Commencement Chaos: The Trump Effect On Graduation Speakers

The reaction to Trump administration officials offering commencement remarks this spring has turned the graduation ceremony into the latest political platform.

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 10, 2017 at 1:57 PM ET

Not even two minutes into Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday, the chorus of boos were so loud inside the Ocean Center that she had to pause. Even when DeVos, whose invitation to speak was met with a petition of more than 50,000 signatures against her presence and led to the NAACP urging the school’s president to resign, recognized that people have a difference of opinion on whether she should be there, the graduates, families and friends in attendance at the Florida HBCU didn’t want to hear it.

“If this behavior continues, then your degrees will be mailed to you,” the school’s president said. “Choose which way you want to go.”

DeVos continued, as did the boo birds: “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be with you here today. While we undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully.”

As the first year of graduations in the Trump administration get underway, the message from students on some campuses has become clear: don’t mention or invite officials associated with President Donald Trump. Whether it’s DeVos or Vice President Mike Pence giving the address at the University of Notre Dame on May 21, the vitriolic reaction to Trump administration officials offering commencement remarks this spring has turned the graduation ceremony into the latest political platform. USA Today reported that most of the college and university commencement speakers it spoke with are avoiding speaking about Trump.

At Notre Dame, the school broke its tradition of inviting first-year presidents to speak at graduation. Instead of inviting Trump, the university announced that Mike Pence would be the commencement speaker. The decision was met with student protests and a viral campaign #notmycommencementspeaker that had students expressing why they felt unsafe with Pence giving the address.

Maybe surprisingly, there hasn’t been as much pushback for the president’s only scheduled commencement address. The lead-up to Trump’s speech this weekend at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian university, has been largely met with pride and excitement from students, according to the Washington Post. One student described Trump’s speech to the Post as “an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” with others adding that said it would help establish the University as “legitimate.” Though some students opposed the choice, others said there was unlikely enough opposition to initiate protest.

Though there has been pushback from universities and colleges toward speakers linked to Trump, other speakers, most notably Democrats or those who are more left-leaning, have been more embraced. Former Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will be at Wellesley College and Brooklyn College, respectively, toward the end of the month. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a full commencement docket, giving addresses at Harvard University, Cornell University and Colby College later this month.

Amid controversy about which speakers to invite and how students will receive them, some universities have turned away from politics altogether and are looking to a different field for words of wisdom: comedy. This weekend, Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American standup comic, will deliver an address that isn’t expected to shy away from the elephant in the room named Trump. 

“I have to talk about him, because I’m an immigrant,’’ he told USA Today. “The best graduation talks are sincere, and I have a lot of sincere feelings about his impact. He needs to take responsibility for his words.’’