On Nov. 5, 2021, alumnus Robert Agostinelli was invited to Aquinas Institute to talk to students. A select group of us were invited to listen to his talk because of our leadership positions in the school. We were led to believe that this would be a speech about his business success, as were the Aquinas administration.
Our first impression of Robert Agostinelli and his wife was that they entered the school building not wearing masks, ignoring a state mandate that applies to all students and guests. Within the first five minutes of his speech, he began to go off script by sharing his own personal and political beliefs, which included various hurtful comments towards discriminated communities. One of the first offending comments was calling members of the LGBTQ+ community “disgusting.” One of us is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and this comment hurt deeply. We began to feel uncomfortable but stayed.
Later in the speech, he called the Black Lives Matter movement a “Marxist organization”; that was when we decided to respectfully walk out. People have varying levels of tolerance and thresholds of being personally attacked and offended, and we had reached our limit. We got up briskly and quietly, trying not to disrupt anyone who was interested in the speech. It became a scene when Robert Agostinelli made a comment towards our actions, interrupting his own speech and said, “These ladies are walking out … I hope you’re going to class … but maybe not.” When he called us out in front of hundreds of students, it’s possible that others didn’t then feel confident enough to leave.
For the opposing viewpoint see: Aquinas should teach how to think, not what to think by Alex Kennedy
Read more about how the rift surfaced between parents and alumni: The culture wars come to Aquinas
It’s been said that when we walked out, we were being disrespectful, but we believe that part of building personal strength and character is to understand when you are being hurt and leave the situation. The way that this speech was set up, with a speaker on the stage, there was no opportunity for dialogue, which gave us no choice but to leave.
Robert Agostinelli was preaching so-called traditional Catholic beliefs. It is clear that he contradicts himself with his personal views and ethics (he’s been divorced at least once), and the ethics of his business success that seem based on tearing other people down. During his speech, he said that to be successful, you cannot be “all kumbaya.” These facts should make others question whether this man is truly in line with Christian values of goodness and kindness.
Not only did Robert Agostinelli’s comments offend us, but in the following weeks, we’ve been hurt that a large portion of students, parents, and alumni supported his message through a petition. This shows a big division in our school community.
There are calls to “restore” Aquinas back to what it was 50 years ago when Robert Agostinelli attended the school. A picture of his graduating class of 1972 would likely show white males, with no women and very few people of color (if any). There are people saying that Aquinas is going down a bad path of being “leftist” or “woke.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, woke is “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Societal change happens over time. The Aquinas of today is striving to create a school community that is more diverse and open to students, no matter their sex, race, sexual orientation, or political beliefs. We are grateful that Aquinas is attempting to become a more welcoming place, embracing the real Christian values of love and acceptance.
Our friend Mia (who also walked out with us that day), put it best when she said:
“As one of the few students to walk out on that speech, I’m concerned by the number of people wholeheartedly backing a man and woman who came to a Catholic high school to spread a message of hate. Nobody should be forced to sit through a direct verbal attack condemning them to hell. As for the ‘Christian values’ we were supposedly being taught? Real Christian values should absolutely be taught in such an institution. I find it incredibly hard to believe that Christ himself would not support Black Lives Matter and acceptance of all genders and sexualities.”
Sadie Ackley and Taylor Windheim are seniors at Aquinas Institute.