Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker discussed public policy and civic engagement at Tufts last night in an event repeatedly disrupted by a number of student protesters.
The event, a part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series, began after 7 p.m. in Distler Performance Hall, which holds 300 people. The event was sold out, but about 180 people attended, one-third of whom walked out of the venue during three separate-but-coordinated protests.
Following opening remarks by University President Anthony Monaco, Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont began the event by considering the nature of civic engagement, mentioning that in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have felt a resurgence of civic passions.
“The new eagerness to participate in our democracy also comes with a sense of trepidation about engaging with others with whom they have profound differences,” Solomont said. “How do we have productive conversations in such a polarized political environment? When do we stand our ground to fight for our beliefs and when do we compromise in search of common ground? How do we move forward together?”
In a conversation facilitated by Solomont, Baker began by talking about the changes he has seen during his more than two decades in state government, particularly after he became governor in 2015.
“The number of times we spent [during the campaign] talking about the MBTA in particular — if it got 15 minutes, I’d be surprised,” Baker said. “And yet that became in some respects one of the most overwhelming issues of the first two years of our administration.”
Fewer than five minutes after Baker had begun, students spoke out. As Solomont was asking Baker a question, about 25 students throughout the auditorium stood up and began to chant “No ban. No wall. Sanctuary for us all.”
As the chants continued, banners from the two upper stands unfurled reading “BAKER: PROTECT OUR IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES.” Then, two students who had started the disruption asked Baker in unison if he would declare Massachusetts a sanctuary state.
“No,” Baker responded, “and I’ll tell you why.”
Before Baker could give his response, the chants started up again and the protesters marched out of the auditorium. They gathered outside of the building, where they continued to protest the event.
Parker Breza, a sophomore who helped organize the protest with Tufts Student Action (TSA), said the walkout was meant to present Tufts as unified against Baker.
“We wanted to come together as a big group to show the variety of issues that Governor Baker’s policies are impacting, and let Tufts University know that we’re not going to be complacent and give a platform to a politician that’s harming our community,” he said.
Once the hall had quieted down, Baker explained that his resistance to making Massachusetts a sanctuary state, which would effectively mean that law enforcement agencies in the state would not work alongside federal immigration officials to carry out deportations, was grounded in his belief that the decision should be a local one.
Calling the sanctuary issue “a difficult one,” Baker said that the most important thing he could do as governor is “remember that [he’s] not the only part of government that matters.”
“I don’t want to take away the right of duly-elected local officials to make the decisions that they believe are in the best interests of serving and supporting people who live in [their] communities,” Baker said.
After Solomont and Baker returned to their discussion, Baker talked about how he grew up in a politically-divided household. He said that watching his mother, a liberal, and his father, a conservative, talk through their differences was enlightening.
“If you’re not willing to listen to people who don’t spout the same thing you do all the time, you miss out on a chance to learn and to grow from the life experiences and the points of view that other people bring to bear,” he said.
Solomont and Baker touched on Baker’s popularity in Massachusetts, despite the fact that the state is dominated by Democratic politicians. Baker said that, by working with his political adversaries on Beacon Hill, he could find common ground.
The event was again disrupted by about 15 additional protesters who chanted “This administration is against education.” They demanded that Baker not cut funds to public education, to which Baker responded that he has never done so.
After the protesters cleared the auditorium, Solomont noted that the purpose of the Distinguished Speaker Series is to expose students to important public figures.
“And I wish that more of our students would listen,” Solomont said.
Later in the event, Solomont said he believed many young Americans had lost faith in politics because of last year’s presidential election.
In response, Baker said that it was important to remember that “there are things that happen every single day in government that are positive.”
One of the programs Baker offered as proof was Massachusetts’ efforts to fight back against the opioid epidemic. He said that he had heard many stories of opioid-related deaths from constituents across the state and directed his staff to research the trend.
“This needs to be something that we chase, and we chase hard,” Baker said.
As part of the fight against opioid abuse, he mentioned a number of bipartisan state regulations promoting opioid education and requiring prescription writers to take a course in pain management.
“For the first time in the last 18 years, the total number of opioid prescriptions written in Massachusetts went down by 15 percent last year,” Baker said.
As Solomont moved the discussion into the student question section, a third group of protesters, numbering about 15, again disrupted the event with chants demanding racial and economic justice in Massachusetts. They asked Baker to commit to stopping the militarization of the police.
Baker responded that, while he was unsure of what the students meant by the question, he was proud of the state’s treatment of local protests since Baker became governor, which he said have never resulted in any violent confrontations.
Following the event, the students who had walked out gathered outside of Distler and chanted. Students’ opinions of the event, and the intervening protests, were mixed.
Organizers from Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) and TSA said in a press release that the walkout was planned in response to a number of Baker’s policies, including his opposition to the Safe Communities Act, which would prevent police in Massachusetts from working with federal immigration officials.
“While in office so far, Governor Baker has attempted to prevent Syrian refugees from living in Massachusetts, threatened to prevent undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition or driver’s licenses and is trying to cut funding from family planning services and public schools,” the press release said.
Lupita Rodriguez, a sophomore who helped organize the protest as a co-president of UIJ, said she is hopeful that the university will not host Baker again.
“Tufts shouldn’t support politicians — or not even just politicians — but people that oppress these communities,” she said, referring to marginalized groups she felt were the target of Baker’s policies.
Robert Whitehead, a first-year and vice president of Tufts Republicans, said that he had “never been more ashamed to be a student at Tufts.” His views were echoed by George Behrakis, the club’s president.
“Of all of the people to protest, you protest one of the most moderate governors, in a state [considered Democratic],” Behrakis, a first-year, said. “I think its sad that we can’t even listen to each other.”
In contrast, Benjamin Kaplan, president of Tufts Democrats, said that he was “happy to go to a university where students have the space to voice their opinions.”
Kaplan, a senior, said that he thought that Baker had deflected the student’s questions rather than answering them outright.
“Charlie didn’t answer the concerns of those students,” Kaplan said. “He is unable to address the concerns of those students because at the end of the day, he is a conservative governor who hides behind the veneer of a couple of moderate social positions to push a really conservative agenda.
Protester Katie Saviano spoke of her personal reasons to attend the walkout.
“For me specifically, Charlie Baker is part of the larger Republican administration that I’m currently really frustrated with,” Saviano, a senior, said. “I think that seeing him on campus and giving him a voice is saying that Tufts students are okay with the kinds of policies that a Republican administration is putting forward especially in relation to immigration, education and racial justice.”
In an interview with the Daily after the event, Solomont stressed Baker’s commitment to public service.
“He chose to do this because he believes in the role of government in serving the public, and we want to present examples of people who are doing that so that we, as students and faculty, can learn how our democracy works,” Solomont said.
Solomont said that he understood the students’ passions, which he similarly felt when he was a student at Tufts.
“But I think that what is missing in our dialogue is being willing to listen to people with whom either we think we have differences or we do.” he said. “Democracy is by definition about differences. When there’s only one point of view, you don’t have a democracy.”
Catherine Perloff contributed reporting to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified sophomore Lupita Rodriguez as junior Lupita Estela Rodriguez. The Daily regrets this error.