Opportunity to End an Unofficial Tradition



In the next few days, I expect we will hear an important announcement regarding Notre Dame’s commencement speaker this year. Discussion of the possibilities is already contentious, as we wonder and debate whether our university should follow its steadily built pattern of inviting the recently elected president.

Our university has a history of inviting presidents to speak. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, five other presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) have come to campus, received honorary degrees, and delivered the keynote address. This year’s election cycle, laden with tension, criticism, and conflict, has likely given University President Father John Jenkins pause in considering whom to invite. I have heard strong opinions on both sides of the question, and I would like to simply speak honestly about where I stand.

I am a Catholic, pro-life young woman, and I see in our new administration—despite very real imperfections—potential to support the pro-life cause as never before. Nevertheless, I do not think President Trump should be this year’s commencement speaker.

To put it bluntly, I believe that the custom is silly. Automatically inviting the president—as Fr. Jenkins once put it, “whoever they are, whatever their views”—does much more than merely encourage dialogue and toleration. It places prestige above the promotion and preservation of our university’s core values. Furthermore, the traditional bestowing of the honorary degree upon the speaker necessarily communicates the university’s approval of that person’s actions and beliefs. It is for this very reason that the invitation of President Obama, a firmly pro-abortion president, was scandalous for a Catholic university.

Now, a dilemma faces our university president in making this crucial decision. If he has decided to invite President Trump, he will inevitably face intense backlash—and not only from students and alumni, who spearheaded the opposition in 2009, but also from a large number of faculty. In response to Trump’s positions and policies on immigration, 4,300 faculty and students signed a petition calling on Fr. Jenkins to make Notre Dame a sanctuary campus, and the Faculty Senate passed a resolution stating the same. Regardless of what one thinks about these measures, one will likely understand the pressure this situation puts on our university president.

If he has not invited Trump, I anticipate that he will have to explain his decision in one of two ways. On the one hand, he could make the claim that Trump’s presence would not harmonize with Notre Dame values—particularly the importance of respectful dialogue and respect for the marginalized.

Such a claim could very well be true, but it creates an unfortunate contradiction. If Notre Dame wishes to invite as commencement speakers only those who do not contradict the university’s central ideals (as I believe it should) then it should not have invited President Obama in the first place. Therefore, this first potential justification on Fr. Jenkins’ part, though sound, would implicitly admit that previous mistake, and it would therefore be very difficult to deliver.

On the other hand, Fr. Jenkins could point out that the tradition of inviting presidents has never been official, and that the university always has had the discretion to invite whomever seems fit. By this logic, he would be creating an avenue to end the custom altogether.

The “tradition” of inviting the newly elected president to be the commencement speaker should have ended with the election of President Obama, whose endorsement of a moral evil should have outweighed any attempt to only focus on social justice or dialogue. Nevertheless, what Notre Dame did not end then can end now. I hope that Fr. Jenkins has made a guided, sound decision, not only for the sake of keeping peace on campus but also for the sake of advancing our great university toward its central goal: the heroic pursuit not of prestige but of truth.

Sophia Buono is a junior PLS major and ESS minor. She would not be opposed to having Vice President Mike Pence come to speak at commencement. Contact Sophia at sbuono@nd.edu.

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