Stanford University's 125th commencement on Sunday morning was typically joyous, celebratory and momentous, while also historical and at-times political, even contentious.
It was the final graduation ceremony for President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy in their current roles. Both are stepping down after more than a decade in their respective positions. Sunday also marked the university's 125th commencement, a milestone the university has been celebrating in various ways throughout the year.
Both Hennessy and the graduation keynote speaker, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, talked about the importance of appreciating history, urging graduates to balance past and present in order to better understand and impact the future.
Unavoidable at the ceremony were traces of the present moment -- particularly the national uproar over the sentencing of a former Stanford student, Brock Turner, for the sexual assault of an unconscious, intoxicated young woman on campus last year. The six-month jail sentence and three years' probation has been widely decried as too lenient, with people across the country mobilizing to recall the judge in the case, Aaron Persky.
Hennessy began the commencement with a moment of silence for survivors of sexual violence and victims of a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning. Later, he called the two Stanford graduate students who intervened and apprehended Turner that Jan. 18, 2015, night "heroes" and thanked them for "reminding us how to stand up for justice against violence."
Some graduating seniors taped to their caps white pieces of paper with "1/3" printed in black text, a reference to the number of women, gender non-conforming and transgender students who will have been sexually assaulted by the time they leave Stanford, according to a Stanford climate survey, said organizer and graduate Brianne Huntsman. Others walked through the traditional "Wacky Walk," among students in goofy costumes, carrying signs with messages like, "Rape is rape," "Brock Turner is not an exception" and "You are a warrior," the last a quote from an open letter Vice President Joe Biden wrote to the victim in the Turner case after a 12-page statement she wrote to the judge went viral.
As families and friends settled into their stadium seats before the ceremony, a plane carrying a banner that read "Protect survivors. Not rapists. #PerskyMustGo" flew in circles above their heads. The plane was commissioned by Ultra Violet, a Washington, D.C.-based women's rights organization.
At press check-in tables, sitting next to the commencement program were stacks of a recent press release Stanford put out detailing its "commitment to combating sexual violence."
Burns only addressed the topic briefly, pointedly telling graduates: "If someone tells you they've been sexually assaulted, take it effing seriously and listen to them."
"Maybe someday we will make the survivor's eloquent statement as important as Dr. (Martin Luther) King's letter from a Birmingham jail," he added.
To Huntsman, who has been involved with survivor advocacy efforts on campus for several years, graduation was an opportunity not to demand a longer sentence for Turner, but to educate others about the continuing issues on the ground at Stanford. While Turner was caught in the act, arrested, convicted and sentenced, other student-perpetrators remain on campus, Huntsman said.
Weighing the pros and cons of protesting at commencement, she and others decided: "This is the time do it because the world is watching Stanford," she said.
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the university respected students' right to protest.
"We support the fact that they're raising visibility to the issue," she told the Weekly.
Others were displeased with how the topic spilled over into what is supposed to be a day of celebration.
Senior Allie Koscov chose for her Wacky Walk costume a large posterboard she wore that read "Scapegoat," with the first letter the iconic, Cardinal red Stanford "S." A member of Stanford's judicial panel pool, she defended the university's handling of the case, which was to ban Turner from campus, conduct a police investigation and forward it to the district attorney's office.
Any blame placed on Stanford is misplaced, Koscov said. To her, it was "disgraceful" and "disgusting" that others "co-opted" graduation to protest the sentencing.
"This is supposed to be a celebration of our achievements," she told reporters.
"It's made (graduation) really politically charged when it's not supposed to be," she added. "Parents are here and instead of talking about our accomplishments -- not saying that they have to -- the topic of dinner conversation last night was Brock Turner. The topic this morning was 'Stanford rape case.' This isn't what I want to be defined as and I don't think it's what my fellow classmates want to be defined as."
As a protester chanted loudly outside one of the stadium gates, a student walking by wondered to his friend, "Is this really the time and place?"
Other students asked to be interviewed following the ceremony declined to speak if they were going to be asked "inflammatory" questions.
Paul Harrison, a graduate from London, England, carried a sign reading "Rape is rape." He said the day was still a celebration, despite any protest.
"I think we're all really proud to have graduated from this incredible university. I just think that the actions of the few affect the many. Us here, doing this, says a lot about an active, mobilized community of students," he said.
The protesters were scattered among the usual jubilant, quirky and creative costumes of the Wacky Walk: students dressed as animals, cups of coffee, superheroes, astronauts; smartphone emojis; Mario Kart characters; a group of girls dressed as The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy holding signs that read, "There's no place like Stanford."
Burns gave an impassioned speech about history, memory and politics. (Read the full text of it here.)
"I am in the business of memorializing, of history," he told the graduating class. "It is not always a popular subject on college campuses today, particularly when at times it may seem to some an anachronistic and irrelevant pursuit ... it is my job, however, to remind people the story, memory, anecdote, feeling, of the power our past also exerts to help us better understand what's going on now.
"It is my job to try to discern patterns and themes through history to enable us to interpret our dizzying and sometimes dismaying present."
He went on to note moments in history, small and large, personal and global from the moment he saw his own mother crying after neighbors, who heard about her struggle with medical insurance in wake of a cancer diagnosis, collected $120 to give to the family, to 1858, when Abraham Lincoln was elected as candidate for the U.S. and made his now-famous statement, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Burns said he has spent his "entire professional life trying to resurrect small moments within the larger sweep of American history," like these.
"The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which you can observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us," he said.
And the nation's house is again divided against itself, Burns said, pointing to the current presidential election. He had strong, unapologetic words for the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, whom he never named explicitly but described as an "infantile, bullying man" who makes "phony, bombastic and contradictory promises" and behaves like a "spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert."
"He is an insult to our history," Burns said, urging graduates to take action.
"Before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house; to fight against no matter your political persuasion the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much-maligned but subtle art of governance," Burns said.
Burns ended his speech with other more typical nuggets of wisdom for graduates: "Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul every day. ... Don't confuse success with excellence. ... Bite off more than you can chew. ... Do not lose your enthusiasm."
Others included: read, travel, vote and and make babies.
In his closing remarks, Hennessy honored the impact Etchmendy's 16 years of service have had on the campus, from boosting financial aid to capital improvements to faculty diversity.
He ended with a meta-historical reference, quoting remarks that Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, gave to the class of 1905 remarks Hennessy quoted in his own first-ever commencement speech in 2001.
"Whatever you have acquired should be an impulse to action," Jordan said. "There is no virtue in knowledge, in training, in emotion or in aspiration except as you use them in the conduct of life."
"As you leave, I hope you carry with you a strong determination to make your own contribution to a better world, and to exemplify the best of the Stanford spirit," Hennessy continued. "Make us proud; I know you will."