UPLAND, Ind. – “Twenty years out, no one ever remembers who their commencement speaker is.”
Well, about that ... Taylor University’s Commencement 2019 may just be an exception to the rule.
For it’s safe to say none of the 494 Taylor University seniors will forget it was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence who keynoted their graduation Saturday, May 18, 2019, in Upland, Indiana. Nor will the nearly 6,000 visitors, who drove or flew in to watch their child or grandchild walk across the stage to accept their diploma.
But more important and significant than even a U.S. vice president speaking at a small, private university is “what” Pence spoke about. And that did not go unnoticed by administrators, faculty, and students alike.
Pence’s Spiritual Exhortations
Dean Grace Ju Miller of the School of Natural and Applied Sciences said, “I am struck by the fact that we have a vice president of the United States who is a born-again Christian who would share his personal testimony with our graduates. He understands Taylor’s mission and encourages our students to stand on that foundation and to go out and love God, love and serve one another.”
Miller went on to say, “The commencement ceremony was a testimony of Taylor’s mission and a show of Taylor’s Life Together Covenant. And that we were united in our goal to celebrate the graduates, to show respect to one another, and to honor the people that worked hard with the students to achieve their goals.”
She was impressed when Pence remained and took time to congratulate each student as the students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas.
“I am glad he reminded the graduates that their diploma, servant towel, and Bible will be key to their success and fulfillment of their lives ahead, not in a spirit of timidity but with a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline,” Miller said. “I felt encouraged by the whole event.”
Dean Tom Jones of the School of Humanities, Arts and Biblical Studies also was appreciative of the vice president’s message to students.
“I was struck by the genuineness of Vice President Pence’s testimony and counsel for the graduating class,” Jones said. “He came across as a man who is sincerely doing his best to consistently and humbly apply his understanding of biblical truth in everyday decision-making. As I listened to the speech, I found myself wishing those who chose not to be present for the speech could have heard him. If they had, I believe they would have been surprised by how different he is from the image presented in the media.”
He noted that respect was on display throughout the commencement ceremony.
“I was also very proud of the mature and respectful spirit shown by the senior class,” Jones said. “They were respectful of one another and they were also respectful of the vice president. Whether or not they agree with social policies of the administration, our seniors overwhelmingly showed their respect for the vice president as one of our national leaders and as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ, imperfect but saved by God’s grace.”
A United Class of 2019
Provost Michael Hammond said, “At the commencement ceremony, we saw a senior class that was united. They demonstrated that with a planned singing of the Doxology that was not in the program.
“The commencement ceremony celebrated these students well, paying tribute to their accomplishments, laughing and singing together, and honoring them,” he said. “Their spiritual unity and leadership were an example for the Taylor community and the world. If we can emulate their love for one another, despite differences of opinion, then we will better achieve the vision of the Taylor towel – to serve one another.”
Hammond added, “It was an honor to work with these seniors and see how important it was for them to demonstrate unity.”
Biblical Studies Professor Michael Harbin, who is retiring after serving Taylor students for 26 years, said, “I thought the ceremony was very appropriate for the graduating class, and that the focus was on the class. What I really appreciated about it was how the speaker focused on a spiritual challenge for our graduates and encouraged them that their faith would be the key thing that would promote success.”
Professor Scott Moeschberger, director of Initiatives for Vulnerable and Orphaned Children, said, “Throughout the last couple weeks, culminating in Saturday’s commencement ceremony, I felt deeply proud of our graduates as they reached across areas of difference to express their unity of a faith that connects them despite sociopolitical divisions. It was their idea to express this unity by standing unprompted to sing the Doxology as a group – a moment that brought tears to many eyes.”
Moeschberger also added, “For me personally, it was a joy to celebrate the first graduate in the new major focused on working with orphaned and vulnerable children. This highlights Taylor’s long tradition of serving the most vulnerable in our own communities and around the world.”
Pence Shares His Testimony
Professor of English Colleen Warren said, “I was very impressed by Vice President Pence’s eloquence and sincerity in his speech. Hearing his testimony and his encouragement to the graduates to genuinely live out the life of a Christian, despite a growing climate of intolerance toward Christians, was a timely admonition.”
Warren added, “I thought the vast majority of the students and audience responded maturely to Vice President Pence and made him feel welcome. I especially appreciated the senior class’ singing the Doxology after Pence spoke – it added a wonderful tone of reverence, keeping the focus on Christ, as it should be.”
Chemistry Professor Patricia Stan appreciated how some members of the senior class were recognized.
“The senior class president (Sarah Manko), the senior class speaker (Abigail Roberts), and Vice President Pence all highlighted members of the class, their struggles and successes and the confidence of a future entrusted to God and service to Him. Well done to all of them in keeping the focus on celebrating the class of 2019.”
Stan went on to commend those who worked behind the scenes to make Commencement a success.
“My second thought is a big thank you to the faithful Taylor employees who quietly serve all of us by setting up, cleaning, volunteering on crowd control, and a hundred other tasks that go in to this event each year,” Stan said. “This year, beside all the background work, some started at 4:30 a.m. Saturday to make sure all was ready for us to come and enjoy the day with our students. They are true models of the servant leadership we all aspire to.”
And one of those staff members working quietly but effectively behind the scenes was TU Chief of Police Jeff Wallace. When asked for his thoughts about Commencement, he was quick to credit and thank others.
“As always, it was an absolute blessing to work alongside so many amazing and gifted people here at TU, but also to get to work alongside the U.S. Secret Service; TSA; DOD; local, county, and state law enforcement; numerous emergency services personnel; and the VPOTUS staff – all coming together to make this a great event for our TU community,” he said.
“Even more meaningful, was getting to share with and celebrate this day with our students,” Wallace said. “They are a very special group of young people, for sure! I was and am so excited for all of our graduates and to see the amazing things they will continue to do for the kingdom!”
“Getting to have VPOTUS Mike Pence here at Taylor University was an honor for me and so many others, and something I will never forget,” Wallace said.
Spontaneous Singing of the Doxology
TU Board of Trustees Chair Paige Cunningham said one highlight for her from Commencement “was that beautiful moment after Vice President Pence’s speech, when all the seniors were reunited and sang the Doxology a capella, with the entire audience joining in. It was a stirring example of brothers and sisters living together in unity (and harmony!).”
Regarding Pence’s speech, Cunningham said, “I was particularly taken by two things: first was his recognition of individual students. For example, Rachel Rowher, our first graduate from the Orphans and Vulnerable Children major. Second was the intimacy and vulnerability in sharing his personal testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.”
Cunningham acknowledged there “were tensions and disagreements over the invitation to the vice president. But, unlike the ugliness on display in social media, the Taylor community came together so that every person could enjoy the Taylor Commencement traditions and celebrate their accomplishments with their families. What I experienced on Saturday is one of the reasons I love Taylor’s people and her mission, and I hope others felt the same way.”
TU President Echoes Pence’s Call to Service
President Lowell Haines, when asked what thought he was left with following Commencement, said: “One of gratitude and love for the entire Taylor community. This was a difficult circumstance for some of our members, but true to our heritage, we worked together to love and to respect each other, and to represent Christ well.”
Haines said he appreciated what Vice President Mike Pence shared about “service” to the world.
“In so doing, he spoke to the essence of the Taylor educational experience,” Haines said. “Here, we are all about representing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by serving others. That is the reason for the Taylor servant’s towel that each graduate receives along with the Holy Bible and the diploma. We are focused, with determination, on graduating young, well-educated servant leaders marked with a passion to minister Christ’s redemptive love and truth to a world in need.”
Haines, reflecting on Saturday’s Commencement, said on Sunday, May 19, “What a wonderful day of celebration and commissioning we had Saturday, May 18. Taylor has always taken its commencement services seriously, and Saturday’s program was simply exceptional. Having Vice President Pence with us was a privilege, and his words of challenge to our graduates, most meaningful. We praise the Lord for a most memorable day, and we pray His continued blessings on Taylor University.”
Jonathan Bouw, professor of Illustration and Design and co-chair of the Art, Film and Media department, said, “I found Saturday’s events to be incredibly memorable. It is still quite hard to believe the vice president of the United States was on the Taylor campus. ... In all my years attending university graduation ceremonies, this was by far, the most memorable commencement address.”
Bouw said, “While Vice President Pence did make what felt like six or seven statements (an impression, not an exact count) about the president, the economy, and current political priorities, I was pleasantly surprised how personal and local he kept his comments, and how generous he was with his time, staying the entire ceremony and offering a congratulatory handshake to each graduate. This was surprising. I have little doubt this exposure was a big concern for the Secret Service as well.”
Bouw was also “proud of the seniors’ decision to sing the Doxology together.”
“I am proud that relatively few chose to draw attention to themselves at the expense of others,” Bouw said. “I was proud of our university president. I was proud of our provost. I was proud of our graduates. I was proud the event did not devolve into the circus I feared. Ultimately, I was thankful to God for answering the many prayers offered up before, during, and after the event.”
Echo Co-Editors-in-Chief Share Sentiments
Two seniors, who together oversaw the student newspaper The Echo during their senior year, offered these parting thoughts about Commencement:
Graduating senior Chrysa Keenon, co-editor-in-chief of The Echo, said, “While I disagree with the choice of the speaker, I appreciated the way the university administration allowed room for differing opinions to be voiced during Commencement. It solidified to me that Taylor, even with its flaws, is a family-oriented community and cares deeply about the well-being of its students. I think that is the best message left on my heart; I didn’t just leave with a piece of paper, I took home a part of a community that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Graduating Senior Gabby Carlson, co-editor-in-chief of The Echo, said, “Saturday’s Commencement prompted me to consider the thing I believe Taylor has instilled in me the deepest: servanthood.
“As I walked across the stage and received the celebratory towel, I was struck by how unique and deeply personal Taylor Commencement is,” Carlson said.
“I received my diploma from the man who, though our president and a deeply respected man, humbly shook the hand and offered encouragement to each and every graduate, Dr. P. Lowell Haines,” Carlson said, adding, “I then had the unique privilege to shake the hand of the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, who has been an example of servanthood to the American people and gracefully presented his testimony to thousands just minutes before.
“Then I received a towel, similar to the one reading ‘One another’ I received my freshman year. Except this one cited John 13:3-7, acting as an example to serve as Christ did.”
Carlson said, “Finally, I was handed a Bible by the Taylor First Lady, Sherry Haines, reminding me of my foundation, and the reason we were all gathered together, before we walked out into the world to be servants of Jesus, just like these great people have done before us. Being a Taylor graduate means more than just receiving a diploma, we all receive a charge, to disciple making servants to a world in need.”
Read Alan’s Follow-Up Article in the Chronicle Tribune
Alan D. Blanchard, Communication department co-chair, is associate professor of journalism and adviser to the student newspaper, The Echo – email@example.com
About Taylor University: Founded in 1846, Taylor University is a premier, nondenominational, Christian liberal arts university and the number one college in the Midwest Region as determined by U.S. News and World Report’s survey of best American colleges. Located in Upland, Indiana, Taylor has achieved this ranking 11 of the past 12 years, and been ranked in the region’s top three for 22 consecutive years. Taylor has also received high regional and national rankings from Open Doors, a survey associated with the U.S. Department of State that measures study-abroad programs, as well as Forbes and Princeton Review. With more than 60 fields of major studies, Taylor University’s alumni serve in occupations ranging from medicine and computer programing to education and law.