Mike Pence and the Commencement Season

It’s not an easy time to be a college student with a political conscience.

Emboldened by the racial, gender and economic provocations of the current administration, Right Wing conservatives like Mike Pence are happy to use any microphone they find themselves standing in front of to rail against what they consider to be a virulent form of political correctness that’s sweeping across college campuses, turning them into so many cauldrons of overwrought liberalism.

That’s certainly what Pence was up to this past Sunday when he addressed graduates of the University of Notre Dame and, after congratulating the students and wishing them the best of luck, launched into an attack on so-called political correctness on college campuses.

Pence’s very presence at the ceremonies, his role in the current administration and his long history of anti-gay rhetoric and policies precipitated about 100 of the Notre Dame graduating class to walk out of the ceremony.

Conservatives looked at the students who walked out on Pence and cried out, “See, we told you! The fascist left can’t accept free speech on campus when that speech challenges their own beliefs.”

In context, though, the peaceful and orderly walk out by the Notre Dame students looks tame compared to a few campus incidents that occurred earlier this year and to which Pence was no doubt referring to in his comments.

Last March, students at Middlebury College disrupted a talk by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, and even went so far as to rough up one of the Middlebury faculty members who invited Murray to campus. Earlier in the year, protests against a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent at Berkeley and, more recently, Ann Coulter cancelled a scheduled visit to Berkeley because of threats of violence.

The reality, though, is that most college campuses are wastelands of political involvement and most students, cowed by ever-escalating costs of higher education and anxious about getting ahead in the business world are more interested finance and marketing than they are in violent or non-violent resistance to a corrupt political system.

Only 100 of the nearly 3,000 graduates at Notre Dame chose to walk out on Pence.  What do you think kept the rest of them in their seats?

I’m sure Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts and the blogs of the conservative media are filling up with exclamations about the disrespect that Notre Dame students showed to Pence. The truth, though, is that it’s the administrators and faculty members at Notre Dame who made the decision to invite Pence to commencement who are to blame.

Administrators at elite institutions have come to treat commencement as a kind of showcase of their own purchasing power. Commencement season has become a time of chest thumping as universities jockey for the most sought after speaker. What’s worse, political, cultural and entertainment luminaries are trotted out on the stage to speak the same old shibboleths. And, they are paid quite handsomely for their saccharine words.

What’s lost in this model of commencement invitations is the more civic-minded purpose of the commencement address. More than anything, commencement (or, the beginning) should be a time for university communities to come together, to celebrate the achievements of their graduating class, to thank the students, their families, staff and faculty for their work and dedication and to set the institution on course to fulfill the democratic mission of higher education in America.

Fat chance, though, of anything like that happening in the current American climate.

And it’s not that controversial ideas and people don’t have a place at commencement ceremonies, which are whitewashed enough with their inspirational platitudes. A strong and vibrant democracy accepts a wide diversity of political thought and astutely uses its collective acumen and wisdom to parse out alternative facts and heavily-laden ideological pronouncements.

Confident and mature people (and by extension, nations) actually seek out criticism as a way to get better.

No matter what you think of Mike Pence, by virtue of the fact that he’s aligned with #45, he is a divisive political figure who has a greater chance of offending audiences at a place like Notre Dame than he does of compelling them to think deeply and act in the world with a sense of justice and grace.

In that regard, it makes sense for a place like Liberty University to invite someone like #45 to its commencement ceremonies. Eighty percent of fundamentalist Christians who participated in the 2016 presidential election voted for the sitting president and given that the students who choose to attend Liberty are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians, why shouldn’t Liberty invite him to speak to its graduates?

For Notre Dame, a Catholic and purportedly global, outward looking and relatively ethnically diverse campus, to trot someone like Pence before the graduating class and its families seems like tone deafness at best and provocation at worse.

I’m still in Ireland, so I did not get to attend graduation ceremonies at my home institution, Regis University. Aside from seeing my students receive their diplomas, meeting their families and saying goodbye, I generally don’t look forward to commencement ceremonies. I was disappointed, though, to miss commencement this year because Regis invited Father Greg Boyle to address the graduating seniors.

Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of the great book, Tattoos on the Heart, is the kind of American we should set out to become. He’s funny, smart and worldly in his outlook, but more importantly, Father Boyle, through his long-standing commitment to serving communities of color and working on the front lines of gang violence in Los Angeles, is a paragon of decency and compassion.

Hats off to Regis for inviting Father Boyle and for demonstrating respect and compassion for our graduates and their families at this exciting time in their lives.