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Campus Politics: St. Vincent College And President Bush’s Visit

May 23, 2007

About two weeks ago the New York Times ran a piece on President Bush’s visit to a Catholic higher education institution in Latrobe, Pennsylvania: Saint Vincent College. Authored by Jim Rutenberg, the article’s title was “Visit by Bush Tests Beliefs and Hospitality of Students at a Catholic College.”

Today I’m going to risk another foray into the interrelatedness of politics, Christianity, and higher education. I’m doing it with this article, in part, because of my admiration for Catholic higher education. But this piece also highlights more aspects of the current administration’s connections with faith in higher education. This has come up before at H&E (both here and here) with respect to Patrick Henry College. This post will expand on the Catholic side of things.

Here are some excerpts from Rutenberg’s piece – with interspersed commentary (bolds and italics are mine):

– “Ordinarily, there would be nothing notable about the chancellor of a small Roman Catholic college in a reliably Republican county telling President Bush, as he did on Friday, ‘Know, Mr. President, that you are very welcome on this campus.‘ This should especially be so when the college president is Jim Towey, the former director of Mr. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”

TL: These kinds of “welcomes” undermine the critical integrity of higher education, a critical integrity that is already suspect to some (not me) because of the campus’s explicit faith connections. Everyone should be subject to the same kind of moral scrutiny on a Catholic-Christian campus: Buchanan, Bush, Clinton, Edwards, McCain, and Obama should all be received equally.

– “But these are far from ordinary times for President Bush. In yet another sign of the troubles he is facing, even in places where he once could have expected none, the news that he would give the commencement address at St. Vincent College here on Friday was not universally welcomed on the campus, which is about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County.”

TL: We can see clearly here that president Towey, in extending his welcome, is working against the tide of his institution.

– “Rather, it set off weeks of debate and protests as this tight Benedictine campus community grappled with faith and war and an unfamiliar level of polarization. It has occasionally fallen to Mr. Towey to be the referee.”

TL: It’s clear, however, that he can’t be an impartial judge of the situation. I suspect deflection and maybe even repression.

– “In April, Mr. Towey held a campus meeting, a video of which was still posted on the college Web site Friday, where he told the students, ‘I think one of the most important things that we can do as a student community at a liberal arts college that is Catholic and Benedictine is to communicate ways in which our opinions can be respected and heard, and that individuals have a right to their heart-felt beliefs.’ “
– “Students obliged with passionate and deliberate views. ‘Remember he is the president, the leader of the free world,’ one male student said. ‘What a unique opportunity for us as a college.’ Another said: ‘I’ve learned that every life is valuable to the very last day, hour, minute and second that Christ has given. Because of the disregard for human life in countries other than ours, which is partly fueled by our president’s war, I cannot accept him as a representation of our institution, which has given us all so much.’ “

TL: I admire the integrity of the students. It takes something to go against the wishes of your campus leader. Whether those off-campus realize it or not, a campus president can make a big difference in the intellectual life of an institution.

– “But a student shown on the Web video, and who, upon being spotted Friday, identified himself as George Miller, 19, urged a warmer welcome. ‘Yes, he has flaws, as we all do,’ Mr. Miller said. ‘And, yes, some argue, he does not represent Benedictine values.’ But, he continued, ‘the Benedictine tradition of hospitality is a call to welcome the very worst and the very best into our community, as though they were Christ himself.’ “

TL: You know you’re in trouble when, as a Christian (meaning Bush), you’re not welcome for your moral stands, but because manners demand it.

– “Mr. Towey thanked the students for speaking frankly before him, ‘a friend of the president,’ though weeks of protest followed. But the protest was muted on Friday, with most of the discontent expressed at a candlelight vigil Thursday night.”
– “Mr. Bush received warm applause upon stepping to the lectern. Wearing a purplish-blue academic robe, he did not address the war in Iraq in any detail, just once in thanking graduates who were joining the military, saying: ‘You knew the risks of serving in a time of war, and you have volunteered to accept those risks. You have chosen a noble calling.’ “

TL: Actually, one might ask what the president meant by “knew the risks.” Does that include tripling tours of duty and “rewarding” alum soldiers with the fewest per capita GI Bill dollars applied, since the bill’s creation, at conflict’s end to one’s loan debt?

– “Speaking of the charitable work of some students, and that of Mother Teresa, Mr. Bush told the graduates: ‘Lead lives of purpose and character; make a difference in someone else’s life. And if you do, you will lead richer lives, you will build a more hopeful nation and you’ll never be disappointed.’ “
– “Afterward, Mr. Miller, the student, said of Mr. Bush, ‘I don’t personally have a ton of respect for him.’ But he said that seeing the president in person gave him a better appreciation for Mr. Bush.”


And, does the administration respect all faith-based institutions equally? Do St. Vincent graduates, for instance, obtain jobs in the administration at the same rate as those alums from Patrick Henry College? In fact, does any Catholic college have PHC’s placement rates? If not, wouldn’t it be prudent to conclude that not all faith-based higher education institutions merit the same treatment from the administration? Now I’m not accusing the administration of anti-Catholicism: that’s unreasonable. The current president is admired by a number of Catholic intellectuals, and clearly reaches out to Catholic communities. But those efforts haven’t immunized the administration from religious favoritism.

In sum, were St. Vincent’s students expected to uncritically welcome the president? What has he done for them? And St. Vincent’s own president deserves some browbeating for trying to orchestrate campus politics. Let the students decide who they want to embrace with open arms. If the evidence warrants warmth, I have no doubt that the students will act accordingly. – TL

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