President Obama’s planned speech at Notre Dame’s May 17 graduation has sparked an online movement calling for the university president’s ouster and has prompted social networking groups, filled with thousands of students and alumni, to speak out on the matter.
A group of Notre Dame financial backers and alumni formed a web site called ReplaceJenkins.com, which calls for the replacement of University President John Jenkins following his support for inviting Obama to speak at the commencement ceremony.
The web site’s home page says its creators oppose Obama’s presence at the university because of his support for abortion rights. The site encourages visitors to sign a petition and state how much money they will withhold from the university.
The creators of ReplaceJenkins.com say they are not making a political statement, but they are "opposed to [Obama and Jenkins’s] actions and pronouncements, which run contrary to the fundamental moral principles of our Catholic faith."
The web site WeSupportNotreDame.org counters ReplaceJenkins.com with a pledge to support the university president’s decision to invite Obama.
More than 34,000 people have signed a petition on WeSupportNotreDame.org thanking Jenkins for "his decision to promote the ideals of Notre Dame."
Notre Dame supporters, alumni, and current students have brought the discussion to social networking giant Facebook in recent weeks. Dozens of groups have formed expressing support or regret over Obama’s planned visit, and tens of thousands of Facebook members have joined in on the online discussion, which has become heated and confrontational in many groups.
Dawn McNeill, a longtime Notre Dame financial backer from Illinois, formed a group called "Keep Obama Out of Notre Dame," which has drawn 245 Facebook members.
McNeill said in an interview with eCampus News that she would no longer donate money to the university if Obama speaks at the commencement next month. She said her family gave $5,000 to Notre Dame last year.
"Now that’s money that they’re going to lose," McNeill said, adding that she will withdraw her son from a Notre Dame football camp this year and predicting many of her neighbors will do the same.
McNeill said those lobbying for a change in commencement plans oppose not only Obama’s abortion stance, but also his support for stem-cell research.
"This is about what the university is supposed to stand for and uphold," she said. "Everything [Obama] has put forth is totally against everything I’ve been taught as a Catholic."
One of the largest Facebook groups speaking out against Obama’s Notre Dame appearance is "Tell Notre Dame to Un-Invite President Obama," with almost 2,000 members. The largest group is "Protest President Obama as Notre Dame’s 2009 Commencement Speaker," which had 5,240 members at press time. Administrators of those groups did not respond to interview requests from eCampus News.
And while Notre Dame supporters invite current and former students to join the movement to replace Jenkins, a Facebook group called "Notre Dame alums in support of Fr. Jenkins"–with 1,763 members–has many current students backing Jenkins’s decision. The group calls Obama a "public servant" who is addressing a multitude of pressing issues, including a slumping economy and two wars.
"While many disagree with President Obama’s approach to solving these challenges and other issues, we feel this invitation is an opportunity to engage the sitting president on the fullness of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the mission of Our Lady’s University to ‘create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good,’" the group’s administrator wrote.
Ryan Sanford Smith, a Notre Dame graduate student and the administrator for a Facebook group called "We Will Be Honored To Have President Obama at Notre Dame"–which has 7,564 members–pointed out that opposition groups have formed largely outside student ranks. Smith pointed out that Notre Dame’s student paper–The Observer–reported in March that 97 percent of Notre Dame graduating seniors support Obama’s invitation.
"I feel that it’s rather sad that this year’s commencement is being co-opted and turned into a political event," Smith said. "This event does not belong to Obama, or political protesters from either side, or even most other [Notre Dame] students [and] alumni. This event is a celebration and acknowledgment of the vast amount of integrity and hard work it has taken for all of the graduating seniors to reach that day."
Although many Catholics oppose Obama’s voting record and political stance on abortion and stem-cell research–the president bolstered federal funding for stem-cell research last winter–Smith said the president embodies many of the characteristics lauded by the Notre Dame community.
"The leading of our country aside, his accomplishments academically and in improving the lives of others through his social work couldn’t be more deserving of acknowledgment, respect, admiration, and emulation–the very qualities any university would seek in a commencement speaker," he said.
Despite the occasional biting criticism of Obama or those who oppose his commencement speech, McNeill said she anticipates more constructive discussion among Facebook members calling for Jenkins’s firing or backing his decision to invite Obama.
"I look forward to the conversation, as long as they’re intellectual and not just spouting hatred," she said.