Notre Dame, Indiana. May 21, 2017.
Much has been written – already – about the moment when a small number (we’ll get to that later) of University of Notre Dame students walked out of their graduation ceremony as Mike Pence began his address to the largest commencement gathering in the 175-year history of that great university. I was there, and this is my first-hand account of what it was like to experience that moment as the parent of a graduate and a three-time “educated consumer” of the product of our institutions of higher learning.
If you read or listen to the mainstream media, you could be forgiven for thinking that this moment was a spontaneous exercise of conscience and free speech echoing the student protests of the 1960s. That it was bold and courageous action on the part of some to express the deep but hidden opposition of the majority to policies and values represented by the presence of the speaker, which could find no other viable voice or expression. Or that the natural zeal and idealism of youth simply overwhelmed the constraints of tradition and polite society, excusing behavior that in any other context would be considered unacceptably rude. “Oh, those naughty kids, bless them for standing up for what they believe!”
But it wasn’t like that. This moment was the product of an organized and orchestrated attempt to embarrass the sitting Vice President of the United States of America and “punish” the university for selecting him as commencement speaker.
Most people do not know that the sitting President of the United States is traditionally invited to speak at the Notre Dame commencement his first year in office. This year, that tradition fell victim to the baying hounds of opposition to the individual who holds that great office. The selection of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, former Indiana Governor and Congressman, seemed an inspired choice, giving tradition its due and celebrating the elevation to high office of an accomplished native son (a/k/a “Hoosier”). But that did not mollify some who in this hyper-politicized climate oppose anything and anyone associated with the current administration.
This was no spontaneous event. Organizers used Facebook and other social media to plan the event, and actively engaged the mainstream media to promote it (CNN: “Note Dame students plan walkout during Mike Pence speech” 5/17/17). The university president, Father John Jenkins, delivered a thoughtful address acknowledging the existence of real differences while inviting dialogue and encouraging civility, but to no avail. The protesters left the commencement venue through previously designated gates directly into the waiting arms of the media, where one particularly telegenic graduate offered the following on-air justification for her action: “We are sending a message to the university that this is our graduation, and they didn’t listen to all of us in making this choice.” The headlines – almost without exception – read “Notre Dame Students Walk Out of Mike Pence’s Speech.” Readers could be forgiven for thinking this was a massive protest. To put it all in perspective: out of an audience of over 24,000, including 2,000+ degree recipients, the total number of protesters numbered in the “dozens” (NBC News, 5/21/17). The rest of the audience voiced its disapproval of the protest.
It was a sad moment in the long history of a great university, but in the end only a minor blemish on an otherwise joyous weekend. Perhaps the saddest part is this: those who walked out on Mike Pence’s speech missed another speech as well. Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J., better known as “Father G,” the executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, accepted Notre Dame’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal, with an exceptional and emotional speech about “living in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at the margins of society.” That speech captured the very essence of the values system Notre Dame seeks to transmit along with a traditional education – learning in support of service to others. It was a gut-wrenching reminder to all of us that we are called to be other-oriented, to use our gifts to help heal a broken world. That is the message that should have led the headlines. But it didn’t, because the headlines had already been written.
I feel sorry for those who took part in this protest. In time, they may come to realize that in their honest idealism and naiveté, they were effectively used by others to pursue a political agenda, the sole purpose of which was to hurt, embarrass and divide. With time comes distance and, sometimes, wisdom. We are all in this boat together; best to stop fighting and start rowing. A modest suggestion: to all those who missed Father G’s speech, and even those who didn’t, please watch the online replay. It’s an 11-minute “moment” that outshines all the others.