Commencement ceremonies are mostly pretty similar, one to another. Graduates, caps and gowns, polite attention to a speaker at a podium.
But at the University of North Texas, the keynote speaker — the governor of the state — addressed just a tiny fraction of the graduating class. And part of that small audience was actively protesting him — turning away from him, holding anti-Gov. Greg Abbott signs.
A spokeswoman for the university in Denton, Tex., north of Dallas, said last-minute changes to the ceremony, moving it from an outdoor football field to an indoor coliseum after heavy rain and the possibility of hail and tornadoes was forecast, meant that many members of the senior class got their diplomas in smaller ceremonies at the coliseum prior to the keynote address. “Once we made those changes and notifications, we were not sure how many students would participate but had space to accommodate close to 1,000,” said Kelley Reese, a spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
The choice of Abbott (R) had been controversial from the moment it was announced in early April, with many planning to boycott or protest the ceremony.
The “Turn Your Back on Bigotry” event asked students who agreed with their platform to turn away from Abbott as he spoke:
“1. The selection of Governor Greg Abbott clarified the necessity for graduating students to participate in selecting their commencement speaker. By inviting a polarizing political figure such as Governor Greg Abbott as the keynote speaker, UNT administration has politicized an event meant to celebrate the accomplishments of a diverse community of students.
2. Governor Abbott supports policies that impede the attainment of rights pursued by marginalized communities, including, but not limited to: the LGBT+ population, women, people of color, and lower/working class people, e.g. Abbott’s attempts to block access to in-state tuition for undocumented migrants is antithetical to this university’s purported commitment to higher education and opportunity.
3. Governor Abbott’s intent to override local control poses a direct threat to Denton’s democratic decision to secure the health and safety of its residents via the November 2014 ban on hydraulic-fracturing.”
Only a few hundred members of the 4,000-student senior class attended.
— MUEVE (@MueveDenton) April 3, 2015
More widespread protests had been predicted, according to the student newspaper, the North Texas Daily, and those that were there were at the back and were escorted out without disrupting the ceremony.
Still, it was an unusual graduation. A reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram took photos of the odd scene.
A lot of empty chairs set out for UNT graduates. Gov. Greg Abbott, the speaker, was a controversial choice for some. pic.twitter.com/KRWPlrsWN0
— Anna M. Tinsley (@annatinsley) May 17, 2015
Amelia Chasse, the governor’s press secretary, declined to address the protesters’ concerns but sent a statement: “Governor Abbott was honored to accept the invitation to address the University of North Texas’ commencement, and he took pride in 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.”
And, since he was the speaker, Abbott had the last word.