Pushed indoors, UNT's mass commencement sparsely attended
An estimated 300 to 400 degree recipients attended the University of North Texas’ first mass commencement ceremony, of the more than 4,000 who earned their diplomas this weekend.
Not a drop of rain had fallen by the time the ceremony ended — in spite of university officials’ Thursday decision to have the commencement in the UNT Coliseum, rather than at Apogee Stadium, because of the high chance of severe weather.
Because of the change, students from the College of Arts and Sciences and doctoral and master’s candidates were told not to go to the Coliseum for Saturday’s ceremony, instead having their degrees conferred in smaller “breakout” ceremonies. The university set up locations for those graduates to watch a live stream of the commencement at the UNT Gateway Center and Murchison Performing Arts Center. By the middle of the ceremony Saturday, both venues were relatively empty.
“Lest you think the class in front of you represents our entire graduation class, it’s only the last and perhaps the most enthusiastic group left,” Neal Smatresk said at the start of the ceremony.
The change in plans also partially foiled the plans of protesters who were unhappy with the commencement speaker selection, conservative Gov. Greg Abbott. Although students planned to turn their backs on Abbott during his speech at Apogee, this wasn’t possible in the Coliseum because the chairs were linked together.
A few minutes after Abbott took to the podium, a group of about a dozen protesters sat in one of the top sections of the Coliseum and displayed banners that read “Abbott free UNT” and “Get the frack out of Denton,” as well as signs supporting immigrant, gay and transgender rights.
Within minutes, the group was asked to put the signs away, said Christy Medrano, a UNT student who was one of the protest organizers. Then, police escorted them out of the building.
Another organizer, Mario Ovalle, was participating in the ceremony as a graduate and stood up as soon as he noticed his friends being escorted out.
“I wanted to point people toward what the message was, as someone who was on the floor,” he said.
The protest organizers said they think the ceremony was poorly attended because of Abbott in addition to all of the changes. When they tried to recruit students to join their protest effort, many said their form of protest was non-attendance.
The crowd was also thin, with most of the upper-level sections completely empty, while the lower sections had large gaps of space, sometimes entire rows, that were not filled. The capacity of the Coliseum is 10,500.
Most of the students and guests who were in attendance were enthusiastic throughout the ceremony. As Abbott approached the podium, half a dozen students rose to applaud him, and Ovalle was the only student on the floor to ever turn his back on the governor.
Abbott kept the address brief, speaking about how he became paralyzed, even adding a joke about how slow he must have been jogging for a tree to fall on him.
“Our lives don’t have to be defined by our circumstances,” he told the audience.
By the time he concluded his address, almost the entire crowd was on their feet and cheering.
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.