Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana on Sunday. But what Pence said was overshadowed by who didn’t care to hear it.
Over 100 newly-minted graduates silently walked out when Pence took the podium in Notre Dame stadium on Sunday morning. The protest, coordinated by a group called We StaND, had been planned for weeks, and was done with the blessing of the school’s administration. Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications, tells The Daily Beast that the students who planned on protesting went so far as to meet with the head of campus security this week to discuss which exit to use and how to best leave the ceremony respectfully. As far as protests go, it was pretty polite.
There was no shouting, minimal booing, and little disruption, which allowed Pence to deliver his litany of political bullet points and milquetoast platitudes uninterrupted, and enabled the stadium crowd that remained to applaud in the appropriate places. Everything, from Pence’s greeting to his wooden “Go Irish!” sign off, went off without a hitch.
Pence’s invitation wasn’t a tacit endorsement of the Trump administration’s policies from Notre Dame students or the administration. In fact, during his introduction, University President Fr. John Jenkins mentioned Catholic positions on accepting refugees and immigrants, a seeming allusion to Pence and the Trump administration’s problematic record on those issues. Class of 2017 valedictorian C. J. Pine, founder of a student group called Solidarity with Syria, delivered an address immediately before Pence that skewered the Trump administration’s rhetoric. “If we are going to build walls against American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence,” he said. Pine received a standing ovation.
The University always invites sitting Presidents to speak; Obama, both Presidents Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Dwight Eisenhower have all addressed graduating Domers. As such, protesting political commencement speakers is hardly a new phenomenon at Notre Dame. When then-President Barack Obama spoke at the university in 2009, Church officials called for his invitation to be rescinded due to his pro-choice views. A small contingent of students protested by praying the rosary during his remarks. The University awarded the prestigious Laetere Medal to Joe Biden and John Boehner last year. People protested that, too, also because of abortion. When I was a Notre Dame undergraduate in the early 2000’s, the Right to Life club turned South Quad into a massive field of tiny crosses one home football weekend per year in protest of abortion’s continued legality and practice. That school is a place with some pretty strong opinions.
Because of this, Notre Dame can’t win when it comes to picking commencement speakers. It doesn’t help that no current political party espouses all of the official views of the Catholic Church; no party is pro-life in the sense that it opposes unjust war, the death penalty, and abortion. No party officially believes in climate change and believes that birth control is sometimes the same as murder.
Still, 85% of Notre Dame undergraduates are Catholic, and the practice of Catholicism is an intrinsic part of campus life. It’d be hard to find anybody holy enough to satisfy some Notre Dame hard-liners. I’d bet a seat in the back pew at the Basilica that even Pope Francis would upset some of the university’s more conservative alumni.
No matter the institution, commencement speakers are often lightning rods for the sort of disposable outrage that sustains a news cycle or perhaps a few issues of a university’s alumni newsletter, but wither and die just as quickly as they crop up. Remember Condoleezza Rice backing out of speaking at Rutgers a few years back? How about how IMF managing director Christine Lagarde withdrew from speaking at Smith College amid complaints? In a year, will anybody who wasn’t in the room or livetweeting it remember Betsy DeVos being booed during her commencement address at a historically black college?
So, too, will Pence’s forgettable appearance at Notre Dame join the blur of protests that’s come to characterize the Trump era, that’s come to characterize commencement season writ large. That’s not to say that the students’ protest wasn’t significant or meaningful. Just that we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again, and, considering we’re not even a year into the Trump administration, for Mike Pence, there will be plenty more where that came from.