Leadership & Governance

In the Trump Era, Even Commencement Politics Are More Charged

March 23, 2017

Steve Helber, AP Images
Donald J. Trump visited Liberty U. as a presidential contender in January 2016. He’ll return in May to give the commencement address.

Six days after Mike Pence was sworn in as vice president of the United States, the president of the University of Notre Dame attended a small reception at the vice president’s office for some participants of the Right to Life march, an anti-abortion demonstration. When they had a moment alone, the Rev. John I. Jenkins invited Mr. Pence to give the Roman Catholic university’s 2017 commencement address, an invitation the former Indiana governor later accepted.

Liberty University’s president, Jerry L. Falwell Jr., sent a letter to then-President-elect Donald J. Trump last December inviting him to speak at the Christian institution’s commencement this May. Mr. Falwell doesn’t think Mr. Trump ever read the letter, which was sent to New York. But when commencement came up in a recent conversation with Mr. Pence, the vice president told Mr. Falwell the president would be happy to speak. On Wednesday, Liberty announced that Mr. Trump would be speaking to its graduating class, making him the first sitting president to do so since George H.W. Bush in 1990.

“He doesn't necessarily bring the gravitas to a commencement address at an academic institution that others would bring. And still, he's the president.”
Mr. Trump’s young presidency has created unusual political conflict at many colleges, where some leaders have condemned the president’s divisive rhetoric and initiatives like his efforts to ban travel to the United States by people from certain predominantly Muslim countries. But the twin invitations to President Trump and Vice President Pence demonstrate another way in which the new administration’s controversial character has rubbed off on higher ed: commencement politics.

Notre Dame, for instance, publicly waffled over whether it would continue its tradition of inviting the sitting U.S. president to speak in his first year in office. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s invite at Liberty takes on special meaning in light of the fact that the Christian university’s leader is the president’s most vocal ally in academe and apparently will lead a federal task force on higher education. And students at both institutions have registered their displeasure with both invitations.

Alexander Forbes was among the students at Liberty who opposed Mr. Trump during the election, referring to him as "the antithesis of Christian values" in a Washington Post op-ed he co-wrote with two other students. He was one of the students who organized the grassroots group Liberty United Against Trump, which issued a statement of opposition that gained more than 2,000 signatures from students and faculty members. The statement was in response to Mr. Falwell’s public support for the then-candidate.

Mr. Forbes said that while Liberty has a reputation for being an evangelical, conservative, Republican voting base, not all students support the Republican president. Mr. Forbes himself is a Republican and supported Marco Rubio during the primary. Still, after receiving the news that the president would speak at Liberty’s commencement, Mr. Forbes plans on attending in support of his graduating friends.

"This is different because Trump’s not an intellectual, he’s not a traditional conservative, traditional Republican. He doesn’t necessarily bring the gravitas to a commencement address at an academic institution that others would bring," Mr. Forbes said. "And still, he’s the president."

Of Mr. Falwell’s relationship with Mr. Trump, Mr. Forbes said, "He’s a powerful friend to have."

Election results showed that about 85 percent of the on-campus vote went to Mr. Trump. Jack Heaphy, the student-body president, is part of that percentage. He said that most students at Liberty, including himself, are excited for the opportunity to hear Mr. Trump speak at their graduation.

"I think over all it’s a great opportunity and honor for the university to have the president of the United States to address students at commencement," Mr. Heaphy said.

Mr. Trump’s visit to Liberty University makes sense, given Mr. Falwell’s early support of his campaign and the president’s request that he head a task force to recommend changes for the Department of Education.

Not a 'Pastor-in-Chief'

In an interview, Mr. Falwell speculated that Mr. Pence was a less controversial choice for Notre Dame than President Trump, and said he deemed the decision there comparable to the way some universities have disinvited conservative speakers to avoid protest. Father Jenkins has in the past been critical of Mr. Trump, saying his ban on travel from some Muslim-majority countries would "demean our nation." Notre Dame has hosted six sitting presidents at past commencements, the first being Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Paul Browne, a spokesman for Notre Dame, said the areas where Father Jenkins opposes the Trump administration include immigration and refugees. "We would want as open a policy in both those areas as possible."

Kel Beatty, a member of Notre Dame’s College Democrats, said there was still disappointment in the decision to invite Mr. Pence. He said that as governor of Indiana, Mr. Pence stepped on women’s access to health care and was hostile to LGBT people and refugees. "We’re disappointed that Mike Pence received the invitation. Being in Indiana and seeing what he’s done in Indiana is especially a tough pill to swallow."

Still, Mr. Browne said controversy is expected. When President Barack Obama was chosen to speak at one of Notre Dame’s commencements, anti-abortion activists argued that he should be disinvited. This year, some students objected to Mr. Pence because they would rather have heard Mr. Trump speak.

"Sort of like most commencement speeches, there’s a mix of favorable and not," Mr. Browne said.

At Liberty, Mr. Falwell said that while some students have expressed opposition to President Trump’s invitation, there has also been a great deal of support, and he expects a larger crowd at commencement this May. He said even when Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist," spoke on the mostly conservative campus in 2015, about 10,000 students attended and respectfully listened to the candidate.

And while Mr. Trump’s rhetoric may spark some controversy within campus communities, Mr. Falwell said he is generally in agreement with the president’s policies.

"We’re not electing a pastor-in-chief, you’re voting for the president," Mr. Falwell said. "You might not like everything he says or how he says it, but I believe in substance over form."