campus speakers, institutions of higher learning have taken back speaking invitations 146 times since 2000. Of the 338 times various groups pushed schools to rescind an invite, pressure came from the left 207 times and from the right 100 times. (The rest, like the attempt to get Mr. Rogers not to come to Old Dominion, had nothing to do with politics.)

Among those liberals have been able to block was Bristol Palin, who was disinvited from Washington University in St. Louis in 2011; what a victory for their power base.

And the intolerance to diverse views seems to be growing more heated recently, with liberal protesters at Middlebury injuring a professor accompanying conservative Charles Murray and at U.C. Berkeley setting fires in opposition to the most disinvited campus speaker of all, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

It’s instructive that Notre Dame’s eagerness to avoid protest by inviting Pence instead of Trump only resulted in a different demonstration.

The University of Michigan’s decision not to have a commencement speaker at all has been criticized, too. But that’s where this is heading, in a world where we live in politically homogenous communities, on and offline.

The absolute worst message for college graduates isn’t what they’d hear from Donald Trump or Mike Pence or Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders. The worst message is the one Father Jenkins sent Notre Dame students when he indulged their preference to only hear from those with whom they already agree.

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