The 1960s and Student Activism

“It is always better to revitalize a basically good system than to destroy it violently while having nothing with which to replace it.” —Father Hesburgh, in The Hesburgh Papers*

Notre Dame was not immune to the student activism that animated college campuses during the late 1960s and early '70s. It, too, was a place of protest and demonstration, and an institution following the lead of its President whose life was a model of engagement with the issues of the day. But the President was intent on ensuring that the political and societal conflicts not disrupt the educational process but provide opportunities for dialogue, involvement, and learning. Toward these ends, Father Hesburgh maintained order yet led steps to bring a conscience into political affairs and prayer into the national conversation.

When Father Hesburgh learned of a plot to burn down the ROTC building, he spoke at a student rally, expressing his support of their opposition to the Vietnam War as well as his support of ROTC on campus because of the need for a well-educated military with a conscience. His speech was well received by students, and a large number of them came to his office for copies of it to have them signed by South Bend residents and mailed to President Richard Nixon. The students collected over 23,000 signed copies, which Father Hesburgh then mailed to the President.

Student movements nationwide grew more violent and some Notre Dame students threatened to turn civil disobedience into mayhem. College presidents throughout the country were unsure of how to handle the situations on their campuses and feared the repercussions of their actions. Father Hesburgh spoke with faculty, students, and alumni to determine where they stood, then wrote a now-famous letter to the faculty and students that was detailed in newspapers around the nation, including a printing of the letter in its entirety in the New York Times.

The letter, released in February 1969 and quickly known in the national media as outlining Father Hesburgh's "Tough 15-minute Rule," spelled out consequences for those who abused the right of dissent and disrupted the academic enterprise. Such dissent, the letter stated, was permitted, even encouraged. But it also stipulated that interference with the civil rights of others would not be permitted, and that those who violated this principle would be given 15 minutes to reflect on their actions. 

A week after Father Hesburgh sent his letter to the student body, President Richard Nixon requested that he advise Vice President Spiro Agnew about federal legislation to control student violence on campuses because the vice president would be meeting with all the state governors to discuss and vote on the issue. He wrote a letter to the vice president opposing any sort of federal legislation or action regarding the issue, suggesting that students were often being portrayed unfairly and inaccurately and suggesting that the colleges and universities themselves were better suited to deal with their own communities. When the governors first gathered, more than 40 of them were prepared to vote for federal action, but after reading Father Hesburgh's letter, more than 40 of them voted against federal legislation.

In October 1969, Father Hesburgh more publicly expressed his own disagreement with U.S. policy in Vietnam, and signed an open letter with other college and university presidents calling on the government to accelerate its withdrawal of troops.

For more information on Father Hesburgh's actions in the '60s dealing with student activism, please see the following resources.

*Hesburgh, Theodore Martin. The Hesburgh Papers: Higher Values in Higher Education.  Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1979. Print. Hesburgh, Theodore Martin, and Jerry Reedy. "Student Revolution." God, Country, Notre Dame. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Print. O'Brien, Michael. "Years of Turmoil, 1968–1972." Hesburgh: a Biography. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1998. Print. Schlereth, Thomas J., The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus,  University of Notre Dame Press, 1976. Print.

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