North Texas Daily

Smatresk talks commencement choice

Smatresk talks commencement choice

Smatresk talks commencement choice
April 30
00:03 2015

Rhiannon Saegert / News Editor

President Smatresk met with the Student Government Association at their weekly Wednesday meeting to discuss the details of how and why Gov. Greg Abbott was selected as the mass commencement keynote speaker.

Following student outcry over the choice of Abbott for commencement speaker, SGA created a resolution calling for the Distinguished Lecture Series committee to be involved in the selection process for commencement in the future. Smatresk addressed the SGA, relaying the story from start to finish and answering questions before the resolution was finalized and voted on.

Smatresk said commencement speaker booking costs and time were major factors in the choice.

“There’s a sweepstakes for big name speakers,” Smatresk said. “Negotiations usually begin a year before commencement.”

He said costs usually range between $50,000 and $100,000 for speakers, and the process has left him feeling somewhat cynical.

“How much money is it worth for you to hear a famous person say, ‘Great job class of 2015’ for 15 minutes?” Smatresk said. “I don’t actually know the answer.”

He said as commencement drew closer, the administration was beginning to feel pressured. When Abbott accepted the invitation in May, the commencement committee still had not found a speaker.

“Of all the universities he could have chosen, he chose to come here,” Smatresk said. “I value the opportunity to make a friend. We have a chance to make a friend with power who will listen to us.”

He said he had not expected the backlash the choice generated, but appealing to students was not part of his job.

“Would I like to have your input? Yes I would, but I think it’s an open question: At what cost?” Smatresk said. “I’m open to it, I’m inviting the dialogue and I’m happy to engage in it.”

Political science junior and SGA senator Billy Poer asked about rumors of Michael J. Fox speaking that had circulated at the beginning of the semester. Smatresk said tentative negotiations had begun, but no money was spent.

Anthropology and history senior and senator Mario Ovalle and integrative studies senior and senator Christy Medrano, both members of the Abbot Free UNT Coalition, asked questions during the Q & A portion of the meeting.

Ovalle brought up Abbott’s stances on marriage equality, immigration and education funding, asking if Abbott was an appropriate choice and whether LGBT and undocumented students would feel comfortable at commencement.

“Should we allow someone like Abbott to speak at commencement?” Ovalle said. “UNT has politicized commencement by bringing a very polarizing figure.”

Smatresk said Abbott’s politics were incidental to his role as commencement speaker, and the invitation was not tacit approval of his platform.

“Is it uncommon for universities to host political events? No,” Smatresk said. “We are an open forum for any political entity.”

He spoke about Wendy Davis’ campaign stop on campus last semester as a comparison.

“She was appealing to her base. Does that mean we picked or chose as a campus?” Smatresk said. “It doesn’t. The campus doesn’t take sides.”

Ovalle said he was not satisfied with the answer, given the number of students who told him they will not attend commencement while he petitioned against Abbott’s arrival.

“I do not think the president adequately addressed my question,” Ovalle said. “He called that reaction silly. I think that’s highly condescending to someone experiencing those struggles. If we want an inclusive and diverse campus we need to have inclusive and diverse events.”

Medrano asked how bringing Abbott as a speaker would open up a dialogue when he will only be at UNT for a brief time.

“I’m not defending him, but I think we have a chance to show the governor what we’re about,” Smatresk said. “He comes in, he talks, he spends some quality time with a few people and he leaves.”

Medrano said she felt the answer was true, but told her Abbott’s presence on campus was more about the relationship between the administration and the Texas legislature than the graduating student.

“It is disheartening that Smatresk would not consider these [LGBT and undocumented] communities when selecting a commencement speaker, especially because those particular students often had the most difficult path to graduation,” Medrano said.

She said the financial reasons given for selecting Abbott as the speaker did not ring true to her.

“I do not understand how Smatresk could put forth financial costs as a reason to bring Abbott when the administration already knew just how expensive a commencement speaker could be,” Medrano said.

The vote was postponed due to lack of senator attendance. The SGA currently plans to vote on the resolution electronically.

Featured Image: Gov. Gregg Abbott signs paperwork at his desk. Photo courtesy of his website. 

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