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Observer Editorial: Seniors should have more say in Commencement process

| Friday, March 3, 2017

The University announced Thursday morning that the 2017 Commencement speaker will be Vice President Mike Pence. A University spokesperson Thursday declined to say whether or not the University had invited President Donald Trump.

The debate over whether or not Trump should have been invited to speak at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony was the most divisive topic on campus this year — especially amongst seniors. Six U.S. presidents have spoken at Notre Dame’s Commencement ceremonies since 1960, four of whom — including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush — spoke during their first year in office. Throughout the 2016 election and in the first few months of the new administration, the question of whether President Trump would be invited was the subject of intense, heated debate. We have seen this in conversations and demonstrations around campus supporting both sides of the issue, and it’s been especially noticeable in our Viewpoint section.

The debate over inviting presidents to be Commencement speakers will certainly continue with the selection of Pence, the former governor of Indiana and another divisive political figure for his stances on, among other things, LGBT rights and reproductive issues.

We were sharply divided over whether or not Trump should have been invited to speak this year, and thus we could not, as one board, take either side in the debate.

However, we are in agreement that the students — especially graduating seniors who will be attending Commencement — did not have satisfactory input into this incredibly divisive decision.

Not giving the student body, particularly graduating seniors, adequate say in the matter undermines the idea that Commencement “is for graduates and their parents,” as Jenkins said in an interview with The Observer last semester. Leaving students out of the process almost entirely also caused undue confusion, especially as the weeks and months without an announced speaker were drawn out.

On Monday, about 30 protestors from a coalition that included Diversity Council, the Notre Dame College Democrats and We Stand For gathered in front of Main Building to protest what they originally said was Notre Dame’s decision to invite Trump to Commencement, even though the University has never said whether he was invited or not.

The Notre Dame College Republicans also sent an email to its members Monday reminding them of a club meeting held that night to “discuss meeting with Fr. Jenkins regarding Commencement.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama spoke at Commencement during what Jenkins himself recently described as “a political circus.” The decision to let him speak was vehemently protested from the moment it was announced — and the outcries only increased until the ceremony concluded. While alumni and Catholic figures like Bishop John D’Arcy spoke out against the decision to invite Obama and award him an honorary degree, several hundred students voiced their dissent by planning an alternate graduation ceremony at the Grotto.

The decision to invite Obama divided — literally, not just figuratively — the student body on a day that was supposed to be a celebration of the common achievement of the class of 2009. It happened on a day that was supposed to be “for graduates.”

Just last year, then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner controversially received the Laetare Medal at Commencement. Alumni signed a petition, which stated that Biden should not receive the medal due to his pro-choice views. Students held prayer services in protest of the decision.

It is clear to us that any time a controversial political figure like Trump or Obama — and certainly Pence qualifies, as well — is invited to campus, Commencement will be, to use Jenkins’ description, a “circus.”

In light of this fact, when inviting a Commencement speaker to campus, we feel it is time to start considering the opinions of the people at the focus of this celebration: the graduates. Though the University has failed to do this for the 2017 Commencement, we feel students should become a much greater part of the process for future graduations.

This is not to say the University should shy away from inviting these figures to campus in general; in fact, we encourage the University to continue to do so, as this generates important and impassioned debate that helps shape the students at Notre Dame into the graduates we celebrate every May. And that is not to say Commencement should be excluded from consideration for such speakers.

Rather, we call on the University to better seek and consider input from the very people whose Commencement could be affected by any “political circus.” From Obama to Trump, and Biden to Pence, members of our Editorial Board were able to make cases that each should be invited; that the benefits of engaging in this debate outweighed the negative distractions from Commencement.

If it is the decision of the student body that these figures should be invited, then the University should not shy away from inviting these figures.

Now, given the decision to invite Vice President Pence, we will have another polarizing Commencement ceremony. Some people on campus will certainly protest Pence’s presence; others might protest the fact Trump is not the speaker.

The fact is, seniors who had no choice in who would speak at their Commencement are now facing a graduation day that will not be about their graduation.

If Commencement, and the days leading up to it, are to be filled with protests and vitriolic dialogue, those most affected by it should be able to have a say in whether that chaos is worth it. And, if they decide it is, then by all means we should invite the controversial speakers.

It is too late to fix this process for the class of 2017, but moving forward, we urge the University to actually make Commencement “for graduates” by stopping the practice of inviting polarizing political figures to speak at Commencement without those seniors’ input.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated Bishop Rhodes spoke out against Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama. Bishop John D’Arcy spoke out about the Commencement speaker in 2009. The Observer regrets this error.

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