About 100 students at the University of Notre Dame walked out of their commencement ceremony on Sunday, an action that was part of a peaceful protest of the featured speaker, Vice President Pence, and the administration he represents.
After Sunday’s commencement, some criticized the students’ actions, saying they were stifling intellectual diversity in academic institutions. Colleges and universities, they say, should be places where students engage a variety of ideas and learn the critical skill of how to respect and evaluate ideas with which they may disagree. According to them, walking out on Pence demonstrates a lack of academic curiosity and a liberal, millennial generation tendency to tune out anyone whose thoughts and stances they don’t like.
But no one hindered anyone’s right to free speech in the Notre Dame walk out. Commencement should be a celebration that highlights the achievements and potential of the graduates, not an occasion to make a statement on academic freedom.
Colleges and universities have plenty of opportunities during a student’s career to challenge their paradigms. Students who are about to graduate have just spent the last three to five years processing an array of thoughts and beliefs. Graduation acknowledges that students have wandered through the forest of ideological positions and come out on the other side as seasoned academic adventurers.
A commencement speech is not a classroom lecture or a book a professor assigns. There is no opportunity for dialogue during the event nor is there an expectation of engagement after the fact. Commencement is a voluntary ceremony where any speaker can speak on any topic, but students are not obligated to remain and listen.
The Notre Dame walkout demonstrates the effect President Trump has had on high-level officials in his administration. Earlier this month, Bethune-Cookman University students stood up and turned their backs on their commencement speaker, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Criticized for her brand of public education reform and for a lack of experience, some students booed during her speech and a few had to be escorted out of the ceremony.
The president’s rhetoric and actions have alienated many voters, especially some women and racial and ethnic minorities. Anyone who remains supportive of Trump and works to advance his policies can expect strong opposition in public settings like a commencement, especially in a context that expects celebration.
Notre Dame has a standing custom of inviting the president of the United States to give the commencement address during his first year in office. Students at the university gathered over 2,700 signatures petitioning the administration not to invite President Trump, who is widely regarded as divisive and showing very low approval ratings in the initial days of his presidency.
Instead, Notre Dame officials invited the vice president, second-in-command to a president whom many find inept and unpredictable. Pence, a former governor of Indiana, was unpopular with many voters before taking national office. He gained broad attention for championing a religious freedom initiative that some say would have permitted Christian businesses to refuse service to certain clientele. Pence ultimately approved a compromise bill, a measure that was criticized by both right- and left-leaning voters.
Pence also faced protesters at commencement at Grove City College, a conservative Christian institution, where disapproving students cited his stances on LGBT rights, health care, and the environment.
Of course, institutions of higher education should expose students to a spectrum of thought in order to challenge their preconceived notions and better understand differing points of view. Productive citizens learn how to navigate a pluralistic world without retreating from it, preparing young people for life after college.
The graduates at Notre Dame didn’t walk out because they refused to listen to Pence’s positions and opinions, they walked out precisely because they had heard him. Only after considering his stances did some members of the Class of 2017 choose to protest Pence’s presence as their commencement speaker.
What about the students who didn’t walk out, students who may have been excited to hear Pence speak? That’s the great part about free speech. While its decision may have been unwise, the university is free to invite whomever it wants to speak at commencement. Students are also free to sit and listen to a speaker whether they agree or disagree. Students are also free not to listen and peacefully, silently walk out in protest.
This is not the first time students at the Catholic school have protested a commencement speaker. Students objected to President George W. Bush because of his support of the death penalty. And students objected to President Barack Obama because of his abortion rights stance, a position that goes against the teaching of the Catholic church.
This year’s graduates of Notre Dame were within their right to register their objection to their commencement speaker by walking out. Observers are also within their right to disagree with the protest. That is what freedom looks like.
Jemar Tisby, a graduate of Notre Dame, writes about religion, race and culture as president of the Reformed African American Network, and he is the co-host of the “Pass the Mic” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.