Ben Kessler (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
A university honor student who called his fellow seniors “selfish” during a politically charged commencement speech issued an apology for causing offense.
Ben Kessler, an academic All-America football player at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., scolded students for using birth control, criticized a recent food fight and backed the Catholic school’s policy of barring unmarried faculty and staff in romantic relationships from rooming together on school trips that include students, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Graduating senior Daphne Ho told the paper Kessler then “got into other failures of society, and one of my classmates next to me stood up and left.”
A number of other students walked out as Kessler, who plans to become a priest, was showered with boos and heckling during the 15-minute speech, attended by more than 900 graduates, Archbishop Harry Flynn and other dignitaries.
Some students cried and other yelled to get Kessler off the stage, the Star Tribune said.
Kessler, 21, said he intended in his speech to look back and forward at some of the issues confronting the university and society.
“Instead of providing hope for all, I offended some by my words,” Kessler said in a statement released by the university. “I sincerely apologize to each person I offended.”
Kessler – selected to speak by a vote of students, staff and faculty – graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, majoring in philosophy and business.
Senior Chris Kearney said Kessler “started out pretty well and then, out of nowhere, comes these bombshells about things he’d seen that irritated him.”
“The heart of the speech was about making selfish decisions, so when I went up to get my diploma afterwards, I told him he made some good points about being selfish – and he’s the man that was selfish enough to ruin hundreds of people’s graduations,” Kearney told the Star Tribune.
When the birth control issue came up, dozens of students started walking out, said Brandon Mileski, a 2002 St. Thomas graduate who watched his girlfriend receive her diploma.
At one point, Mileski said, “I thought a riot would break out. I give him credit because he kept on going when everyone started booing and heckling.”
When Kessler talked about the meaning of true happiness, someone stood up and screamed, “I’ll be happy when your speech in done!” according to Mileski
St. Thomas’ president, Rev. Dennis Dease, said he has accepted Kessler’s apology and regrets people were offended.
“I have shared my sentiments with Mr. Kessler that it was not appropriate for him to use the commencement exercise as a venue to express his opinions on several issues,” Dease said.
But Dease said it’s also important “to treat one another with respect as we speak and as we listen, regardless of how controversial an issue may be.”
St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said the administration hasn’t cleared speeches ahead of time because it’s never been an issue. The Tommie of the Year usually congratulates the seniors and wishes them well.