In-depth: Greg Abbott to speak at mass commencement
Samantha McDonald / Senior Staff Writer
When the UNT administration announced that Gov. Greg Abbott will deliver the keynote address at graduation on May 16, reactions came swift and sure.
Most students expressed their disappointment, indicating they will skip their mass commencement and threatened a boycott of the ceremony. One student was arrested in Library Mall following an Abbott protest. He was released the same day.
A petition on Change.org requesting a new speaker has reached 2,587 supporters. According to the petition, the keynote speaker should be one that reflects the student body’s views on equality and representation.
“Gov. Abbott is an advocate for immigration reform, border patrol, and anti-equal marriage laws,” the petition read. “This does not align the spirit of the University of North Texas which prides itself in providing equal opportunities for their students.”
However, President Neal Smatresk declared his support for Texas’ 48th governor, saying that Abbott is committed to speaking despite negative feedback.
“The chief executive officer of our state and the highest elected official of our state is going to come here, honor our graduates, get a chance to see our wonderfully friendly and diverse and inclusive community, and help us to kick off a celebration for our 125th anniversary,” Smatresk said. “I think it’s wonderful that he’s going to be here, and it also could create an opportunity for a healthy dialogue.”
The event on May 16 at Apogee Stadium will be UNT’s inaugural university-wide commencement in decades and the first time graduates from all colleges get together for a single ceremony. About 5,000 student graduates are expected in attendance.
The makings of a controversy
News about Abbott’s invitation followed several high-profile commencement speaker announcements across the state, including actor Matthew McConaughey for the University of Houston, retired Gen. and former Secretary of State Colin Powell for Rice University, and former President George W. Bush for Southern Methodist University.
While Abbott himself is a nationally recognized political figure, his selection as speaker followed reports that actor Michael J. Fox might be chosen to deliver the speech for the spring graduation ceremony. This brought about questions regarding the decision-making process and whether any students were involved in inviting Abbott to campus.
Former Student Government Association president Troy Elliott said a mass commencement committee was formed last year with the purpose of choosing the keynote speaker and organizing the ceremony, among other tasks.
The committee was composed of faculty representatives from each college; administration staff members; individuals on the president’s cabinet; and two students – SGA president Troy Elliott and vice president Kam Willard, neither of whom will be graduating in May.
The committee met regularly to discuss potential commencement speakers, one of which was Fox. The administration at the time was in negotiations with Fox but withdrew the invitation when Abbott accepted an offer to speak at the ceremony, Smatresk said.
Elliott said he was unaware that an offer had been made and was taken by surprise when he first heard about the announcement via email.
“An email was already sent out saying that this [Michael J. Fox] is probably going to be the commencement speaker, but then out of the blue, we get a very general announcement that was sent to the whole student body that Gov. Greg Abbott is actually to be the speaker,” Elliott said. “That was never even discussed by the actual committee.”
Fox’s booking agency, Celebrity Talent International, lists his speaking fee between $150,000 and $499,000, the Denton Record-Chronicle reported. Abbott will not be paid to speak at graduation as part of his public service as governor.
Willard, who now serves as SGA president, said he was also not informed about the decision before the email was sent out to students. He noted a class schedule conflict that prevented him from attending committee meetings when the topic of speaker selection was in discussion.
“There were many other people we talked about possibly potentially coming to speak at mass commencement, but Greg Abbott was never one of the people mentioned in conversations,” Willard said.
Willard added that Smatresk, who is typically involved with students in academic and extracurricular matters, failed to confirm Abbott’s invitation to the only two student members of the committee.
“He usually does a really good job of talking to us before we make decisions that require student input, but I don’t know who exactly made the decision,” Willard said.
Pomp and circumstance
Willard, who will be giving a mass commencement speech himself as student body president, said that he anticipated some backlash from students when he read the email confirming Abbott’s appearance at graduation.
“I knew there was going to be turmoil on the campus just because I know that there are students who are completely against Greg Abbott’s ideas as governor,” Willard said.
The campus became a stop for Democrat Wendy Davis prior to the gubernatorial elections. During her campaign, Davis hosted a college rally attended by UNT students and held a steady group of supporters through Battleground Texas in Denton. Abbott took his campaign to local restaurant El Guapo’s but did not visit the university.
Computer science senior Benjamin Garside urged the administration to pick a less divisive speaker on the Change.org petition, which was organized by integrative studies senior Christy Medrano.
“I won’t attend a graduation ceremony that is split up by political preference,” Garside wrote. “It should be a celebration of our new beginnings, not a tense room filled with politically charged graduates.”
A Facebook group called “Abbott Free UNT,” which has more than 1,300 likes as of Wednesday, was also created to express dissatisfaction at the university’s speaker choice.
“As students of this university we want someone that represents us during this special time in our lives,” the group posted on its page. “We have all worked very hard for graduation and we deserve to not have politics dragged into our ceremony.”
Other organizations against Abbott’s invitation include Occupy Denton and the Denton County Green Party, the latter of which publicly endorsed and intends to participate in a planned protest during the ceremony.
The party also mentioned Abbott’s opposition to Denton’s recently passed fracking ban, abortion rights and marriage equality as well as his anti-immigration policies when UNT’s student population is almost 20 percent Hispanic.
While Willard has not indicated support or disapproval, Elliott said although he doesn’t agree with Abbott’s values and beliefs, his main issue with the announcement was that the administration neglected student input in the decision.
“In the future, if they’re going to bring representatives from politics, it should be balanced so that students – because this is all an educational experience – can hear from both aspects of politics,” he said.
Elliott said he and the president had a conversation about the Distinguished Lecture Series committee selecting the speaker because of its members’ experience in setting up notable and well-attended events on campus.
The DLS has previously invited internationally recognized guests such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Three faculty representatives, three staff representatives and six students administer the committee.
“He [Smatresk] didn’t agree to it, but he did say that he would definitely give that consideration in the future, and that’s what should happen – a committee of students should be at the forefront of that decision,” Elliott said.
The governor’s supporters
Upon the announcement, the office of the governor sent a statement to the Denton Record-Chronicle expressing Abbott’s appreciation.
“Gov. Abbott is honored to accept the invitation to address the University of North Texas’ commencement, and he looks forward to recognizing the great work UNT is doing to elevate Texas’ higher education system, as well as the contributions that the UNT Class of 2015 will make to build a better future for Texas,” Amelia Chassé, Abbott’s press secretary, wrote in the emailed statement.
Although the majority of online comments have indicated displeasure with Abbott’s invitation, the Texas governor also comes with his allies, most of whom are alumni and said they were proud of the decision.
“Sometimes the liberals are just louder, but there are many who support Governor Abbott and are eager for him to speak,” alumna Kathy Hanson wrote on UNT’s Facebook post.
On the other hand, some students who voiced their support of Abbott said his selection as speaker was proof of UNT’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness on campus.
“Being open minded and inclusive of diverse thought definitely includes putting political views aside and allowing the governor of the greatest state in the country to tell UNT’s class of 2015 that they have done something great,” radio, television and film student Dylan Brehm posted.
Ph.D. student and chemist David Kuntz added Davis, unlike Abbott, didn’t get the same kind of criticism despite her campaigning at the university.
“It seems like if we are to be a truly diverse campus, we have to be accepting of those with differing political views,” he said.
Ultimately, Smatresk said he hopes that students will not use Abbott’s speech as a reason not to attend the mass commencement regardless of their political views.
“I just find it interesting that people who feel that they would like to be tolerated and live in an inclusive environment are willing to be intolerant,” he said.
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