Notre Dame Picks Pence for Commencement Speaker

In striking contrast to 2009, when the Catholic university invited Barack Obama to speak at commencement, the vice president was selected instead of President Trump.

Mike Pence, then-governor of Indiana, speaks during the memorial service for Father Theodore Hesburgh in the Purcell Pavilion at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Vice President Pence will return to Notre Dame as 2017 commencement speaker.
Mike Pence, then-governor of Indiana, speaks during the memorial service for Father Theodore Hesburgh in the Purcell Pavilion at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Vice President Pence will return to Notre Dame as 2017 commencement speaker. (photo: 2015 AP photo/South Bend Tribune, Robert Franklin)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With its announcement that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will be this year’s commencement speaker, the University of Notre Dame may have sidestepped a huge controversy by having the congenial former governor of Indiana address the Class of 2017 instead of President Donald Trump.

But given the Catholic university’s decision in 2009 to invite President Barack Obama to speak at commencement — which, in the face of withering criticism over extending that honor to a pro-abortion politician, was merely part of a long-standing tradition to invite U.S. presidents to campus — some see a double standard at play in South Bend.

“To me, the main significance of what has happened here is that it casts into bold relief the honoring of Obama,” said William Dempsey, chairman of The Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned with the university’s Catholic identity.

Dempsey noted that university officials, including Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, in 2009, stressed they were honoring President Obama because he was president of the United States, not for his policies or political views, which included defense of legalized abortion.

The Obama invitation sparked a campus protest and Mass on Commencement Day and prompted dozens of bishops to criticize the university’s decision to have the president address graduates. Despite that, Father Jenkins called the Obama visit a success and said he would do it again, adding that the university should not be afraid of controversy.

But in the wake of Trump’s controversial and often divisive presidential campaign and his shocking victory last November, Dempsey suggested the university’s “cover has been blown” regarding presidential invitations. He said Father Jenkins should have scrapped presidential invitations altogether after the Obama situation.

Said Dempsey, “If Father Jenkins had said, in retrospect, this is probably not a very wise tradition, we’re not going to follow it anymore automatically and we’ll just invite people who in their personal lives and public activities uphold the important values that the Church holds dear, well, then, he would have no problem this time, for goodness’ sake.”

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that advocates for a strong Catholic identity among Catholic universities and colleges, struck a similar theme in a statement he provided to the Register.

“It’s not yet clear, but we would be thrilled if this means that Notre Dame has abandoned forever its tradition of honoring U.S. presidents regardless of their moral positions and behavior. A Catholic university should choose commencement speakers who are moral examples to their students,” Reilly said.

Reilly added: “Of course, by violating the tradition — which was Notre Dame’s only excuse for ignoring 83 bishops and honoring pro-abortion President Obama — the university has clearly acknowledged that the tradition was never as important as it claimed. We have always maintained that the Obama scandal was motivated by political correctness and secular prestige.”


Notre Dame: No Further Comment

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne did not directly address those criticisms, adding that people are entitled to their own opinions, which he said are “of no relevance” to the fact that the university invited Vice President Pence.

“I’m not going to comment further,” said Browne, who declined to answer questions about whether the university had invited President Trump to be the commencement speaker or if the university would invite the president to speak at a future commencement. Browne said the university only comments publicly on individuals who have accepted invitations to speak at commencement.

“We don’t announce or speculate on who else may or may not have been invited or considered,” Browne said, adding that it would be “rude to do it any other way.”

However, Browne told the Register how Pence’s invitation came to be. On Jan. 26, the day before the 2017 March for Life in Washington, D.C., Pence hosted a small reception in his office for some march participants. Knowing that Father Jenkins was scheduled to participate in the march, the vice president invited him to the gathering, Browne said.

When the two had a moment to speak privately, Father Jenkins invited the vice president to speak at the commencement on May 21, said Browne, adding that Pence officially accepted the invitation about a month later.

Regarding the purported tradition — widely reported in mainstream media outlets — that the University of Notre Dame invites U.S. presidents in the first year of their presidencies to be commencement speakers, Browne noted that of the university’s 171 commencement speakers since its founding in 1842, only six have been presidents of the United States.

“Not all spoke in their first year. President Eisenhower, for example, was the first president to speak at a Notre Dame commencement, and he did so in his last year in office, 1960,” Browne said. “His successor, President Kennedy, did not speak at a Notre Dame commencement. Nor did Johnson, Nixon, Ford or Clinton.”

Notre Dame biology professor Jeanne Romero-Severson, the chairwoman of the university’s Faculty Senate, told the Register that she saw it as “logical” that the university would invite Pence, given that he was governor of Indiana. She also did not see the invitation as any kind of insult to President Trump.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the more vociferous Trump supporters choose to read insults into everything that’s done,” Romero-Severson said. “If the University of Notre Dame chose to invite Mike Pence first, then that’s what they chose to do. Be gracious about it.”

A Notre Dame professor who spoke to the Register on background doubted that Pence would have accepted or been allowed by the White House to be the commencement speaker if the university had not also reached out to or invited President Trump, who is not known to take an insult lightly.


Campus Reactions to Trump

But individuals who suspect the University of Notre Dame had no appetite for having President Trump on campus do have some facts on which to base their beliefs. For example, Father Jenkins joined more than 100 leaders of Catholic colleges and universities in signing a letter vowing to protect students in the country illegally from any effort by the Trump administration to deport them.

Following Trump’s election, Father Jenkins led an interfaith prayer service on campus, where he told undocumented students that they had the full support of the university. Then, in December, the campus newspaper, The Observer, reported that Father Jenkins said in an interview that Trump’s controversial campaign — which drew accusations of ridiculing the disabled, making sexist remarks and stirring racist and xenophobia passions — gave him pause about inviting the then president-elect.

The 2009 commencement “was a bit of a political circus, and I think I’m conscious that that day is for graduates and their parents — and I don’t want to make the focus something else,” Father Jenkins said, adding: “My concern a little bit is that, should the new president come, it may be even more of a circus.”

The question over whether to invite President Trump to be commencement speaker was the subject of considerable campus debate, which included editorials in the campus newspaper. In December, the College Democrats, the Diversity Council and other groups organized a demonstration to “protest the possibility” of President Trump speaking at the commencement. The organizers also called on Father Jenkins to rescind any invitation he may have extended to Trump and to invite a different speaker. Meanwhile, a petition written in December by members of College Democrats and the Diversity Council asked Father Jenkins not to invite Trump to speak at commencement. The petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures.

“The opposition to Trump at Notre Dame is so widespread and so intense,” Dempsey said. “It would be a rare person indeed who would think Father Jenkins would have invited President Trump. That would be extraordinarily unlikely.”

Dempsey added that it would be an easy thing for the university to say whether or not President Trump was ever invited to speak at the commencement.

Said Dempsey, “Had Father Jenkins not put himself in this dilemma by the Obama invitation, then by doubling down on it, nobody would have faulted him for saying this time, ‘Well, we really don’t want to turn this university into a war zone at commencement.’”


Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.