One student stood and turned his back in protest Saturday night as Gov. Greg Abbott began speaking to the 2015 graduating class at the University of North Texas.
He was watching as police escorted about a dozen protesters in the audience out of the UNT Coliseum. Graduates filled less than half the seats set out on the arena floor.
“We are here protesting Gov. Abbott on our campus,” Christy Medrano, a senior from Corsicana, said after being led outside. “We believe his policies are harmful to the student body here.”
Despite the protest, Abbott continued his congratulatory speech without pause, promising students that they can overcome any challenge they face in life.
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“You will have many more achievements, and, inevitably, you will face many more challenges,” he told the crowd of thousands. “Those challenges don’t determine your destiny: You do. Your lives won’t be defined by how you are challenged, instead by how you respond to life’s challenges.”
Abbott’s appearance was controversial from the start.
Some students, when they heard the news this semester, petitioned the university for a new speaker. Others promised to boycott their own commencement ceremony unless a different speaker was chosen.
More than half the seats set out for graduates were empty Saturday night, but UNT officials said they expected fewer graduates to attend after a late change in venue because of expected stormy weather. Most of those in attendance applauded — some standing and cheering — when Abbott was introduced and when he began his speech.
Despite the small protest, most graduates said the commencement was a time to celebrate.
“Regardless of anybody’s political leanings, the fact that the governor is speaking … is amazing,” said Keven Braswell, a 24-year-old graduate from Rowlett, who knew a number of classmates who skipped the ceremony because of Abbott.
More than 2,500 students signed an online petition asking UNT to choose a different speaker.
“While Governor Abbott’s story is inspirational, his views on inequality cannot be overshadowed by this,” the petition stated. “Our Mean Green Pride comes from being heard and respected. Which is why we ask University President Neal Smatresk to find a new keynote speaker for graduation.”
Smatresk, who did not speak to the media Saturday, told students that he wasn’t changing speakers and that he was excited the state’s 48th governor agreed to speak.
“He’s a new governor; he’s supportive of higher education,” Smatresk, who became UNT’s president last year, has told the Star-Telegram. “Why wouldn’t we want to celebrate the success of our institution in its 125th year with him?”
Mario Ovalle, 23, of Denton was the student who stood in protest.
“UNT claims to be diverse,” said Ovalle, who helped start the petition. “Gov. Abbott is not someone who should be speaking at a university that claims to be inclusive and diverse.”
Texas universities invited a variety of speakers to their commencement addresses, with retired Gen. Colin Powell speaking at Rice University; Ford Foundation President Darren Walker talking at the University of Texas at Austin; former President George W. Bush speaking at Southern Methodist University; and actor Matthew McConaughey talking at the University of Houston.
Smatresk announced last month that Abbott would deliver the address at UNT’s first universitywide graduation ceremony, honoring students who completed their degrees at any point in the 2014-15 school year.
More than 4,000 students graduated from UNT this month. A rainy forecast led college officials to move the ceremony from Apogee Stadium to the UNT Coliseum.
Students who didn’t want Abbott to speak cited reasons including his opposition to gay marriage and to Denton’s ban on hydraulic fracturing.
Abbott took office in January after handily beating Democrat Wendy Davis, a former state senator from Fort Worth, in the November general election. Davis drew support from a number of students at UNT, many of whom attended a campaign event she held in Denton.
After the announcement about the Abbott speech, a Facebook page — “Abbott Free UNT” — was created, urging students upset about the governor’s presence to protest by walking out of the ceremony once he takes the stage. The issue also unleashed a flood of comments on Twitter and the UNT Facebook page, many opposed to Abbott being the speaker.
Emmanuel Rodriguez, a 23-year-old graduate from Odessa, said he was initially disappointed to learn that Abbott was the speaker, but not for political reasons.
“We were expecting [actor] Michael J. Fox,” he said. “I was upset that the choice wasn’t opened to the students to see what we wanted to do.
“Other than that, it’s cool,” he said. “Just enjoy the moment.”
Thousands of people crowded into the coliseum, ready to honor the graduates.
The protesters who were escorted out carried signs that read, “Abbott free UNT.”
Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since being permanently injured in a 1984 jogging accident, told the graduates that it’s time to move forward with their lives and see what they can achieve.
“Wherever your path may lead, whatever you may do after leaving here, in the end it won’t matter if you are rich or poor,” he said. “It won’t matter where you live or what you do for a living. It won’t even matter whether you can walk.
“What will matter is the unique fingerprint you leave on this world. Ultimately, your life is measured by the fingerprints you leave behind. As you leave UNT, we look forward to watching the paths you take and the unique imprint you leave on this world.”
Warren Chapline, a 24-year-old graduate from Waco, said choosing Abbott to speak was a “great opportunity for students to hear about someone who has overcome challenges in his life.”
“Some people have viewed it as a political speech. But we need to be respectful of people in office. He is our governor,” he said. “Politics shouldn’t [be in play] at commencement. Recognizing achievements is what we are here for.”
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610