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Students React to Pence Speaking at Graduation



Mix of satisfaction, disappointment

At the beginning of March, Notre Dame announced that Vice President Mike Pence would deliver the university’s 2017 commencement and receive an honorary degree. In recent years, Notre Dame has welcomed four out of the last five newly elected presidents to speak. This tradition was cited by Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, in his controversial decision to invite then President Barack Obama.

The Rover spoke to students, both seniors and underclassmen, about their reactions to the decision. Respondents included seniors Frankie Wamsley, Kate Hardiman, Louis Bertolotti and Emmett Wilmes, and freshmen Anna Scartz, Mary Bernard, Mary Szromba, and Laura McKernan.

Pence and Notre Dame’s Values

Student’s reactions largely focused on whether Pence shares Notre Dame’s values and mission. In 2009,  there was also disagreement over whether or not the commencement speaker should share Notre Dame’s values. However, this year, students largely focused on and disagreed about whether or not Pence shared Notre Dame’s values.

For reference, Notre Dame’s mission statement, as well as list of goals and core values, can be found on the university’s website. The United State Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guidance about Catholics in political life states, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Hardiman: Vice President Pence has strong ties to Indiana and a commitment to religious liberty that Notre Dame also shares. He espouses Christian values that I believe are the bedrock of familial institutions and American society.

Szromba: I am extremely disappointed in the university’s decision. Vice President Pence’s policies regarding immigration, healthcare, and the LGTBQ community directly contradict the Catholic values of Notre Dame. For the first time since my arrival, I am ashamed of my university.

Bertolotti: I was glad to hear that Fr. Jenkins extended an offer to Vice President Pence to speak at commencement. He has served the state of Indiana and the administration of President Trump with distinction. He is a public servant who has worked his whole life to better our state and our country. He has done much work to advance the mission of the university. I look forward to hearing his remakes and his invitation has many of my own family members especially excited.

Bernard: Pence is, after all, the governor who attempted to bar refugees from entering the state of Indiana, a move that has been publicly criticized by Cardinal Joseph Tobin and that is contrary to Father Jenkin’s own statement in support of protecting and accepting refugees.

Pence and Notre Dame’s Tradition

In a 2009 statement, Fr. Jenkins wrote, “Notre Dame has a long custom of conferring honorary degrees on the President of the United States. It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy. It is the university’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President. In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ, yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society. As St. Peter wrote (I Peter 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order.”

Hardiman: Though the decision to invite Vice President Pence to give the commencement address this year was philosophically inconsistent with the justification given when then-President Obama was invited to speak, it was a politically prudent one.

McKernan: I don’t think it was a smart move, because those who dislike Trump often have an equal dislike for Pence (and I even know some people who dislike him more than Trump). And, those who like Trump—or simply support the tradition of inviting the president—will not be happy because the tradition is broken and the president will not be speaking at graduation. Ultimately, I believe that the decision will alienate all invested groups rather than just one or some.

Wilmes: It’s a glaring example of the inconsistency of the current administration.

Scartz: The University of Notre Dame prides itself on being a place of great tradition. We also pride ourselves on being moral students and creating students motivated by faith and a “sense of human solidarity” to pursue social justice in their future endeavors. Emphasizing this mission to seniors at commencement is important because it is their final impression of the university. They should hear from speakers who embody the this and have led by example. Mike Pence has not done this in all aspects of his career. In inviting the VP rather than the president, Notre Dame has shown than it can change tradition. If we can do that, I do not think we should settle until the commencement speaker can speak for all of the students and the common good.

Other Reactions:

Wamsley: I wish we would have [invited] a comedian instead. Less controversial and way more entertaining.

Hardiman: I also know many seniors who are happy that graduation will be occurring in the stadium, something that is not possible if the president is invited due to security concerns.

Kevin Angell is a freshman studying economics and political science, and he strongly believes in the importance of providing accurate and timely coverage of events relevant to the Notre Dame community. Contact Kevin at kangell@nd.edu.

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