Times Like No Other

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

This spring semester at Notre Dame defied precedent. No soul would want to see it repeated in a million years.

Rather than the more common inconvenience of a northern Indiana blizzard leaving us snowbound for a spell, the University — along with the world — continues to be virusbound. We anxiously await an entirely different kind of thaw.

On campus, classes shifted to online learning, research took place far removed from the library or laboratory, offices transacted their business remotely. Mass and other rituals, like so much else, were conveyed over the internet to computer or tablet screens.

The weeks after the midterm break upended virtually — an overworked word in the current environment — every pattern of practice at Notre Dame. Nobody — academic, administrator, athlete — was immune to the consequences of the pandemic whether physically, psychologically, socially or economically.

The phrase a “time like no other” came to mind as an appropriate description of this moment. The trouble, however, is that this struggling wordsmith used that exact phrase — “time like no other” — in trying to come to terms with another spring semester at Notre Dame, the one in 1970. That article, “Seven Days in May,” originally published by Notre Dame Magazine in 1990, appears on the home page as the current Magazine Classic.

Fifty years ago, familiar habits of campus life were also interrupted for many students, faculty and administrators by what was happening in Southeast Asia and by the reactions of college-age men and women to the seemingly endless Vietnam War.

Comparing 2020 and 1970 isn’t fair. We’re talking apples and oranges, if not fruits and vegetables.

However, there are definite, if distant, similarities. Both semesters suffered serious dislocations that radically altered day-to-day activity. Both disruptions began unpredictably with outside events that deeply affected campus life. Both directly involved incumbent American presidents as major characters. Both entailed unknowable tomorrows.

Michael B. Murphy’s article, “Conscientious Objections,” which appears in the spring issue of Notre Dame Magazine, provides a superb account, with valuable context, of what occurred a half-century ago. Even for those of us who lived through those days in May 1970 at Notre Dame, Murphy ’79 provides an eye-opening and instructive reconstruction of the events.

Yet neither “Seven Days in May” nor “Conscientious Objections” go beyond “the strike” to explain how the academic year concluded in 1970. That’s really a story unto itself of those long-ago times.

Notre Dame’s 1970 Commencement took place on Sunday, June 7, 12 days after the scheduled end of classes. It was the University’s 125th graduation ceremony and the last time degrees were awarded in June rather than in May.

One of the speakers was senior class president John F. Crawford ’70, and the decision by University officials to allow him a place on the program made him the first student to deliver remarks at a Commencement.

The main address was delivered by James E. Allen, Jr., the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Given that over the previous decade, graduates had heard from (among other noted figures) President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and scholar/presidential advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the choice of Allen raised student eyebrows and questions.

Who is James Allen? What about someone more well-known? Couldn’t university president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. do any better?

Actually, if you probe the subject, Allen and Hesburgh were kindred spirits and not afraid to speak their minds to those in power. In 1970, this, of course, meant challenging President Richard M. Nixon.

As education commissioner, Allen had sounded off in April of that year against the Nixon administration’s dilatory practices in desegregating the nation’s schools. Allen’s criticism squared with the opinion of Hesburgh, who at the time was serving as the Nixon-appointed chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Remarkably, too, Allen had taken a stand in May against the administration’s actions in Southeast Asia. “I find it very difficult to understand the rationale of going into Cambodia and continuing the war in Vietnam,” he told 400 staff members of the Office of Education who cheered his remarks.   

In his Notre Dame address, titled “Does Anybody Hear?”, Allen argued that protesting young people were finally being heard, a viewpoint Hesburgh was espousing and applauding in his public statements on campus and elsewhere.

Allen, like Hesburgh, urged the new graduates to participate within traditional democratic procedures and channels, saying at one point, “The emerging willingness of youth to direct its activities within the political system is the real hope of succeeding in the effort to preserve and extend democracy while simultaneously moving toward fundamental social change.”

The nation’s education commissioner went so far as to encourage (albeit in a subtle way) the continuation of protest: “. . . I hope the young people will continue to be goads to our national conscience and that their crusading spirit will not diminish but rather grow into a renewal of our society through the political processes of our democracy.”

Three days after Allen spoke at Notre Dame, he was no longer a Nixon administration official. Although a government spokesperson cited mismanagement of the department’s bureaucracy as the prime reason for Allen’s dismissal, Washington commentators pointed to the commissioner’s critique of the pace of desegregation and the incursion into Cambodia as the more honest motivations for the firing.

In a small coincidence of history, Hesburgh himself was removed as chairman of the civil rights commission two years later. What were the priest’s transgressions? They were similar. He spoke openly about the Nixon administration’s lack of minority hiring and its problematic enforcement of certain provisions of civil rights legislation.

Interestingly, Notre Dame’s president felt the wrath of the White House nine days after Nixon won his second term on November 7. In the eyes of some observers, a pre-Election Day ouster could have provoked a backlash at the ballot box.

To be sure, the springs 2020 and 1970 are very different, with different origins, different actions and different ramifications. Both, however, represent times — plural — like no other in the long and unfolding story of Notre Dame. Neither spring will be forgotten.

Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record and The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump. Both are published by Notre Dame Press.