The University of North Texas had a campus-wide commencement over the weekend – a first for the school in Denton. The keynote speaker, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, ignored a few protestors and stayed focused on the graduates in his speech.
Greg Abbott came to the podium as banners unfurled in the stands. “Get the frack out of Denton” and “Abbott Free UNT” read a few. Abbott didn’t address them directly, but instead started his speech with thanks to people in the armed services, especially UNT student Nick Bradley.
“It’s because of Nick, and everyone like him who has fought on battlefields across the globe, that we have the freedom to fight in the battleground of ideas like the University of North Texas,” Abbott said.
About 4,000 students graduated from UNT this month, although only about 300 sat in the coliseum for commencement. Abbott talked about his own graduation from law school at Vanderbilt, and how the speaker told them that they would face challenges.
“How prophetic that speaker was," Abbott said. "Little did I know that as I walked across that stage, it would literally be the last picture of me walking.”
Abbott was hit by a tree while jogging a few weeks later. It crushed his spine, and he has used a wheelchair ever since.
“I see some of you shaking your heads. You’re wondering, 'How slow was that guy jogging to get hit by a falling tree?'”
Abbott told the graduates that that their challenges and circumstances don’t define them. But how they respond to those challenges.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you turn out rich or poor, what you do for a living, where you live. It doesn’t even matter whether you will be able to walk,” he said.
The governor’s appearance has been controversial since he was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed an online petition urging graduates to walk out in protest of Abbott’s positions on gay marriage and immigration. Saturday night there was no walk out.
One graduate stood up in his green cap and gown and turned his back on Abbott for part of the speech.
“I feel like the students, including myself, don’t think he represents us as a class," said graduate Dacia Bell. "His beliefs aren’t what we stand for.”
But Bell was among the many students who decided not to create a scene during the ceremony.
“I just want to graduate. I don’t want to get in trouble. And it’s disrespectful, I think,” she said.
She just wished she could have heard from UNT alumni Dr. Phil McGraw or Norah Jones.
That doesn’t surprise Blogger Cristina Negrut, who collects speeches from across the country for her site graduationwisdom.com.
She says politicians usually make bad commencement speakers, because they go into stump mode and don’t focus on the graduates.
“They want light-hearted advice. So they look for speeches that are funny and definitely have a good message.’
Abbott didn’t make the politician’s mistake in Denton on Saturday night. While he didn’t get any honorary degrees, he was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation.