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Students anticipate Gates’ commencement address

Sam Stryker | Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat in the Situation Room in the White House May 1 as the national security team followed the mission to target terrorist Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Two weeks later, Gates will stand in the Notre Dame Stadium and address the Class of 2011 during the weekend Commencement Ceremony.

Senior and political science major Kaitie McCabe said the choice of Gates as commencement speaker became even timelier with the recent death of bin Laden.

“Now that Gates is associated with a very current event, I think his presence at our ceremony seems more momentous, more warranted,” she said. “I think a lot of seniors are interested to see whether he’ll discuss or even mention bin Laden’s death and the raid.”

Gates has served under presidents in both major parties and due to his bipartisan stance, McCabe said she believes he will not overshadow the true focus of Sunday’s events.

“I also think it’s a blessing in disguise that we won’t have a more controversial speaker at our graduation,” she said. “The focus will be on the ceremony and the students rather than [the] rightness or wrongness of inviting a particular speaker.”

Senior Patrick McDonnell, also a political science major, said before bin Laden’s death students seemed unenthused about the choice of the commencement speaker.

“I saw that a few students were excited, but most reactions were of indifference, simple acceptance or slight disappoint,” he said. “I believe most seniors who are somewhat familiar with the secretary’s background respect his service, but many do not know too much about him besides his current job.”

Senior Alex Barbuto, a member of Notre Dame’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), said Gates’ behind-the-scenes involvement in an influential event in American history heightened anticipation for the speech.

“He has something to be incredibly proud of, and I think the onslaught of reinvigorated patriotism and faith in our military will increase the audience’s support of our speaker,” he said.

Another member of the Army ROTC program, senior Geralyn Janke, said she appreciates the choice of Gates as the speaker as she prepares to enter the armed services.

“It’s awesome that we get to hear the secretary of defense speak the day after we commission,” she said. “Having someone so influential speak to us as we leave Notre Dame is a humbling capstone to my time here.”

Barbuto said he hopes Gates will comment on those who serve America in military.

“As the son of a career Army officer, brother of an officer with multiple deployments, and soon-to-be commissioned officer myself, I vaguely understand the level of commitment and sacrifice it entails,” he said. “I’m not sure most students can relate, but I hope Gates’ speech might scratch the surface.”

Senior and political science major Kevin Kimberly said Gates is not as closely linked to the efforts behind bin Laden’s death as higher profile officials like President Barack Obama. However, he said Gates’ experience could only enhance his dialogue Sunday.

“His involvement in the killing of bin Laden only enriches his story more. On whether his involvement gives more significance to his speech overall, I would say no,” Kimberly said. “He is a pretty big official as it is. His involvement, while not recognized at times, should be expected.”

While Gates was involved in the background of the bin Laden mission, McDonnell said he did not expect the recent news to affect the speech from the secretary of defense.

“While it will certainly be interesting as a graduating senior to hear from him after such a historic event, I doubt any of the address’s themes relate to bin Laden’s death or differ from what they would have been if he was not killed,” he said.

Gates, who has served as secretary of defense since 2006, announced in 2010 that he would step down from the position some time this year. McDonnell said this event is important in regards to what is said during Sunday’s ceremonies.

“It is not uncommon for public officials who are stepping down or retiring to have at least one speech where they either reflect on their tenure [or] chart out what they think the future holds,” he said. “Even if his address is not so fantastical, he still may have much to say about life in public service.”

McCabe said she thought Gates would relate to the graduating class because he too will soon begin a new chapter in his life.

“Just like us, Gates is embarking on a period of change and transition,” she said. “I think that will impart his speech with added genuineness and significance.”