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Taylor preps for Pence

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

With Vice President Mike Pence arriving on campus next week, Taylor University is in “full preparation mode,” according to Jim Garringer, director of media relations for the university, and still talking about the school's controversial graduation speaker choice.

The decision to invite Pence sparked online petitions and social media campaigns, both for and against the vice president's invitation, and brought national attention to the school.

Taylor President P. Lowell Haines asked the Taylor community for “forgiveness” for the pain caused by the school's choice in a recent chapel, according to the Echo, Taylor's student newspaper.

In an email to Taylor students, faculty and staff, Haines wrote, “This year, some people in the Taylor community have taken personal offense to my selection. I feel badly about that and recognize that I am personally responsible for what pain this decision has caused to some in our Taylor Community.”

The president has even vowed to change the way the university chooses graduation speakers in the future after the backlash the university has received since the announcement in mid-April. The decision has historically been the responsibility of Taylor's president.

“In addition, I have asked for a process that will provide collaborative input from the Taylor Community (students, faculty, and staff) regarding the selection of Commencement speakers going in the years to come. The faculty, staff, students, and Board of Trustees will work with the Office of the President to nominate and select speakers in the future,” Haines wrote in the same email.

“Historically the choice has resided in the president's office. So I think one of the things that came out of this is we recognize that we want to have more of a collaborative effort going forward,” Garringer said.

Garringer was unsure of the specifics of how the new graduation speaker selection process will work.

“Plans are underway to establish procedures that will incorporate greater input from certain constituent groups at Taylor,” the president said.

For now, the school has held numerous “listening sessions” to collect feedback on the choice to invite Pence. Some who oppose Pence's invitation do so because of his political and personal views, which they say include discrimination against LGBT people and other minority groups.

“I am a strong advocate for right to life and male/female marriage but this does not mean I turn a blind eye to widespread disregard of environmental stewardship, demonization of the alien and refugee, and favoring of the rich at the expense of the poor. Following Christ means always moving towards humility, truth, compassion for the weak, the alien, the refugee, generosity, stewardship of the earth, always moving in the direction of love and forgiveness, mercy,” wrote Ruth Chew, class of 1979, as her reason for signing an online petition against Pence's invitation to speak.

“The Vice President has built his career on bigotry. Taylor University's Students, Staff, Faculty and Alumni deserve better,” Blair Zarubick wrote on the same petition.

For others, the invitation looks like a political positioning on the part of the university, which they believe should remain politically neutral.

“As members of a Christian (not political) university, many feel they should be given the right to chose their own affiliation, instead of having the school choose it for them. Taylor has done this well in the past, having many student from all political backgrounds, and to some this decision feels like a blanket statement of who we are which takes us a step backwards. This has nothing to do with Pence’s character. … It is about how I do not want there to be a political barrier in the way when I am trying to witness and love a world desperately in need of it,” Emily Lynn wrote.

But a petition supporting Pence's invitation, created by three current Taylor students, makes the opposite case.

“By Pence speaking at this upcoming graduation, Taylor is by no means aligning themselves with the alleged controversial views of the Trump administration, they are simply giving a voice to all opinions and planes of thought.

"We also believe that someone of power, such as VP Mike Pence, should be respected and welcomed for committing their incredibly valuable time to Taylor University, regardless of political affiliation,” the authors, Peter Williams, Sam Jones and James Gilhooley, said.

Haines also pushed back against the accusation that the pick signals a move to the right for the university.

“Taylor was not seeking to endorse any political party or particular political position. Far from it, Taylor has a rich history of welcoming diverse perspectives, and observing them through the lens of biblical thought. We will continue to be committed to our historical orthodox positions, while always focusing on the Kingdom of God and obedience to biblical truth,” Haines told the Taylor community.

The university is making preparations for expected walk-outs and possible protests during commencement next Saturday.

Garringer said the event is being designed so that students who want to leave before Pence takes the stage can do so.

“The desire is that if the ones who have concerns about this are willing to stay and listen to Mr. Pence's address, if they do think this is something they should do or want to do we want to make that possible for them to do it in a way that is not disruptive to the ceremony. The goal ultimately is that if someone does not wish to stay we will respect that and work with them on that,” Garringer said.

He said the university is working with police to prepare for potential protests as well, although he said he could not divulge what those preparations involve.

The graduation ceremonies will be ticketed, unlike past ceremonies, but the university is still preparing for the event that outside protesters come to campus next week.

“It's just impossible at this point to say what may or may not happen. We encourage folks to be kind to one another and to be civil,” Garringer said.

Taylor expects over 6,000 people at the Kesler Student Activities Center on Taylor's campus on May 18.

“For those that do have an issue with this we will treat them with respect, and our hope and encouragement is that we will all have a day that is memorable in a very good sense,” Garringer added.