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Campaign stops spark debate on academic freedom

Michelle Obama, wife of presidential candidate Barack Obama, visits St. Norbert

March 2008

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Campaign stops spark debate on academic freedom

Visits by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama last month provoked a strong response. Many opposed the presence on campus of politicians who support legislation that goes against Catholic doctrine.

The protests prompted an intellectual discussion that reaffirmed the college’s commitment to academic freedom.

Clinton held a town hall meeting in the Schuldes Sports Center on the morning of Monday, Feb. 18, the day before the Wisconsin presidential primaries. A week earlier, Obama had addressed a standing-room only crowd in the Walter Theatre. Obama was campaigning on behalf of her husband and Clinton’s main rival in the race for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama.

These opportunities meant students got to hear firsthand from national leaders and take a front-row seat for at least one stop on the intense pre-primary campaign.

Engaging young voters in the political process has been the focus of Peace and Justice Center voter education drives and other programming on campus designed to underscore the importance of an informed electorate.

Some critics, though, felt that it was inappropriate for a Catholic college to open its doors to speakers who are known to take positions contrary to Church teachings on issues that include legalized abortion.

The college has the support of both the Diocese of Green Bay and the Norbertine order for its stance facilitating visits by speakers representing all shades of opinion.

St. Norbert does not endorse any political candidate or party, but President William Hynes’ statement of academic freedom makes clear that, as a Catholic institution, the St. Norbert College community has a particularly deep sense of its responsibility to foster debate on all topics:

“One of the key principles of a solid liberal arts education, particularly a Catholic one, is to define our terms, examine matters first-hand, hear controversial speakers speak for themselves, view provocative artistic performances, read directly challenging texts, and weigh this direct experience against secondary interpretations … so that we know what we and others are talking about. 

“Because an undergraduate student needs to understand first-hand good philosophy from poor philosophy, true reasoning from false reasoning, real affirmation of the dignity of all people from mere nominal affirmation, this same young adult needs to examine, carefully and critically, texts and artistic forms that embody these philosophies, reasonings and affirmations.”

One parent wrote, “I think you should know that both our daughters who have gone through their college careers at St. Norbert are thoughtful, alert citizens who have been taught to think things through, not just accept any ‘party line.’

“Sen. Clinton, whether or not you agree with every opinion she has, is the former first lady, a sitting United States senator and the first woman in U.S. history to have a chance of being president; I fail to see why having her on a Catholic college campus would be anything but thrilling.”

Ben Noffke ’08, president of the College Republicans, said, "I welcome any speakers who would generate interest in the political process, regardless of their political orientation, and I would definitely like to see conservative and Republican speakers visit campus during the campaign."

Fellow Republican Jon Pollitt ’10 added, "I think we should encourage debate on the merits of the candidates' arguments instead of seeking to censor their messages."

A report on the two campaign stops filed by student correspondent Suzan Odabasi ’09 chronicles the Obama and Clinton visits.

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