Recently I mentioned the need for Catholic communities to produce more committed student and academic leaders to reform both Catholic and secular institutions of higher education.
Happily, some student leaders are already emerging in reaction to the University of Notre Dame's controversial commencement invitation to President Barack Obama.
The Notre Dame Response Student Coalition (ND Response), composed of groups opposed to the Obama invitation, has advocated several measures by which they believe Notre Dame may again secure its pro-life reputation.
Most proposals involve university president Fr. John I. Jenkins, CSC, “speaking out” or taking action on pro-life issues. With the reckless daring of the young, the students propose that Notre Dame's football commercials be used for pro-life advocacy.
More realistically, they suggest Fr. Jenkins lead a student delegation to the National March for Life or reserve a university fall forum for the pro-life cause.
The students of the coalition also ask for the school to re-commit itself to pro-life policies and to give “formal support” for pro-life initiatives on campus. They request that a pro-life “ombudsman” be appointed at the associate provost level to ensure “appropriate attention” to pro-life issues.
Curiously, ND Response's requests do not mention the new Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, though its web site recommends donations to it.
The students have also sought to engage in dialogue with the university president. While ND Response's protest letters strike a much better tone than the communications of many other student activists, they reveal at least one major novice activist's mistake.
Though Fr. Jenkins initially offered to meet with 25 leaders of ND Response, the coalition boosted its demands. They asked that all student members of coalition groups and select faculty and staff supporters be allowed to attend a meeting with the university president in a large campus auditorium.
Likely thinking themselves magnanimous and perceptive of Fr. Jenkins' human limits, the coalition guaranteed that fewer than ten students would speak or engage with him at the proposed event.
“The content of this meeting will be available to the public following its event in the form of a transcript and live video recording: True dialogue only comes with accountability,” ND Response's April 6 letter explained.
Fr. Jenkins has recently made the worst decision of his presidency. Prominent figures have called for him to step down.
Yet these student innocents want him to go before a few hundred of their peers in a meeting style that could be seen as inquisitorial. Every careless remark Fr. Jenkins makes in such a venue will be recorded and scrutinized for weakness and “gotcha” moments by many of the internet denizens angered by his actions.
It's no wonder that, as CNA reports, the university president believes “conditions for constructive dialogue simply do not exist.”
ND Response replied to this comment by noting its members' intentions to “facilitate our productive discussion and demonstrate President Jenkins' genuine interest in transparent dialogue... ND Response remains open to true and transparent dialogue with Fr. Jenkins on this issue.”
Regrettably, the reply subtly and perhaps unintentionally denigrates Fr. Jenkins. If he has genuine interest in dialogue, students aren't needed to demonstrate it.
Student activism, however necessary, has its risks.
ND Response's proposal for a “pro-life ombudsman” resembles the decades-old left-wing student activist custom of placing themselves and their fellow travelers in the university establishment.
While ND Response's efforts may be more beneficial than, for instance, the creation of yet another assistant provost for diversity position, too much success means the local pro-life movement might calcify into another self-serving bureaucracy.
Then there is the danger present when young people mistrust their elders and set themselves up as the overconfident judges of the establishment's virtue. Lacking the social graces of age, some then poorly conceal their inexperience with self-righteous postures.
Yet these troubles only threaten because of the failings of the university leadership.
As Plato noted, it is a sign of social disorder when teachers fear their pupils, the wisdom of the young man is “a match” for the elder, and the old “imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose.”
If such concerns are kept in mind, then ND Response could provide a model for breaking out of the self-defeating habit that is the protest cycle.