Students walk out of 2017 Commencement ceremony
Courtney Becker | Monday, May 22, 2017
The opening words of Vice President of the United States and 2017 Commencement speaker Mike Pence’s speech were drowned out by a chorus of boos from members of the audience at Notre Dame’s 172nd Commencement ceremony Sunday. Those boos, however, were largely in response to a group of approximately 100 graduates who chose to stand and exit Notre Dame Stadium as Pence started speaking.
Rather than listen to Pence’s Commencement speech, this group of graduates pledged to walk out of the ceremony and host their own informal ceremony just outside the stadium. A press release sent out by We Stand For — a student group dedicated to drawing attention to social justice issues — said the purpose of the walkout was to stand “in solidarity with all members of the Notre Dame community affected by the policies advocated by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence,” citing groups such as the LGBT community and religious minorities as those members.
Tommy Favorite, who graduated with a degree in film, television and theatre, said he chose to participate in the walkout to support those who he believes are marginalized by Pence’s policies, but it was a difficult decision for him to make.
“I had to do a lot of thinking about the benefits of staying and going,” he said. “ … I’m not the kind of person whose health, or safety or dignity is being threatened by this administration, but I know when I care about so many people who do — and regardless of who I know and who I talk to — it’s about recognizing and perceiving injustice and reacting to it.”
Fellow participant Grace Watkins — a Rhodes Scholar who graduated with a degree in philosophy with a minor in philosophy, politics and economics — said the walkout was intended to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the University’s choice of Pence as Commencement speaker as well as Pence’s policies.
“I knew I wanted to do something to show how strongly I disagreed with Pence’s policies and the school’s decision to invite him,” she said. “ … The purpose of the protest itself was to highlight our disagreement and revulsion at his policies. I personally believe he shouldn’t have been invited.”
Jessica Pedroza, one of the organizers of the walkout who graduated with a degree in political science, said she was proud to see how many students participated in the walkout.
“It took a lot of courage, I think, for a lot of people to walk out,” Pedroza said. “It was a very emotional moment, [and] it was a very important moment for us. … So I think to all of the students who walked out — who are going to get a lot of hate messages today and in the future — I think everyone should be really proud of having walked out on such an important day.”
Some members of the Class of 2017, however, did not appreciate graduates walking out of the ceremony. Jacob Hoyt, who graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, said he felt the walkout was disruptive.
“I didn’t like it that much,” he said. “I thought it was — it just kind of disturbed the whole process, and I don’t know how much of a statement it really made. My family kind of didn’t like it either, because it just interrupted the whole flow of things and just seemed a little excessive.”
Other students, such as Mendoza College of Business graduate Rebekah Rumschlag, did not feel strongly about the demonstration one way or another.
“I think that a silent walkout — if you’re going to do some type of protest — is a very respectful protest to do,” Rumschlag said. “In general, I think, though, that not staying to listen to what a speaker has to say limits conversation between two opposing ideas. I guess it’s different when someone is giving a speech because there’s not going to be a dialogue because they’re just talking at you, so I feel fairly indifferent about it. … I understand why students would walk out.”
Others supported the walkout, but chose not to participate and remain with their classmates throughout the rest of the Commencement ceremony. Julia Le, who graduated with a degree in science business, said she wanted to keep the focus on the graduates.
“I was all for [the walkout],” she said. “ … I wanted to stay for my parents, but then also I think I could show my support and solidarity with those groups in different ways, and so today was more about me and my fellow students, and I didn’t want it to become a thing where we have to leave our own graduation because of our difference in opinions with our Commencement speaker.”
The act of walking out of Commencement, Patrick Crane said, took away from the occasion for other students who disagreed with the protestors.
“They placed themselves over the rest of their classmates, which is despicable,” he said. “ … Instead of sharing that moment and sharing that excitement, sharing that last alma mater together, they decided to be selfish and take away from a ceremony that should have brought us all together.”
Favorite recognized that he and other protestors may have missed out on valuable aspects of their graduation, but he said he felt he would have sacrificed something with either choice.
“There were moments where I started questioning whether I would be missing out on something by leaving,” Favorite said. “And I’m sure I did. I’m sure there’s an aspect of the community that I would’ve gotten had I stayed throughout the ceremony. But at the same time, I think you would’ve gained and lost something by staying, as well.”
Recalling the students who protested when then-President Barack Obama served as the 2009 Commencement speaker, however, Crane said he was disappointed with the students who chose to participate in the walkout, as he had been with those who chose not to attend Obama’s speech.
“I, personally, would never do something like that,” he said. “I think it’s a cowardly act to run away from a problem instead of hearing the other side out and finding a solution towards it. … In 2009, when then-President Obama came to campus, there were students who decided they didn’t want to hear something from the President, which itself, I believe, is both anti-American — to not hear what the leader of your country has to say — but also, again, cowardly in not wanting to broaden your own horizons and sharpen your razor with their rhetoric.”
Hoyt said he was glad that, aside from the walkout, the focus of the ceremony remained on accomplishments of the class of 2017.
“I think there were some random potshots taken at times, and I was kind of surprised in the middle of speeches, but I think most of it was focused on us,” he said. “I didn’t feel it was over-politicized or anything. It seemed pretty appropriate.”
Some of these political moments occurred during Valedictorian C.J. Pine’s Valedictory Address, in which he urged his classmates to “fight for others, for their unalienable rights.”
“Our generation must stand against the scapegoating of Muslims,” he said. “Our concern for freedom of religion must mean freedom for all religions — not just our own — otherwise none of us is free. We must commit ourselves to make certain that all of our friends and classmates at Notre Dame receive equal rights and respect when they leave this stadium with us.”
Pine’s remarks drew praise from 2017 Laetare Medal recipient Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries. Boyle echoed Pine and told the class of 2017 not to be discouraged from their mission to serve others.
“You imagine with God a circle of compassion, and then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle,” he said. “You go from here to dismantle the barriers that exclude. … We go to the margins, and indeed you have to brace yourselves, because people will accuse you of wasting your time.”
Throughout his speech, Pine — a Truman Scholar and a Gilman Scholar — touched on additional subjects, such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the current political climate in the U.S., noting that Notre Dame students are called to serve others after graduating.
“Our calling as we leave this stadium is to get these gowns dirty together, as we wade into muddy waters, as our learning becomes service to justice,” he said. “When we follow the deeper callings of justice and proclaim the deeper magic of love and sacrifice that connect all of us — no matter which corner of the world we come from — then we will be true to what we have learned at Notre Dame.”
Pine’s speech served as extra encouragement for some students considering participating in the walkout. Liz Hynes, who graduated with a degree in film, television and theatre, said Pine’s call to service to justice spoke to her motivations and the motivations of others who walked out with her.
“I think after listening to C.J. Pine’s speech, if you were on the fence about walking out you were no longer on the fence,” she said. “He nails it. What is so important about most religions — and Catholicism, in particular — is helping the marginalized and just living a life of service. And I know that a lot of people will think that this was just a bunch of liberal snowflakes trying to make themselves feel good about themselves at graduation, but I really think that there’s a deeper empathy that we’re all trying to tap into.”
With Notre Dame’s “tradition of peaceful protest” in mind, Hynes said she was taken aback by the response to the walkout from the crowd.
“There were slurs shouted at people,” she said. “ … There were some really nasty things hurled at people, and it really validated why we were doing this. It really, I think, emboldened us to keep going and keep walking out, because that kind of behavior has really been resurging in a troubling way since this administration has taken office, and it’s not acceptable.”
After discussing President Donald Trump’s dedication to religious freedom, Pence addressed the subject of free speech during his speech, saying it was “waning on campuses across America.”
“Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcome, where opposing views are debated and where every speaker — no matter how popular or unfashionable — is afforded the right to air their views in the open, for all to hear,” Pence said. “But Notre Dame is the exception — an island in a sea of conformity, so far spared from the noxious wave that seems to be rushing over much of academia. While this institution has maintained an atmosphere of civility and open debate, far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness — all of which amounts to nothing less than the suppression of freedom of speech.”
Watkins said she felt these remarks from Pence and the response of the crowd to the walkout were hypocritical.
“I think there is a great hypocrisy of those that call for free speech and then boo any demonstration of free speech or freedom of expression,” she said. “ … We were completely respectful in quietly getting up and exiting as quickly as possible. The real interruption was the loud chorus of boos coming from the stands. It just shows that their argument isn’t really about being respectful to Vice President Pence when that’s how they would react.”
Pence ended his speech by advising the class of 2017 to remain true to the Catholic values taught by the University.
“If you hold fast to Him, to the faith you’ve deepened in this place and to all you’ve learned and the examples you’ve seen, I know you will not only persevere, you will prevail, and you will lead your families, your professions and our country to unimaginable heights,” he said. “University of Notre Dame class of 2017, this is your day. So go Irish. The future is yours.”
Hynes said although she chose to walkout in response to the invitation of Pence, she has a deep appreciation and love for Notre Dame, and is proud to have graduated from the University.
“We love Notre Dame so much, and I think that part of why protests happen is because when the things you love disappoint you, you want to work to make them better,” she said. “ … I’m so grateful to the school. It’s changed my life, it’s made my life in so many ways. … It was really cool that we weren’t stopped. I don’t think that every school would’ve been as willing to walk the walk in terms of promising free speech to its students. Notre Dame really followed through, and we appreciate that.”