Republican Sen Ted Cruz appeared earlier this week at Liberty University in Virginia to announce that he was running for president in 2016, becoming the first major candidate in the Democratic or Republican parties to formally declare. Cruz delivered the news at Liberty — the largest Christian university in the world — before a gathering of students. What you might not know about that gathering was that the students were required to attend. This post explains what happened and why.  It was written by Alexandra Markovich, a 19-year-old student at Princeton University who is a member of the University Press Club, a selective group of undergraduate students who freelance for regional and national publications. Markovich is an intended major in the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs with a focus in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

By Alexandra Markovich

Ted Cruz became the first Republican candidate to officially announce his 2016 presidential campaign in front of an audience of 11,000 college students on March 23, 2015. The catch: they had to be there. Cruz made his announcement on Monday morning at Liberty University, where Convocation is mandatory to students living on campus at risk of a $10 fine for failing to attend.

As sophomore Luke Wittel walked through the doors of the Vines Center, home to Liberty’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, he was offered an American Flag, the first thing that made Wittel realize this was going to be more political rally than spiritual gathering. The American flags blended patriotism and support for Ted Cruz, Wittel said, in a way that made him nervous.

All Wittel could do to show his disagreement was not to take the flag. Wittel said that when he asked his RA if he could be excused and not be forced into apparent political association, he was sternly reminded of school policy. Throughout the hour-long Convocation, Wittel said he was not allowed to leave.

Liberty University is an evangelical university in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by the late pastor Jerry Falwell in 1971. A recent Washington Post article called Liberty “the symbolic center of the GOP political-religious universe in recent years.” The social conservative youth ticket will be an important card to punch in the GOP campaign.

Seeing the American flags handed out left Wittel with bitter feelings of political exploitation. “Nothing makes you feel more like a pawn than being told to hold this and sit down,” he said. But, Wittel sees logic behind holding the announcement at Liberty.

“It was a smart move. Liberty is probably one of the only places you have the guaranteed attendance of such a substantial number of young people, and that seemed like the clear purpose,” Wittel said. The university calls Convocation — where students come and hear speakers on different topics — “North America’s largest weekly gathering of Christian students,” according to its website.

“By leaving out the mandatory element of the event, the media gave the illusion that [Cruz] had the support of all the students there,” Wittel said.  Ultimately,  he resorted to social media for protest, posting about his dissatisfaction on Facebook during the event.

In his Facebook post, Wittle wrote about the strange mix of religion and politics at the speech. “I don’t know if this is more or less offensive than the fact that the introduction to a POLITICAL candidate is being prefaced by worship through music,” Wittel wrote.

According to Wittel, Convocation had been optional at least once before, noting that it would not have been out of the ordinary to break the mandatory nature of Convocation and allow students to be dismissed if they chose. But Cruz’s speech remained mandatory throughout the hour.

Other Liberty students expressed their discontent on social media as well, including Facebook, Twitter, and Yik Yak, a mobile application that allows users to post anonymously by location and is popular on college campuses. Though Liberty students are used to mandatory Convocation, some squirmed at what felt like, to some, political exploitation and even a violation of rights.

“I felt very acutely that I was being used as political bait today” sophomore Emily Foreman said on Monday. “I think our freedom of speech was hampered today when we weren’t allowed to leave.”

Despite the particularly public nature of a presidential campaign announcement, some students did not perceive Cruz’s speech any differently than they would another Convocation speaker.

“I think students felt blindsided, but they know coming into Liberty that they’re going to have to attend Convocation,” said  Grace Hargraves, another sophomore. “I don’t always agree with the speakers, but it doesn’t matter if you sat at a rally for someone you don’t agree with. What matters is who you vote for.”

In a statement released by the university, President Jerry Falwell Jr. took care to point out that “standing ovations are not required,” but Cruz received many of them at Convocation. What some students have a problem with, however, is that the crowd was not packed by choice.  In the same statement, the university president defended Liberty’s mandatory Convocation, arguing that the university meeting exposes students to a diverse range of opinions.

“A fundamental part of the college experience is being exposed to a variety of viewpoints so students can better understand why they hold their own beliefs and be better prepared to defend them,”  he said in the statement. He added that the presence of T-shirts supporting other potential candidates, referencing the “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts at the event, shows that the university does not indoctrinate its students.

Foreman said, however, that Convocation, a space generally reserved for spirituality, felt violated. “Any time you have worship and prayer, you’re going to have a spiritual atmosphere,” she said. In response to general concern on this topic, the university president said in statement that “Convocation is not a worship service,” but a forum for diverse opinions.

By having worship proceed both political speeches and sermons,  politicians are given the same status as spiritual leaders, Wittel said. He said that Cruz’s announcement got students talking about the blend of worship and politics at Liberty, and he hopes that it could bring a change in Convocation policy.