President Donald Trump gave his first commencement speech as president at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian school, doing little to curb a recent trend toward politicization in graduation day remarks.
“I accepted this invitation a long time ago,” Trump on Saturday told graduates at the school whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., was among the first leaders in the white evangelical community to endorse him despite intense pushback from many students, faculty and alumni. “I said to Jerry that I'd be there, and when I say something I mean it.”
The president’s address to the Class of 2017 was filled with the typical calls to “have the courage to chase our dreams” and commit to a life of service. But, unlike sitting presidents of the past, it was also rife with political commentary and at times mirrored his campaign speeches.
“In my short time in Washington, I've seen firsthand how the system is broken,” Trump said, bemoaning the political establishment. “A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone, want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think.”
He also profusely thanked the graduates, families and faculty for the swell of evangelical support on Election Day, which wasn’t a foregone conclusion for his campaign.
“I want to thank you, because, boy, did you come out and vote, those of you that are old enough – in other words, your parents,” he said. “Boy, oh boy, you voted. You voted.”
Commencement speakers have historically included college and university presidents, prominent faculty members, editors and journalists of news outlets, leaders and ambassadors of foreign countries, celebrities, heads of hospitals and successful businesses, mayors, governors, senators, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices and past and sitting presidents.
But this year has seen a heightened politicization that comes as campuses are also reeling over issues of free speech and struggling to walk a line between preserving free speech and acting as a space that showcases a variety of ideas, while at the same time protecting students – particularly those in demographic groups who may feel marginalized or threatened by the ideas espoused by a group or speaker.
Case in point: As Trump spoke to the Liberty University crowd in Lynchburg, Virginia, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address at Notre Dame University in Indiana, which typically hosts newly elected presidents to address graduates but changed course this year after more than 3,000 students, faculty and alumni signed a petition against inviting Trump.
The previous announcement of the Pence pick also garnered criticism. But when students took to Twitter to explain why they opposed the decision using the hashtag #notmycommencementspeaker, the plan backfired as conservatives seized on the campaign, overwhelming the hashtag with responses that resulted in the effort going viral.
Notre Dame wasn’t the only school to make scheduling changes. Texas Southern University canceled Saturday’s graduation speech less than 24 hours before the event, which had been slated to feature Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from the Lone Star State and the second-highest ranking GOP member in the Senate, after students there vowed to protest the event.
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The announcement came just days after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos slogged through a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, another historically black school, where she faced down a cacophony of boos and addressed throngs of graduates who stood and turned their back to the podium in protest.
Meanwhile, at the commencement ceremony at Howard University, also a historically black college, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., slammed the Trump administration’s stance on immigration and health care and its impact on the justice system.
The weekend’s events were the latest in an evolving and contentious relationship between historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and Republicans, particularly the Trump administration. But they also highlight the politicized nature of this year’s graduation ceremonies, which in many cases have been heavy on partisan politics.
That’s not to say that politicians of the past haven’t touted their policy agendas.
“I think graduation speeches have long been a place in which people felt free to make points of political or cultural nature,” says Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University.
It was during Harvard University’s commencement address in 1947, for example, when then-Secretary of Defense George Marshall laid out the post-World War I European Aid Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan. And while it was not a commencement speech, Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech took place at Westminster College in Fulton, Mississippi.
“But I think, in general, everybody is less decorous than 15 or 20 years ago,” Grafton adds. “There’s more willingness to make negative comments about rivals and more willingness to make statements that have a clear political resonance.”
Indeed, Trump’s speech was not the only one with increased political undertones. Former President Bill Clinton spoke Sunday at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where he did not mention Trump by name but railed against his administration’s immigration policies and underscored the dangers of isolating certain groups of people, including Muslims.
“Historically, the references to the current political climate have been indirect, not direct,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of its Annenberg Public Policy Center. “So you see comments you could interpret in the context of the news agenda of the moment and you know that there is a second meaning being articulated.”
That changed, she says, in 2016, when Obama spoke to the graduating class at Rutgers University, where he attacked Trump – without naming him – for his proposal to build a wall along the southern border between the United States and Mexico and for divisive proposals related to Muslims.
“In that context, Trump at Liberty is picking up on the Obama change and then magnifying the change dramatically,” Jamieson says. “He’s essentially thanking their community for voting for him, celebrating the extent of his victory and, in another deviation in the past, a whole block of that speech is delivered contemporaneously without a teleprompter by ad-libbing.”
None of it has surprised Jamieson, she says.
“You don’t expect him to honor the conventions of any genre,” she says, “because he has one dominant mode of address: the ad lib campaign speech.”
To be sure, the invitation to politicians on both sides of the aisle has generated pushback in the past. At Notre Dame, for example, students protested former President Barack Obama’s address in 2009, as well as the awarding of the Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics, to then-Vice President Joe Biden at the graduation ceremony for the class of 2016.
Commencement speeches typically focus on the state of the economy into which the graduating class is about to enter.
“They tell you these are really difficult times, but you will overcomes them, or that this is a wonderful time and there are endless opportunities,” Jamieson says. “But lots of speeches this year are referencing current political times in ways they haven’t in the past. The country is preoccupied with this unusual presidency.”