School greets Bush visit with dialogue, not vitriol

McClatchy NewspapersMay 10, 2007 

LATROBE, Pa.—St. Vincent College is roiling over President Bush's planned visit on Friday, but the protests have little resemblance to the tumultuous demonstrations that swept across college campuses during the Vietnam War.

In fact, the rest of the country might learn a lesson from the small Catholic school near Pittsburgh. Instead of shouting at each other across a partisan divide, the 1,600 students and their professors have been having a spirited but civil debate about Iraq and the symbolic overtones of Bush's commencement address.

When C-SPAN aired a campus forum on the controversy last month, some viewers were thrilled to see students disagreeing without the vitriol that has become standard fare on talk radio and cable TV "shout shows." In an e-mail to the school, an Iowa woman said she stayed up until 3:15 a.m. to see a repeat of the broadcast and woke her husband so he could watch it too.

"People are listening to each other," said Jim Towey, the school's president. "I don't see a whole lot of minds being changed, but there's at least a respect for the fact that people have a right to disagree."

The controversy generated by Bush's visit is another sign of how unpopular the Iraq war has become. St. Vincent, founded by a Benedictine monk in 1846, is hardly a hotbed of liberal activism. Monks still stroll across the 200-acre hilltop campus in hooded black robes.

Towey took over as president last year after overseeing Bush's effort to provide more federal aid to faith-based charities. In a previous career, he served as Mother Teresa's lawyer.

Other even more conservative campuses also have been touched by unrest over the war. Last month, a small group of students and faculty at Brigham Young University, the nation's premier Mormon school, objected to a commencement address by Vice President Dick Cheney.

"The war has certainly changed a lot of people's minds," said Dennis McDaniel, an English professor at St. Vincent who joined about 30 other faculty members in an open letter denouncing the war and other Bush administration policies.

To be sure, the debate over Iraq at St. Vincent and on other campuses isn't nearly as passionate as the firestorm that erupted over Vietnam nearly four decades ago. Perhaps one reason why is that, unlike the Vietnam generation, today's students don't have to worry that they'll be drafted for battlefield action.

"I don't think it's as personal to people unless they have a loved one who is fighting," said Rachel Morgan, a 1994 St. Vincent graduate who organized an online petition drive against Bush's visit.

Students opposed to Bush's commencement appearance offer a host of reasons for their misgivings, including the inconvenience of enhanced security and shifting the graduation ceremony from Saturday to Friday to accommodate the president's schedule.

But the war ranks at the top of the list.

"Bush has not achieved anything to bring words of wisdom to our school, and his legacy is not one that brings honor to our Catholic institution," Josh Meny, a sophomore history major, said at the school forum.

Many of the students who want Bush to come don't defend his policies. They say the focus should be on the office, not the person who holds it.

"Love him or hate him, he's the president of the United States, the commander in chief," graduating senior Christopher Mannerino of Rochester, Pa., said as he walked across campus Thursday. "My grandchildren are going to know that the president of the United States, someone who will be in their history books, was at my graduation."

Towey said he found the tenor of the debate at St. Vincent a refreshing change from his time in Washington, where partisan tensions could turn social events into "a hockey fight—everybody starts circling and grabbing jerseys."

Both sides in the dispute said they wanted to avoid sullying an event intended to honor the nearly 300 graduates.

"We're a small college. There's a sort of family-like atmosphere here. We work together. We see each other. There's a sense of responsibility that goes with that," said McDaniel, one of the faculty members who objected to Bush's visit. "President Bush is our guest."

Nearly everyone on campus seems to agree that the disagreement has been good for the school and its students.

"It's energized us," McDaniel said. "Everybody's had to stand up and be counted in some way, in ways unexpected."

Senior Mike Antonacci, a physics major from nearby Jeannette, Pa., said the debate "pushed people out of their comfort zone" and forced them to consider opposing views.

Student Shane Seremet said he hopes Bush has a similar experience during his brief stay.

"I am for him coming because I oppose his war," Seremet said at the campus forum. "Freedom means that you've got to co-exist with people who make your blood boil."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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