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Thursday, March 02, 2017 10:18 pm

Notre Dame names Pence grad speaker

Brian Francisco | The Journal Gazette

Vice President Mike Pence will give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony May 21, his office and the South Bend school announced Thursday.

The former Indiana governor and congressman will be the first sitting vice president to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement.

"It is extraordinarily humbling to return to my home state and address the graduates of Notre Dame," Pence said in a statement.

The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame president, said in a statement: "It is fitting that in the 175th year of our founding on Indiana soil that Notre Dame recognize 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. With his own brand of reserved dignity, Mike Pence instilled confidence on the state level then, and on the world stage now. We are proud to welcome him to represent the new administration."

Six presidents have given the Notre Dame commencement address, and Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama delivered it during their first year in office. A Notre Dame official declined to say whether President Donald Trump had been invited to do the same.

College Democrats of Notre Dame announced in December that it delivered to Jenkins’ office more than 3,500 signatures and messages of people – mostly Notre Dame students, faculty and alumni – who opposed extending a commencement invitation to the new Republican president. About 30 people reportedly took part in a campus demonstration Monday to protest a potential invitation.

But Notre Dame professor Robert Schmuhl, who teaches journalism, politics and history, said in an email Thursday that "there’s bound to be grumbling by those who might prefer the president as the speaker."

Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications at Notre Dame, said Jenkins invited Pence when the two met in Pence’s office the day before the 44th annual March for Life in Washington. Jenkins participated in the Jan. 27 anti-abortion rally, and Pence became the first vice president or president to speak at it.

Browne said in a phone interview he thinks Pence "will be warmly received at Notre Dame" and that Notre Dame expects any protests "to be expressed in a civil fashion."

Abortion-rights foes protested the selection of Obama in the weeks leading up to his commencement speech. Police arrested 21 protesters – none of them students – two nights before Obama’s address. All were charged with trespassing, and three were charged with resisting law enforcement.

Pence "will be both cheered and criticized," Schmuhl said. "Supporters of the Trump administration as well as many Hoosiers will support the choice, while those opposed to the current administration and its policies will oppose the selection."

Notre Dame College Republicans said on its Facebook page that it is "proud" and "excited" that Pence will give this year’s address. The group wrote that Pence "has a proven track record of Conservative principles and has staunchly defended Christian values."

College Democrats wrote on its Facebook page that it is "profoundly disappointed" Pence will be the graduation speaker. It criticized him for, among other things, refusing to let Syrian refugees resettle in Indiana when he was governor and for endorsing the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which College Democrats said discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.

Michael Markel, chief of staff for the Notre Dame student government, declined to comment about Pence’s selection as commencement speaker. The student government website contains a public statement objecting to Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban U.S. entry to all refugees and the citizens of seven mostly Muslim nations.

Pence has spoken on campus before, Browne said, most recently at the 2015 memorial service for the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the school’s president from 1952 to 1987.

Notre Dame will present an honorary doctor of laws degree to Pence at its commencement ceremony.

Pence, a native of Columbus, Indiana, was a Republican member of the U.S. House from 2001 through 2012 and the Indiana governor from 2013 until this year, when he became the country’s 48th vice president.

bfrancisco@jg.net