Some graduating seniors at the University of Notre Dame walked out of their own graduation ceremony to protest Vice President Pence when he began to deliver the commencement speech on Sunday morning.
Pence was chosen to give the commencement address at the nation’s most prominent Catholic university — even though the school ordinarily invites newly inaugurated presidents to give the address in their first year of office. Thousands of students and faculty members signed a petition asking Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, not to invite President Trump, and the university chose instead to invite Pence, a former Indiana governor.
A coalition of student activist groups at Notre Dame called We StaND For planned a walkout to protest policies Pence pursued as governor that they say targeted the most vulnerable. Pence was planning to seek reelection as governor when Trump selected him to be his vice presidential running mate in the summer of 2016, but Pence was unpopular at the time in his own state and many thought he would lose his reelection bid.
School officials knew of the student walkout plans and did not try to stop them. The students — more than 100 — walked quietly out, and there were some cheers and boos sounded, though only briefly. Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, said Notre Dame has been the site of protests of presidents and vice presidents in the past, and as long as the students did not disrupt the ceremony, it would be allowed to take place.
Hundreds of antiabortion activists protested President Barack Obama when he spoke at the 2009 graduation ceremony, and there were smaller protests too for Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 commencement.
On Saturday, Pence delivered the commencement speech at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Grove City, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. Grove City is one of a handful of religious schools that have refused federal funds so they do not have to comply with specific federal mandates, such as Title IX, which bans discrimination based on the sex of a student.
There were strong similarities — even identical language — in his speeches before the Grove City and Notre Dame audiences. For example, in both speeches, Pence urged the graduating students to become leaders in various walks of life, and he asked them to stand up, “catch the eye of a loved one’s in the crowd” and thank them for their support through college.
The Notre Dame protest was far smaller than that faced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she recently delivered the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Florida. Some students stood up and turned their back, and the booing was so loud at different points in the speech that the school’s president stood up, interrupted DeVos, took to the microphone, and said to the students, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”