Graduation Season Becomes Dis-Invitation Season for College Speakers

May 16, 2014

By Madison Russ at Philadelphia Business Journal

From Rutgers to Brandeis to Smith College, the list of protests about college graduation speakers continues to grow — and Haverford College has joined the fray. Speaker Robert J. Birgeneau, a former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, withdrew from this weekend’s event.

Students objected Birgeneau’s invitation due to his role as chancellor during the Occupy Cal riots. Haverford students issued a list of demands to Birgeneau that included a formal apology for police violence towards protestors. During the 2011 riots, police allegedly beat students and professors with batons after protestors made a human chain.

Birgeneau, who already apologized for police violence in 2011, outright refused the list of demands in a letter stating: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

Haverford President, Daniel H. Weiss issued a statement to the campus that although he respected their opinions, “it is nonetheless deeply regrettable that we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education.”

The withdraw of Birgeneau comes on the heels of commencement controversy at Rowan University as well as several high profile withdraws: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s withdrawal from Rutgers University; First Lady Michelle Obama from Topeka high schools; women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Aliand from Brandeis University; and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde from Smith College.

It’s no secret that commencement can carry a hefty price tag, with some speakers making anywhere between $1,000 to $30,000, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The organization noted that Presidents and high-profile figures tend to bring in bigger dollars.

Rice, who was expected to make $35,000 for her appearance at Rutgers, withdrew publicly on Facebook after a series of protests and sit-ins among Rutgers students.

FIRE president Greg Lukianoff spoke out to the Wall Street Journal recently about the growing trends in graduation protests. According to the group, between 1987 and 2008 there have been 48 protests of planned speeches, not all for commencement, which led to 21 incidents of invited guest not speaking. Since 2009, there have been 95 protests resulting in 39 cancellations.

“I call it ‘dis-invitation’ season,” said Lukianoff.

Rowan University also attempted to oust their commencement speaker, New Jersey Gov.Chris Christie.

The petition to un-invite the New Jersey Governor gathered more than 2,800 signatures stating, “Rowan is historically a teachers’ college. No governor in N.J. history has been more adversarial to teachers and public education than Chris Christie.”

This year, Rowan will graduate its largest class ever with 2,300 undergraduates and 500 undergraduates. Nearly 20 percent of students are education majors, according to CollegeBoard.

James Castorina, 23, who will graduate with an MA from Rowan in Clinical Mental Health Counseling said he was, “not pleased” with the college’s choice. As an undergraduate at Rowan, Castorina was involved in several groups including student government.

Castorina feels that bringing national attention to a speaker who some feel is an enemy to education takes away from the students. He also noted that rumors have spread of potential protests and that education students may plan to turn their backs while Christie speaks.

In March, a group of Rowan students were removed from a Mt. Laurel town hall meeting where they heckled Christie over Sandy relief aid and the Bridgegate scandal.

Additionally, Castorina noted that he felt Rowan was “handling it poorly,” as several graduation missteps on behalf of the college such as changing the location of the commencement ceremony, lowering the ticket limit for graduation, and a new online system contributed to the “perfect storm,” of graduation animosity.

“There’s so many things that can go wrong,” said Castorina, “I’m honored he chose our school but there’s a lot of other baggage that comes with him, especially what’s been going on with him cutting higher education funding and grants.”

Castorina noted that even in the last year he has seen his own personal financial aid status cut in half, a move brought on by the Christie administration to cut education costs.

Rowan made strides in the last year becoming only one of three schools to attain state-recognized research status along with Rutgers and the New Jersey Institution of Technology.

As Rowan worked closely with Christie to attain the status, Castorina speculates that may be one of the reasons Rowan agreed to bring him on board. Rowan has not paid a commencement speaker since 1995.

Larry Litwin, a recently retired Professor who taught at Rowan for 42 years, also feels that the new status for Rowan “even the playing field with other universities.”

Litwin, who also has published a widely used textbook on public relations and spent 10 years at KYW Newsradio as education reporter, felt that the move to use Christie as a commencement speaker might have been related to the college’s burgeoning status.

“It’s unfortunate that the governor is controversial,” said Litwin. He also noted that having the head of the state, as a commencement speaker is typically, “a compliment to the university.”

With such national attention focusing on Rowan’s commencement, Litwin said he felt that not everyone would be surprised if Christie uses this opportunity to bring positive information about Rowan or even the region.

As Rowan’s undergraduate ceremony will commence on May 16th, it is anticipated that Christie will still speak at the event.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers