Colwell: ND avoids political circus with Pence | Opinion


Eight years after President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled today as the commencement speaker. Equal time takes time.

Notre Dame obviously didn’t announce this as equal time. Not as need for a Republican vice president after a Democratic president. Not a requirement for someone to be protested as too far right after protesters complained of the other being too far left.

But it’s widely viewed on campus as the university administration saying to alums and donors: See, we’re fair. We have both sides. Equal time.

However, not everybody is happy.

Critics of Pence among graduates and faculty say this is a bad time for equal time because Pence is unworthy. They cite his support of President Trump on mass deportation of immigrants, something Notre Dame has deplored, and on controversial stands on the environment, health care and income inequality.

Also, they deplore that Pence, as governor of Indiana, pushed to pass a “religious freedom” bill that was ridiculed nationally as really providing freedom to discriminate. That’s why some students have hung rainbow colored flags from dorm windows to support diversity and protest Pence.

Critics of the 2009 invitation to Obama say he was unworthy. They cite his pro-choice belief on abortion. They will remain unhappy about Obama, even if there is now equal time for someone they like.

If the university wanted real equal time, why isn’t Trump the speaker? Why not the Republican president — not just the vice president?

I assume that Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, and the trustees weren’t crazy enough to invite Trump. If they were, they should light candles daily at the Grotto in thanks that he declined. No rant of self-pity like his Coast Guard Academy address.

After the election, Jenkins discussed whether to invite Trump in following “tradition” of presidents for commencement. Alas, he feared, “a bit of a political circus” if Trump came, something like when Obama came.

It would have been nothing like protests at the 2009 commencement ceremony. A few protesters in the audience were quickly shouted down by the graduates with a loud, defiant shout oft heard at football games: “We are ND!” Their message was clear: We are Notre Dame. You aren’t. So be quiet.

They weren’t endorsing all of Obama’s policies. But they respected him as the first African-American president, coming to honor the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, long-time university president and giant in civil rights.

Protests are planned today. Some graduates plan to walk out when Pence is introduced. Protest planners say they want nothing really disruptive for commencement, an impressive and dignified event. We’ll see.

If Trump were here, however, it certainly would be a nasty scene. Terrible for Notre Dame. Terrible for the thin-skinned president.

Protests against Trump would not have turned commencement today into a circus, silly and funny, but into something not funny at all, with displays of anger and loathing.

Trump as a candidate wasn’t popular on campus. He got only 24 percent of the vote in a student mock election.

I have taught classes at Notre Dame for 17 years, and I have never seen a class as dispirited and angry — fearful of what older voters had done to the nation in which they will live — as the class on the day after the presidential election. Some students said they still had not slept — couldn’t — up all night, crying or cursing or cringing over what the outcome would mean for them, for the future. They weren’t enamored with Hillary Clinton. They feared that Trump would be dangerous, unhinged.

Large numbers of students and faculty petitioned that Trump not be invited.

If he were coming, many of them wouldn’t just walk out. And their reaction wouldn’t be met silently by graduates among the 24 percent mock election supporters of Trump. It would have been terribly divisive. Terrible.

Jack Colwell is a columnist for The Tribune. Write to him in care of The Tribune or by email at jcolwell@comcast.net.

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