Message from the President: Commencement 2012

Jan. 3, 2012

To our alumni friends,

I want to thank all of you who have written us about the recent controversy surrounding our May commencement speaker, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Below is a note I sent earlier today to our students, faculty and staff explaining the school's position. I thought you would find it of interest.

To the campus community:

First, as the J-term kicks off, let me welcome back those students, faculty and staff who have now returned from the holiday break. I hope it was a joyful and restful one for you and your families.

As you are doubtless aware, while we were away St. Norbert College was pulled into a controversy that arose from some recent remarks by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who will be our commencement speaker this May. The Cardinal's comments concerned Chicago's gay community regarding the timing of an annual LGBT parade, and its potential disruption of some parish Sunday services. In the wake of his comments, an Internet petition originated asking St. Norbert to "disinvite" Cardinal George.

We asked the Cardinal to be our speaker about four months ago, based on his position of leadership, his varied experiences, and his considerable academic and clerical accomplishments, and he graciously agreed. As a Catholic institution, it is central to our mission to engage and interact with Church leaders from time to time, in part so that we may in fact talk about the Church positions and policies on the sometimes divisive issues of the day. Indeed, later in January I am hosting both Abbot Neville and Bishop Ricken in a campus forum to talk about Church leadership and the college.

Speaking for myself, I felt Cardinal George's chosen analogy in discussing the parade participants was most unfortunate, and I can appreciate why it upset and offended so many people. Yet if we only invited people to campus who agreed with us on everything, or who had never offered pointed opinions, we would have few visitors indeed.

Further, we don't run the college via public referendum. We would no more disinvite the Cardinal than we would have disinvited Hillary Clinton from speaking on campus when she was a presidential candidate in 2008, despite the considerable pressure at the time to do just that. And as we've often said, inviting a speaker to campus doesn't mean we agree with or condone his or her positions. We are simply fulfilling the crucial role of higher education to expose students to a wide variety of perspectives. Intellectual freedom means nothing if you don't practice it.

Toward that end, and in order to provide a fuller opportunity for a dialogue than a commencement weekend can usually accommodate, I am inviting Cardinal George to come to St. Norbert earlier in the spring semester, for a campus discussion on this and other matters of interest. I will keep you posted on those developments.

For now, let me say that I have appreciated your many notes on all sides of this issue. I fully understand, and in no way minimize, the strong passion, feelings and emotions they express. Nor is it my intent here to try to change anyone's mind. You believe what you believe, as you should. But we are a community, and you are entitled to know why we have taken this position.

Finally, I want to say a word now to our seniors: Whatever your own position on these matters, I hope by the time commencement comes around you will still wish to celebrate that special day with faculty, family and friends. After all, commencement is about you, the students, and no one else.

Thanks for your consideration, and like you I look forward to a great spring semester.

Thomas Kunkel
President, St. Norbert College