On Monday, graduates of the University of Notre Dame Class of 2017 traded trivia at a campus game night. On Wednesday, they danced in formal attire at a banquet overlooking the St. Joseph’s River. And on Sunday, a number of them will walk out on the Vice President of the United States as he receives an honorary degree from the prestigious Catholic institution.
For graduate student Luis Miranda, the decision is personal, fueled by the current administration’s immigration policies that he says torment undocumented members of his family who plan to attend.
“They cannot just fly into campus for commencement,” Miranda is quick to point out, referencing recent airport arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “There’s something really odd about going to the most important moment of your life — the culmination of your education — with friends, family, and someone who persecutes you for who you are.”
Senior Grace Watkins, a Truman and Rhodes Scholar headed to Washington this summer. will join Miranda in the quick exit. “We’ll walk in,” Watkins explains. “When the time comes and commencement will no longer be a celebration for us anymore, we’ll head out.”
Watkins, who will carry the banner for the school of Arts and Letters donning a red Title IX symbol on her graduation cap, stresses that she does not want to hear the speech. “I’m not going to sit and listen to someone who has advocated for horrific sexual violence policies congratulate me on graduating from this place that I’ve been working so hard to improve.”
As many as one hundred students are expected to join in the protest of Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor, who has frequented the South Bend campus on multiple occasions, joining campus Republicans for a pizza party just last year and speaking at the 2015 memorial of longtime Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh.
In addition to a swift exit, Pence will be greeted by nearly 500 rainbow flags, donated by Notre Dame alumni and displayed throughout campus in the months following the mass-email announcement of the Vice President’s visit.
The effort, organized by senior Bryan Ricketts, proved to be a “cool moment of solidarity,” he says. “We did certainly run into some bumps…Notre Dame is not used to this level of activism.”
Yet the university is no stranger to political controversy, Notre Dame Professor Robert Schmuhl observes. The professor of American Studies witnessed protests first-hand at President Reagan’s 1981 commencement address, his first speech outside Washington, D.C.,.
“It’s not absolutely true that there’s a tradition, but there has been a frequency of having presidents speak at Notre Dame for commencement,” Schmuhl notes. That frequency has historically been matched by waves of student demonstrations.
In 2009, Notre Dame graduateson campus organized an alternative graduation ceremony on the university’s south quad. Graduate student Daniel Moriarty claimed national headlines in 2001 when he turned his back to President George W. Bush during his address to students, choosing instead to kneel down in an aisle and pray the rosary.
Students staged a silent demonstration outside the dining hall preceding Ann Coulter’s 2014 visit to campus, and four hundred students and faculty members walked out of class in support of Obama’s immigration policies following the 2016 election of President Trump.
“Our goal has never been to avoid controversy,” University President Fr. Jenkins told CBS News. “This group has said publicly that their intention is not to disrupt the commencement for others, but certainly to make their position heard,” he concedes, after pausing for a moment to think. “I commend them for that.”
The choreographed protest assembled by Notre Dame’s “We Stand For” coalition has informed campus police of its planned football stadium exit and the university has made no effort to halt the public display.
Outside campus, as many as one thousand community members plan to assemble in front of the main gates for the Vice President’s arrival. Representing one of four Indiana districts that voted for Hillary Clinton, St. Joseph’s County is home to party favorite and.
Inside campus, the Vice President produces mixed reviews even among conservative students who plan to sit through his address.
“Trump’s administration is completely different than any in the past,” says senior Maddie McGovern. The self-identified conservative draws a distinction between Pence’s appearance on campus and that of other Republican leaders. “This is not about politics. Notre Dame should be standing up to this administration’s hate speech.”
Senior Henry Dickman, who grew up in then-Representative Pence’s congressional district and fondly remembers meeting him as a kid, admires the personal qualities of the “good and holy man.” Dickman jokes that the decision to invite Pence instead of President Trump probably proved to be “a cop out worth making.” Yet growing more serious, he observes it would not be his decision to bring any politician to campus, adding, “Not all of his actions as governor are consistent with Catholic social teaching.”
A 2016 campus poll revealed that 59.3 percent of students supported Hillary Clinton, while only 24 percent backed the Republican ticket. Patrick Crane, the president of the Notre Dame Republicans, said he was disappointed by the University’s decision not to extend and invitation to President Donald Trump. He also said he possessed “choice words” for those choosing to walk out on the Vice President’s campus address. Citing the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, he stressed, “You salute the rank, not the person.”
One student who cannot get up and walk out is valedictorian CJ Pine, who will share a stage and an audience with the Vice President, an opportunity that is not lost on him. While he admits he is more nervous to address his peers than the Vice President alone, he hopes Pence “takes away a sense that Notre Dame is a place that is concerned with justice, human dignity and equality.”
He adds, “As students moving forward in society, we will act on that.” Pine will work in the State Department as a Truman scholar following graduation.
The silver lining on a day with forecasted scattered thunderstorms at an outdoor venue? All students agree it will prove, at the very least, memorable.
“One thing is for sure,” sighed Maddie McGovern. “I will never forget my commencement ceremony.”