Pence, Notre Dame, and Respecting Speakers You Disagree With

Why not put into practice the civility and tolerance that will be expected in society?

By Alex Chediak Published on May 23, 2017

Vice President Mike Pence gave the Commencement address at Notre Dame this past Sunday in his home state of Indiana. He praised Notre Dame as a “vanguard of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.” But the Vice-President criticized the political correctness that has become common elsewhere.

Ironically, a group of graduates took the opportunity to walk out during the Vice-President’s speech. This was a planned demonstration on the part of 50-100 students, less than 5 percent of the 2,100 graduates gathered.

Some demonstrators had the rainbow colors associated with gay rights advocacy draped around their necks. One said she hoped the protest would “send a message” to the Notre Dame administration that someone “more inclusive” would have been preferred. Aside from his current role, when Mr. Pence was governor of Indiana, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics claimed this Act would have violated the civil rights of the gay community. The Act was soon amended.

Honor the University, Respect the Invited Speaker

The Notre Dame students are entitled to disagree with Pence. To their credit, they walked out silently and respectfully. But boycotting the Vice President’s address makes little sense. As University President John I. Jenkins said in his introduction to Pence, “political leaders are necessary for society, and we must strive with them to serve the common good.” That was also true in 2009 when President Jenkins and his staff invited the new President Barack Obama to give the commencement address.

No matter the speaker, the respectful thing to do is to honor the university and the speaker by remaining in your seat.

If Pence has supported policies that are unpopular with some Notre Dame constituents, that was certainly true of President Obama as well. I don’t recall if Notre Dame students walked out on President Obama in 2009. But if they did, they were wrong to do so.

Sitting respectfully while an invited guest addresses you — even a guest you dislike or disagree with — is something expected of adults. It’s something I’ve done many times, both as a student at liberal bastion U.C. Berkeley and in more recent years.

All of the Notre Dame faculty were presumably required to attend commencement in 2009 and 2017. No doubt some of them did not vote for either the Obama-Biden or Trump-Pence tickets. On commencement day, it doesn’t matter. The distinguished speaker chosen by the university (their employer) is addressing the audience. The respectful thing to do is to honor the university and the speaker by remaining in your seat.

I understand that students tend to view themselves as paying customers. And the customer is always right. But after graduation, they are students no longer. Why not take that last day to put into practice the civility and tolerance that will be expected of them in society?


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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