Holly Gaskill | News Co-Editor
President P. Lowell Haines addressed some concerns regarding Vice President of the United States Mike Pence as the 2019 commencement speaker during chapel on April 24.
A panel of faculty and student representatives asked Haines questions that had been brought up at the two listening sessions that had taken place at the time.
The panel consisted of Special Assistant to President for Diversity Initiatives the Rev. Greg Dyson, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Faculty Moderator Jeff Cramer, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and incoming Faculty Moderator Tracy Manning, senior and Student Body President Joshua Clement and junior and incoming Student Body President Anders Soderquist. Campus Pastor the Rev. Jon Cavanagh acted as the panel moderator.
Haines had been scheduled to speak during chapel since the beginning of the semester. However, according to Haines, Clement encouraged him to use the chapel time to answer questions of the student body in a "family meeting" format.
Before the interview time began, Haines apologized for the division that has come as a result of his decision.
"I didn't really foresee the depth of pain and things that would come out of (inviting Pence), and I feel very badly about that, and I ask your forgiveness for that," Haines said.
Questions were structured to first explain how the commencement speaker has been chosen historically and was chosen this year, then the future of Taylor.
According to Haines, the commencement speaker at Taylor has always been chosen by the current president. Consequently, Haines did not want to pass on the opportunity to invite the vice president of the United States when connections opened for him to do so. Although his cabinet anticipated people to disagree, they did not expect the extent to which this would divide the campus and alumni.
In the future, Haines said he is open to receive input about commencement speakers from the Taylor community, which he later reaffirmed in an email to students, faculty and staff. Until now, Haines said, the president's decision was normally not contested and including students in this decision has been an oversight.
Manning asked pointedly if this choice was made for monetary gain or for publicity, to which Haines said his motivation was simply because Pence is the vice president of United States. According to Haines, monetary gain never crossed his mind in making the decision.
Additionally, Haines pointed to universities like Notre Dame, who has a history of inviting politicians of many different parties. He hoped Taylor could embody the openness to views that are modeled elsewhere.
For senior Jordan Hardesty, this sentiment from Haines brought mixed feelings.
"I admired how Lowell Haines asked for forgiveness," Hardesty said. "However, I do wish he would've been upfront about the fact that there was somewhat of a finance and university name recognition. I didn't care for how he emphasized that "it's the Vice President of the United States!" I understand that completely, but that shouldn't have been his main argument."
As for the future of the university, the panel asked questions to address concerns that inviting Pence was a decisive political alignment with the Republican Party or Trump administration.
Specifically, Soderquist said some students had issues with the original press release, which they felt alienated students of different viewpoints.
"Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years, and is a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates," the press release said.
Haines said this confusion is likely due to poor phrasing on his part. Rather than aligning politically, the press release was supposed to express that Pence is a man of Christian faith. Haines added that Taylor has been, and will hopefully remain, a centrist and nondenominational university, not aligning with a political agenda, unlike other universities.
Ultimately, Haines said he would not rescind his invitation to Pence.
Proceeding the chapel panel, opinions across campus differed on the effect it had.
Dyson, based on his experience talking with students, faculty and staff, said events like the panel are hard to rate. According to Dyson, those who are excited and those who are in pain still feel similarly.
"Some who were glad for the forum and others left feeling it fell far short," Dyson said. "One follow up concern is that if someone feels convicted to protest Mr. Pence's presence, they don't want to be made to feel less spiritual than those excited for his appearance."
In an email to students, faculty and staff later that day, Haines addressed these concerns about protests, saying that the order of the commencement ceremony will allow students to follow their convictions. Students will be able to walk out having participated in most of the program while causing minimum disruption to those who wish to stay.
Others, like freshman David Muselman, applauded Haines for speaking.
"Chapel was great," Muselman said. "President Haines did not have to do what he did, and his humility was inspiring. The student body was clearly excited when President Haines said he wouldn't consider disinviting the Vice President. In my opinion, the people who don't want VP Pence are a loud minority, while most of campus (the silent majority) supports the decision."
Jim Garringer, director of media relations, said he also thought Haines handled the panel's candid questions well.
Garringer also said he realizes this is a complex issue with many different viewpoints. He echoed Haines's email calling for Taylor's community to bear with one another in love, as directed to the church in Colossians 3:12-15.
"All in all, VP Mike Pence is coming, and we should welcome him and respect him even if some people don't agree that his actions reflect Christian values," Hardesty said. "In my opinion, Taylor is focusing too much on Pence instead of the graduates' accomplishments . . . Graduation is what you make of it. You're in control of your perspective."
The third and final listening session regarding commencement will take place on April 30 in Alspaugh East of the Hodson Dining Commons from 6 p.m.-7:15 p.m.