“The speech I wish the vice president had given”

Last spring, the University of Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony made national news after a number of students chose to walk out of the commencement speech given by Vice President Mike Pence. On August 23rd, The Observer published a Letter to the Editor by Professor of Political Science, Joshua Kaplan, titled, “The speech I wish the vice president had given.” Kaplan’s piece was a mock speech which corrected some of the shortcomings that Kaplan saw in Pence’s actual speech while staying consistent with the Vice President’s beliefs. Last week, The Rover sat down with Professor Kaplan to get a better feel for the potential that he saw for the Vice President’s address.

Kaplan opened by stating that he agreed with Notre Dame’s decision to invite Pence because of Pence’s ties to Indiana as governor and Pence’s previous visits to the university. However, Kaplan thought that Pence could have made more of an impact as speaker by addressing the so-called ‘walkout’:  

Kaplan “was disappointed that Vice President Pence didn’t acknowledge the walkout…The walkout became the story, and [Pence] had an opportunity to change the narrative.” An ideal speech, according to Kaplan, would have “used [the walkout] as an opportunity to engage rather than…allow it to be a polarized situation.”  

In contrast to the recent trend of violent and nonviolent protests against controversial speakers on college campuses across the country, the reaction to Pence’s commencement speech was relatively tame. While it was not as large as others, Kaplan believed that it still presented Pence with the opportunity to discuss the importance of free speech and of the free exchange of ideas on college campuses, thus challenging the sentiment that “freedom of speech is only for people I like.”

Regarding future speaker invitations, Kaplan advised that the university should make a critical distinction between thoughtful controversial speakers and provocateurs. He posed the question, “Is this a speaker with whom I happen to disagree with strongly or is this someone who is just here to provoke controversy?” To illustrate the distinction, he referenced two past controversial speakers, namely, Charles Murray as an example of the former and Ann Coulter as an example of the latter. Kaplan further elaborated that he finds it academically valuable for students to engage with the ideas of speakers with whom they disagree, but he does not believe it is valuable to bring speakers to campus solely to offend.

Kaplan also wished that the Vice President had addressed religious freedom issues in light of his experience implementing a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as governor of Indiana and Notre Dame’s recent experience navigating Obamacare’s HHS Mandate. Kaplan continued, “[Pence] has been through alot with this issue just in terms of his own faith and his term as governor…I would have loved it if he had used the speech as an occasion to share his perspective on this, as a person of faith, as a politician.”

In writing the mock speech, Professor Kaplan tried to approach it from the perspective of Vice President Pence. “What I tried to do in the speech is not to say, ‘I wish he had different ideas,’” explained Kaplan. Instead, Kaplan said he wanted to explore a different way in which Vice President Pence could have approached a controversial situation at a Catholic university. He states, “given what I knew about his positions and who he is…[the speech] would have been true to his positions and true to his heart.”

Even in a polarized political climate in which many students had preconceived notions about Vice President Pence, Professor Kaplan thought that it would have been valuable to give a politically substantive speech.

“This is what leadership looks like—that you are able to persuade,” Kaplan reflected. He especially felt that a university setting warranted an approach that created dialogue and aided deeper thought about the controversial issues surrounding the walkout. To Kaplan, given the setting, “Pence could have said some things that could have gotten people nodding in a thoughtful way.”

Going forward, Professor Kaplan acknowledged that inviting politicians for commencement addresses will continue to be fraught with controversy. He surmised that inviting non-political speakers may be necessary in the future, saying “I’m just afraid that we’ve gotten to a point where it’s just too complicated [to invite politicians] and there’s just the potential for big problems that nobody wants.”


Mimi Teixeira is a senior studying political science and constitutional studies. Contact her at mteixeir@nd.edu.