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COLUMN: To the students who walked out on Pence…

Over the weekend, students at colleges around the weekend graduated from their universities after hearing from various figureheads during commencement speeches.

At Notre Dame, things went a little differently. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement speech to thousands of new graduates.  An unimpressed group of students decided they did not want to listen to Pence speak, so they got up from their seats and walked out in a reported protest of the administration’s stance on immigration and LGBTQ rights.

Here’s a video recorded by another student – it shows the walkout and Pence’s speech in its entirety.

If you don’t have time to watch, I’ll sum it up for you. Pence spoke of the accolades of the 2017 Notre Dame class, praised students earning multiple degrees at one time, asked students to turn and face the crowd to thank those who supported them making it this far, cheered for their ethics and values, told them they have allies in the Trump administration, and wished them all the best in their future endeavors.

So, to the students who left…what exactly was the big deal?

Dozens of media outlets were at your college graduation, far more than many other institutions, and instead of highlighting the 3,000+ scholars, Twitter was flooded with photos of the backs of the heads of those who exited mid-speech.

You didn’t take a stand, you didn’t prove a point, and you didn’t change a thing.

In rebelling, you drew so much more attention to Pence than you would have had you sat quietly for 18 minutes. You principled  rebels effectively diverted the attention from your own life accomplishment to the mere presence of Pence at your school.

I recognize that not everyone likes Mike Pence – he isn’t my favorite and I did not cast a vote for him or his running mate, but having the Vice President of the United States – regardless of party – speak at your college graduation used to be a big deal…some might even consider it an honor. It speaks to the caliber of the institution, too. You don’t see high ranking officials speaking at Devry or the University of Phoenix. He spoke out of respect for the institution and its scholars….and you failed to recognize that.

Having a big name speaker at a graduation ceremony has long been a sign of stature and colleges and universities have a history of having controversial commencement speakers. Notre Dame previously hosted Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Do you think everyone in the audience was pleased with each of those? Likely not, but controversial speakers are often synonymous with heavy weight names and those types of people almost always have vocal opponents.

Notre Dame broke from tradition this year to have Pence, the former Governor of the state, speak instead of President Trump. Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins described Pence ahead of the graduation as “a native son who served our state and now the nation with quiet earnestness, moral conviction, and a dedication to the common good characteristic of true statesmen.”

Does everyone hold the same sentiment? No, but Notre Dame is a private institution and the administration at the university has free rein. You entrusted them with the authority to make these decisions when you paid tuition to a private entity every year.  Besides, do you really think the school cares whether or not you were in the audience as the second highest ranking elected official in the free world addressed their university?

But it isn’t just Notre Dame.

The list of others who have ruffled feathers is lengthy:

  • President Trump spoke at Liberty University
  • Hillary Clinton spoke at Wellesley College (a women’s college)
  • Ironically, Barbara Bush spoke at Wellesley College in 1990
  • Betsy DeVos spoke at Bethune-Cookman University (where she was booed)
  • Jerry Springer spoke to Northwestern Law School’s graduates in 2008
  • Chef Alton Brown spoke at UGA in 2010 and students were vocally underwhelmed
  • Bill Maher spoke at Berekely in 2014 despite massive opposition
  • James Franco spoke to UCLA in 2008, but students were angered because, despite being a graduate, students did not feel he was of high enough caliber
  • Julian Bond of the NAACP spoke to George Washington University in 2008
  • Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s plan to speak at commencement was opposed because he was “too technology-focused” for liberal arts majors at Berekely
  • Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook was challenged because she was an “elitist feminist”
  • Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was disinvited and then re-invited to speak at Pasedena City College after he was involved in a “sex scandal”
  • Former Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice was to speak at Rutgers, but students and faculty badgered her into declining
  • Christine LaGarge of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) withdrew her commitment after a 500-person petition circulated.

The point is that speakers of any background, political or otherwise, are going to irk others – it’s human nature. No one person can connect with everyone in a crowd of 3,000.

But has our political environment really become so toxic that we are unable to sit through an 18-minute speech presented by someone we don’t like? Apparently that question is now rhetorical. Apparently, we are headed to a world of just sending the diplomas in the mail to avoid potentially offending someone with a speaker.

I love a peaceful protest, I love that people are engaged and paying attention, and I hope these new graduates continue to partake in the political process, but they knew well ahead of time that Pence was going to be present. If they were that opposed and that repulsed by his mere presence, their chairs should have been empty for the entire ceremony.  My concern, though,  is if they find it so offensive to sit in on a speech by someone from a political party with which they don’t agree that they must get up and walk out, the “real world” journey on which they are about to embark is going to be very, very hard.

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

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