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A silent and peaceable demonstration led by Grace Petry ’18 (seated, center) drew the attention of the national media.

Donald Trump Campaign Stop Provokes Lively Debate

It was a very St. Norbert incidence of radical hospitality, accompanied by a very St. Norbert protest. Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination brought the controversial candidate to campus last Wednesday (March 30).

This latest request from a political candidate to host a town-hall meeting at St. Norbert elicited divided and plentiful opinions, both on and off campus.

And, on the day of the campaign stop, a silent sit-down protest led with the power of love.    

Freedom of speech
Between the decision late Monday, and the Walter Theatre stump speech itself Wednesday morning, more than 20,000 people had clicked on the straightforward announcement posted to the college’s Facebook page Monday night: “Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump will make a campaign stop on campus on Wednesday.” 

Responses flying back and forth on social media were more or less evenly divided between those who acknowledged the college’s policy on political visits and those denouncing the decision to make a campus facility available to a candidate of Trump’s reputation. Also in the mix were a few voices openly supporting the candidate.

Speaking to the opportunities presented by the campaign stop, College Republicans president Kirsten Umbach ’18 commented, “I think it's great that SNC welcomes big speakers like Trump even if they are controversial. Going to a school that encourages us to wholeheartedly express our opinions is one of the great things about SNC, whether that be by attending as a supporter or participating in the silent protest. The event Wednesday was a great experience for our students to be able to hear a political candidate speak. It’s also an honor that a candidate for the American presidency, no matter the party, wanted to make a stop at our campus to begin with.”

Peaceably to assemble
On the day of the meeting, demonstrators created a peaceful presence outside the Bush Art Center. 

Grace Petry ’18 (pictured above) organized a student demonstration. “I wanted to create something that was a constructive way … to show our disdain for what he’s saying, without causing any more conflict,” she told the media. We really feel that this candidate’s campaign is filled with hate; so we wanted to be a symbol of unity and, I guess, love.” The story later ran on MSNBC.

A policy decision
The college’s policy on political candidates guided last week’s decision, but President Tom Kunkel also consulted with Abbot Gary Neville, O.Praem., ’73 and Jay Williams ’73, chair of the college’s board of trustees, before agreeing to the visit. 

Opponents to this particular extension of the college’s commitment to the radical hospitality of the Norbertine order argued that the decision stood in conflict with St. Norbert College’s Christian and educational mission. 

But among those joining the consequent debate on Facebook was Jim Kane, who said: “Last year, when SNC hosted Gloria Steinem, I wrote an email to college president Tom Kunkel questioning letting her speak at a Catholic-affiliated institution. He responded, quite forcefully actually, that at SNC, the plan is to expose the students to all kinds of views and that we trust the students to make their own choices. This validates that entire conversation for me.”

The college policy on political visits, in fact, states that the campus is open to bona fide political candidates of all persuasions. This oft-referenced document opens with a statement linking the policy to the college’s mission: “St. Norbert College is proud of its Catholic, Norbertine and liberal arts heritage, and deeply values academic pursuit and the freedom of expression. As such, we respect our students’ rights to express their views and are committed to sustaining a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas may be difficult, controversial or objectionable to some.” 

Kunkel explained, “Our hospitality does not mean we endorse a given candidate or his or her views. We simply see our role as helping facilitate these important exercises in democracy, while in the process, exposing our students to the day’s political issues.”

After the Trump stop, Kunkel wrote to the campus community, “[Trump’s] visit has sparked countless meaty conversations and mobilized hundreds of students, as everyone used the occasion to deeply appraise the leading Republican candidate and his views. And that, I think, is a big part of what a college is supposed to do.” 

Let us begin with prayer
The Rev. Jack McCarthy, O.Praem., ’64, a St. Norbert Ambassador of Peace, opened the Trump town-hall meeting with this introduction and prayer:

Good morning and welcome to St. Norbert College, and to its tradition of radical hospitality and respectful discourse.

In the spirit of gratitude for the freedom that we have to meet to discuss and to decide by democratic processes our own lives; the lives of our children and grandchildren; our security at home and abroad; the lives of our neighbors to the north, and to the south and to the Indian nations within our borders; to the future of our forests and fertile lands, our rivers and lakes, and the air we all breathe, I invite you to pause for a moment of silence and prayer. 

Spirit of truth, you who have searched the depths of God’s wisdom lead us to envision and work for a world of peace and justice for all in the manner of the self-giving we see in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Creator Spirit, help us to open for coming generations a path of hope for the future, to make us effective signs of God’s love for the whole human race. 

And, Spirit of Consolation, inspire us with solidarity for the poor; care of the sick; the security of families, towns, states and nations. Help us establish open communication among us all. 

Spirit of Wisdom, inspire our minds, hearts and hands through the liberal arts, science and technologies that can enrich human life and lead us to justice and peace. 

And, Spirit of Life, by whose power the word was made flesh in the womb of Mary, make us attentive to the prompting of your love and to the signs of our times. Help us to find in them our place in the path of history in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

April 5, 2016