Vice President to deliver Commencement address
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Friday, May 19, 2017
Past University Commencement speakers have included United States Presidents, television personalities and famous journalists. This year — despite months of speculation on whether or not the University would invite President Donald Trump — Vice President Mike Pence, the former Governor of Indiana, was selected to address the class of 2017 at Sunday’s Commencement ceremony as the graduates go forward into the next stage of their lives.
The March 2 announcement of Pence as the Commencement speaker was met with mixed reactions across campus, with students and community members both coming to Pence’s defense and protesting against what they consider to be his record of exclusionary policies.
Sophomore Dylan Jaskowski, president of the Notre Dame College Republicans, said the organization is looking forward to Pence’s visit and speech.
“We at the College Republicans are very excited to have Vice President Pence here to speak on campus,” he said. “It’s a great honor that the University can bring in such prominent figures like the Vice President of the United States to speak, and I think it’s especially a great thing given he was the Governor here for many years and he can come back to speak at Commencement.”
Pence previously visited the University during his time as Governor of Indiana, meeting with College Republicans while he was on campus.
“Last year, [Pence] called up our club and just wanted to sit down with us and some of our members,” Jaskowski said. “ … From what I heard, it was a great event.”
The reaction to Pence’s selection has not been universally positive among members of the class of 2017, however. In order to protest Pence’s record on issues relating to LGBT rights, fifth-year student Bryan Ricketts helped organize the distribution of LGBT pride flags to be displayed across campus.
“There were a couple of us who came together after realizing that Mike Pence had been invited and understanding how frustrating that felt to the LGBT members of Notre Dame’s community,” Ricketts said April 20 in a previous interview with The Observer. “ … We came together and reached out to alumni who actually donated almost 500 flags for people to put up as a show of support, solidarity for the LGBT community and recognizing that it’s something that needs to be visibly said on Notre Dame’s campus still.”
Ricketts said Pence’s record on LGBT issues made him a concerning choice to address students at Commencement.
“[Pence has], in the past, been against same-sex marriage because it harms people, which is demonstrably false and really offensive,” he said. “In addition to that, he passed a budget which supported funding for conversion therapy … so it feels pretty offensive to have him coming on campus and [giving] a Commencement speech where he tells me how to go out into the world.”
Jack Bergen, a member of the Class of 1977 and Chair of the LGBT Alumni Group of Notre Dame & Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC), voiced similar concerns about Pence’s record.
“For many years, Vice President Pence as governor of the state of Indiana has demonstrated his intense opposition to the LGBT community,” he said in an email statement. “He has advocated and voted repeatedly to restrict and/or to remove rights of LGBT individuals. He has expressed views that are totally without merit such as, ‘Being gay is a choice.’ … Notre Dame has made significant progress toward becoming a more welcoming place for all individuals. The decision to invite [Vice President] Pence is outrageously inconsistent with those goals.”
Backlash against Pence’s speech has not been limited to the University, as members of the South Bend community have come together to organize a peaceful protest off campus. The main organizers of the event are We Go High! of St. Joe County, IN; Michiana Alliance for Democracy; the Nu Black Power Movement; South Bend Equality; Inclusive Michiana; and Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky.
The Michiana Alliance for Democracy said it believes Pence has a record of infringing upon basic human rights.
“As Indiana residents, we have lived through the extreme conservatism of a Mike Pence administration,” the group said in an email statement. “His theocratic doctrine and myopic view of what is essential for the good of his state led to disastrous legislation that continues to reverberate throughout Indiana. … We consider [Notre Dame] to be a valuable community partner and are confused by the decision to have Pence deliver the Commencement speech.”
South Bend Equality shared the view that Pence’s selection was wrong and said in an email statement it ought to be protested.
“We know all too well how his policies endangered or caused direct harm to public education, health care, women’s rights, the environment, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and refugees, reproductive rights, local infrastructure, the economy of our state and more,” the group said. “We are angry and dismayed that the University of Notre Dame not only invited Mike Pence to be its Commencement speaker, but also its decision to bestow an honorary degree upon him. By exercising our right to peaceably assemble on public land in front of the University, we hope to draw attention to Pence’s failed policies, destructive ideology and abysmal legacy.”
While there have been many protests lined up, Jaskowski said he felt it was an incorrect assumption to believe the University community was completely against the decision to select Pence as the Commencement speaker.
“I think that with the protests coming out, there has been this sort of perception that Notre Dame doesn’t want Vice President Pence here speaking at Commencement,” he said. “But I would just reiterate the fact we have over a thousand people on our listserv for College Republicans, so there are a lot of people at this University who are very excited to hear Vice President Pence speak at Commencement.”
Jaskowski said he hopes those protesting Pence’s invitation still listen to what the vice president has to say.
“I would encourage them to keep an open mind,” he said “Obviously having a constructive dialogue is an important thing, and I think that if you don’t attend Commencement, it’ll be hard to keep that dialogue open.”