Anyone who's spent much time around universities catches on. While the marquee agenda is education, the main occupation is politics. And is it ever a thick ball of overlapping twine. Both internal and external special interests and squabbles need settling. Faculty, administrators, students, alumni and sports juggernauts are all constituencies that demand widely disparate attention. Add pressures from religious sub-groups and the job gets even harder.
In recent decades, one insatiable monster in particular has charged to the front: good publicity. The drive to improve a university's image to sell its superiority over other institutions has become an industry in and of itself. To that end, U.S. News and other rankings have become vehicles for "proving" one's elitism, and the beefed-up public relations operations will go to practically any length to climb that greasy poll by fudging and falsifying the numbers. It's about money and "prestige."
Politics is to universities what diamonds are to 47th Street in New York, but for the most part it's hidden under the cloud of a higher mission. The one time of year when the wraps get taken off is at graduation, the moment of maximum expose. It is, therefore, the prime opportunity to rally the old faithful, calm nerves of the disgruntled and unfurl the emblems of eternal honor the university bestows on itself.
It can get complicated, of course, as in the case of the University of Notre Dame, which bows to no one's academic politics. Inviting famous public figures like presidents has become one of its mainstays. Even allegedly negative publicity can be part of a shrewd strategy. In 2008, as many recall, Notre Dame was widely portrayed as stiffing American Catholics by giving Barak Obama an honorary degree in spite of the president's approval of legal abortion. The media reported shrill protests from priests, bishops and laity who railed against the university for betraying Catholicism. Practically unnoticed was the fact that a solid majority of Catholic lay people, most strategically the large Catholic upper classes, agreed with Obama on the issue and presumably applauded Notre Dame for its seemingly brave stand against its own people. It was nothing of the kind, no doubt enhancing its image with its own following.
But the incident was edgy on the church level, where the university found itself in bad odor among many in the hierarchy and the Catholic right, so the political instincts again went to work. One apparent result was that Notre Dame suddenly took the barricades against the stipulation in Obama Care that required its health plans to include access to birth control resources, even though the plan's advocates removed any obligation of religious institutions to pay a nickel of the cost. Just provide the service for employees, they said, partly on grounds that many employees weren't Catholic (there is good reason to believe that most faculty and staff, even many clergy, disagree with the administration's position). The university then joined the rationale that the requirement violated freedom of religion. It hasn't become a widely convincing argument, but it did show signs of trying to pacify the sector of the church still angry over Obama's honorary degree.
Now the decision to confer the Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner is a kind of bouquet to both wings of the church. They have been chosen as meeting the medal's criteria as exemplary Catholics, the university president said, for putting "the good of the nation ahead of partisan history, seeking through respectful dialog honorable compromise and progress." Such recognition was needed at a time when "public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high."
No examples are cited, and I'll leave it to you to determine whether the two figures have lived up to that standard or have been part of the problem. The ideal is worth celebrating, of course, but both men raise at least interesting questions in their relationship to Catholicism. Biden has held fast to a "pro-choice" position and has seemingly promoted anti-poverty programs that would reflect Catholic social teaching; Boehner is four-square on his support of doctrinal sexuality but a company Republican in his stout rejection of the teaching's (and Pope Francis') implied priorities in favor of such things as advocating for food stamps and an end to the death penalty.
Whatever the outcome of the dispute, it will shower the university in attention and will reflect an only slightly illusional picture of taking a courageous, nonpartisan, prophetic stand. What better political harvest could you hope for?