Bright and early on Tuesday, February 4, 11 students gathered for breakfast in the Morris Inn’s Hesburgh Private Dining Room. Anxiously lounging near the buffet display, they cast periodic nervous glances towards the doors, anticipating the arrival of the man who would make this breakfast exceptional.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ visit to Notre Dame was a quiet one, free of fanfare and public appointments on campus. Brought to campus by professor Rick Garnett of the Notre Dame Law School, the Justice—who joined the Supreme Court in 1991—made room in his schedule to begin the day with members of the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and American Public Life.
Professor of Political Science Philip Muñoz, director of the Tocqueville Program since 2011 and founder of the Constitutional Studies Minor, envisioned events such as this breakfast when he started the Tocqueville Fellows program in autumn of 2013.
“There were a couple ideas behind the creation of the Tocqueville Fellows,” Muñoz explained. “We wanted to make sure our undergraduates had a chance to meet and talk in depth with our visiting speakers.”
Kerry Hunt and Elizabeth Argue, both senior political science majors, are the Tocqueville Program’s inaugural endowed fellows.
Hunt, the 2013-2014 Frank Potenziani Fellow, explained to the Rover why she values being a Tocqueville fellow.
“The fellowship is important because it bridges a gap that tends to exist between students and faculty,” Hunt said. “It’s one thing to go to a professor’s office hours, but quite another to have discussions about contemporary issues outside of the academic setting. The fellowship creates a setting where that’s possible, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Argue, the 2013-2014 William Orosz Fellow, concurred.
“The Tocqueville fellowship program is an invaluable opportunity for undergraduate students to meet in smaller settings with speakers who come to campus,” Argue said. “Through these events, we have met with scholars of all types and in varying fields. We usually receive one of their books before the event, so we are able to ask them questions about their work. I have learned a lot from these academic discussions and have grown to appreciate [how] knowledgeable they are in their fields.”
The Tocqueville Program acquired copies of Thomas’s 2007 best-selling autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, for each of the attendees, which enabled the students to converse with Thomas about his upbringing, outlook and life experiences. The Justice spoke candidly about the consequences of the Affordable Care Act, the “free love” mentality and illegitimacy that tore apart his family and his difficult childhood in segregated Georgia.
Lavarr Barnett, a senior at Holy Cross College who is entering law school next year, cherished the chance to meet Thomas in person.
“I enjoyed the breakfast because it gave me the opportunity to see a different side of Justice Thomas. As with many public figures, the information that is usually available comes from certain media outlets, which fail to paint the whole picture,” Barnett noted. “He seemed to genuinely enjoy speaking to and hearing from the students that were in attendance. Both his candor and his attentiveness showed that he was enjoying our conversation.”
Barnett was not alone in being surprised, perhaps pleasantly, by the Justice’s personality.
“Breakfast with Justice Thomas was surprising in many ways,” Argue recalled. “I read his autobiography and was a bit nervous to meet the angry and bitter man whom he portrayed in the book. As we shared breakfast together, however, I soon realized that he is a joyful man with a witty sense of humor and a humbly righteous demeanor. He showed a genuine interest in our lives as we introduced ourselves and was not afraid of sharing his.”
Thomas left a similar impression on Hunt.
“My expectations about Justice Thomas mainly came from what I read of his memoirs, so I anticipated someone who was accessible, but who was serious-minded,” she told the Rover. “He was definitely warm and approachable, but I found him much more humorous than I had expected. I remember being surprised at the frankness of his book, but he framed his directness with witty remarks that made it very natural and unassuming.”
Barnett, who has been accepted into Notre Dame’s Law School, noted that while opportunities like these do not come along often, “they allow us as students to gain valuable, practical knowledge that we can use moving forward.”
“Because visiting speakers specialize in different topics, they challenge me to think about new ideas and to consider them from different perspectives,” she said.
“The Fellowship program is an integral part of our efforts to create a small intellectual community at Notre Dame focused on the study of great ideas,” Muñoz explained. “The speakers we bring to campus tend to speak on topic of broad public interest, not narrow academic questions.
“Justice Thomas’s visit is a great example of that.”
The Tocqueville Program will be announcing its call for 2014-2015 Fellows applications shortly after Spring Break.
Contact Michael Bradley at firstname.lastname@example.org.