The battle for a drama-free graduation: What universities can learn from Wake Forest

By Erin Kelly

Raleigh, NC – You are about to begin the best four years of your life” is a phrase frequently told to high school seniors upon graduating. While this is true for most of us, the four years that students spend at a university are challenging. You’re balancing 18 credit hours a semester, homework, exams, trying to gain valuable work experience, trying to make time to see your family, all while attempting to maintain some resemblance of a social life with your friends. Oh, and in case you forgot, there was a pandemic. 

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Don’t get me wrong; I know that attending a four-year university is a privilege, not a requirement, and that I’m voluntarily putting myself in debt. But when it’s over, I’d like for the day to be about graduating, not a foreign war that the university has no say in. 

The graduating class of 2024 is a group that especially deserves a day of celebration because they were also the class of 2020. They already received no high school graduation due to Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 shut downs, and now they are being overshadowed once again by individuals that not all students support. 

College students protesting things that they know little to nothing about is not a new concept. We’ve seen it in almost every generation, and this set of students is no exception. Three out of North Carolina’s most prominent universities — UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, and Duke University — have seen disruptions during graduation ceremonies this year. Wake Forest, on the other hand, implemented sufficient protocols to prevent political demonstrations during the ceremony. 

An announcement was sent out to students and attendees, as well as posted to their school’s website, stating that all students, faculty, and attendees would be subject to a security scan upon arrival, and items such as flags, signs, and air horns would be prohibited. 

NC State on the other hand saw protests just like the other universities and couldn’t be bothered to put out a statement or send an email, let alone buff up their security. As a result, the Poole College of Management saw protestors at their graduation that even sparked a physical altercation in the audience between attendees.

While UNC Chapel Hill sent out an email prior to the event stating that they wanted to ensure that “Commencement will be a joyous day for them and their loved ones…”, they did little to nothing the day of to make good on their promises. The only additional policies adopted for this year’s graduation was a clear bag policy for all guests. Following the trend, Chapel Hill saw large protest demonstrations by students pulling out an oversized Palestinian flag and booing Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts.

My question would be, why are universities with sufficient funding and resources not implementing the same policies Wake Forest did to ensure that the day remained one of celebration and not controversy? While most universities put out statements stating that they wanted to avoid the protests “if possible,” Wake Forest is the only one that put their money where their mouth is. 

In case we have forgotten, a considerable number of students at major North Carolina universities are a part of the Jewish community, as is, Duke University’s commencement speaker, Jerry Seinfeld. So, naturally, many Duke students got up and walked out in protest of him. Do these individuals not deserve the same respect on their day, that everyone else does? I can guarantee that neither Jerry Seinfeld nor these 22-year-old students are ordering air strikes. 

Free speech is one of the most important foundational freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, but like everything else, there is a time and a place. Some would be naive enough to describe the protests as students expressing themselves and standing up for what they believe in. But at the end of the day, it’s just another inconsiderate and selfish act that universities are allowing — an act that deprived many students of their second and final chance at a drama-free graduation ceremony.


Erin Kelly was a spring 2024 intern with the John Locke Foundation. She also interned in the office of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Erin is in the 2025 graduating class at NC State University, pursuing a BA in Political Science concentrated in law and justice and minoring in criminology.