Pence is a safe and unprincipled pick
Neil Joseph | Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Last week, University President Fr. John Jenkins and the University announced that Vice President Mike Pence would be the Commencement speaker at graduation (my own graduation) this year. In this announcement, Jenkins ended months of speculation, trepidation and anxiety over whether or not President Donald Trump would be invited. Many thought he would be invited, as several (though not every) president had been invited to speak at Notre Dame Commencement during their first year. Yet, the University decided to pick Pence, slyly avoiding the issue entirely while attempting to minimize the fallout.
Quite clearly, the issue of inviting Trump was one which the University had agonized over and wanted to avoid completely. Aside from a lone interview from Jenkins with The Observer in December that discussed how it was difficult for Jenkins to decide, the University did little to address the issue. The statement announcing Pence was one that would’ve been fit for any speaker, failing to address any of the controversies that had been growing throughout the student body. Additionally, there was little to no discussion about the reasoning behind the pick from those who had the actual power to choose the Commencement speaker. It frankly seemed that the opinions and voices of the students on either side were not heard.
In their choice of this Commencement speaker, the University had a chance to articulate the principles guiding its education — whatever they were. Whether it was inviting Trump, flaws and all, in order to show that a university requires discourse, and that we can’t create change without understanding all perspectives. Or whether it was taking a stand against Trump, not inviting him and publicly reasoning that doing so would be against our Catholic ideals. Those seemed to be the two options, and either way the University would have been espousing some sort of principled stand that revealed the values Notre Dame represents and seeks to spread through its education. But picking Pence and avoiding the issue was in fact far worse than either side – it retracted from the discussion entirely by refusing to articulate any real beliefs guiding the choice.
Undeniably, the choice of Pence as speaker was a politically savvy move. It limited the fallout that would’ve come from a vast majority of students had Trump been invited, while still appeasing those who believed that the administration deserved representation at our Commencement. But political savviness is for politicians — not for the leading Catholic institution in the world. With this choice, Notre Dame as a University shirked its opportunity and responsibility to be leaders of our country and the direction it takes.
The Notre Dame Mission Statement says that “The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” In choosing Pence, however, the pursuit of truth is not evident. Pursuing truth means fostering discussion, standing for what you believe in and sharing with others those values you believe to be central to your identity. Avoiding this issue attempts to avoid discussion, stands for little and seems to indicate a lack of values. Being a leading world institution demands more — it demands unyielding, principled beliefs that guide those who look to us as an example. By failing to have a publicly articulated values-driven identity guiding this choice, Notre Dame has failed to be a leader among higher education institutions — which is something we should strive to be and are called on as the premier Catholic university.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.