Hesburgh Letter, The New York Times (1969)

Following is a condensed version of the letter Father Hesburgh sent to the Notre Dame community February 17, 1969, which was subsequently printed in The New York Times.

Dear Notre Dame Faculty and Students,

This letter has been on my mind for weeks. It is both time and overtime that it be written. I have tried to write calmly, in the wee hours of the morning when at least there is quiet and pause for reflection.

My hope is that these ideas will have deep personal resonances in our own community, although the central problem they address exists everywhere in the university world today and, by instant communication, feeds upon itself. It is not enough to label it the alienation of youth from our society. Gods knows there is enough and more than enough in our often non-glorious civilization to be alienated from, be you young middle-aged, or old.

The central problem to me is what we do about it and in what manner, if we are interested in healing rather than destroying our world. Youth especially has much to offer — idealism, generosity, dedication, and service. The last thing a shaken society needs is more shaking. The last thing a noisy, turbulent, and disintegrating community needs is more noise, turbulence, and disintegration.

Understanding and analysis of social ills cannot be conducted in a boiler factory. Compassion has a quiet way of service. Complicated social mechanisms, out of joint, are not adjusted with a sledge hammer.

The university cannot cure all our ills today, but it can make a valiant beginning by bringing all its intellectual and moral powers to bear upon them: all the idealism and generosity of its young people, all the wisdom and intelligence of its oldsters, all the expertise and competence of those who are in their middle years. But it must do all this as a university does, within its proper style and capability, no longer an ivory tower, but not the Red Cross either.

Now to the heart of my message. You recall my letter of November 25, 1968, which was written after an incident. It seemed best to me then not to waste time in personal recriminations or heavy-handed discipline, but to profit from the occasion to invite this whole university community — faculty, administration and students — to state their convictions regarding protests that were peaceful and those that threatened the life of the community by disrupting the normal operations of the University and infringing upon the rights of others.

In general, the reaction was practically unanimous that this community recognizes the validity of protest in our day — sometimes even the necessity — regarding the current burning issues of our society: war and peace, especially Vietnam; civil rights, especially of minority groups; the stance of the University vis-à-vis moral issues of great public concern; the operation of the University as a university.

There was also practical unanimity that the University could not continue to exist as a society, dedicated to the discussion of all issues of importance, if protests were of such a nature that the normal operations of the University were in any way impeded, or if the rights of any member of this community were abrogated, peacefully or non-peacefully.

I believe that I now have a clear mandate from this University community to see that: (1) our lines of communication between all segments of the community are kept as open as possible, with all legitimate means of communicating dissent assured, expanded, and protected; (2) civility and rationality are maintained; and (3) violation of another’s rights or obstruction of the life of the University are outlawed as illegitimate means of dissent in this kind of open society.

Now comes my duty of stating, clearly and unequivocally, what happens if. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible to avoid misunderstanding by anyone. Anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or non-violent, will be given fifteen minutes of meditation to cease and desist. They will be told that they are, by their actions, going counter to the overwhelming conviction of this community as to what is proper here.

If they do not within that time period cease and desist, they will be asked for their identity cards. Those who produce these will be suspended from this community as not understanding what this community is. Those who do not have or will not produce identity cards will be assumed not to be members of the community and will be charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace on private property and treated accordingly by the law.

After notification of suspension, or trespass in the case of non-community members, if there is not within five minutes a movement to cease and desist, students will be notified of expulsion from this community and the law will deal with them as non-students.

There seems to be a current myth that university members are not responsible to the law, and that somehow the law is the enemy, particularly those whom society has constituted to uphold and enforce the law. I would like to insist here that all of us are responsible to the duly constituted laws of this University community and to all of the laws of the land. There is no other guarantee of civilization versus the jungle or mob rule, here or elsewhere.

We can have a thousand resolutions as to what kind of a society we want, but when lawlessness is afoot, and all authority is flouted — faculty, administration and student — then we invoke the normal societal forces of law or we allow the university to die beneath our hapless and hopeless gaze. I have no intention of presiding over such a spectacle. Too many people have given too much of themselves and their lives to this University to let this happen here. Without being melodramatic, if this conviction makes this my last will and testament to Notre Dame, so be it.

May I now say in all sincerity that I never want to see any student expelled from this community because, in many ways, this is always an educative failure. Even so, I must likewise be committed to the survival of the University community as one of man’s best hopes in these troubled times. I know of no other way of insuring both ends than to say of every member of this community — faculty and students — that we are all ready and prepared and anxious to respond to every intellectual and moral concern in the world today, in every way proper to the University. At the same time, we cannot allow a small minority to impose their will on the majority who have spoken regarding the University’s style of life.

I truly believe that we are about to witness a revulsion on the part of legislatures, state and national, benefactors, parents, alumni, and the general public for much that is happening in higher education today. If I read the signs of the times correctly, this may well lead to a suppression of the liberty and autonomy that are the lifeblood of a university community. It may well lead to a rebirth of fascism, unless we ourselves are ready to take a stand for what is right for us. History is not consoling in this regard. We rule ourselves or others rule us, in a way that destroys the university as we have known and loved it.

Devotedly yours in Notre Dame,

(Rev.) Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.


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