Leafy Haverford College suddenly finds it has a commencement-speaker controversy, too — and less than 10 days to sort it out.
It started when the college invited Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, to speak and receive an honorary degree at the May 18 ceremony. Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students but also became controversial in 2011 when university police used force on students protesting the financial handling of the state’s higher education system.
“As a community standing in solidarity with nonviolent protestors across the country, we are extremely uncomfortable honoring you,” a group of 50 Haverford students and professors wrote in a letter to Birgeneau. "To do so would be a disservice to those nonviolent protesters who were beaten and whose actions you dismissed as “unfortunate,” as if they brought the abuse upon themselves.”
But, the group said, they would support his appearance if he meets nine demands, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims and writing a letter to Haverford students, explaining his position on the events and “what you learned from them.”
Birgeneau’s response? No way.
“First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands,” he wrote. “Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”
Picking commencment speakers has become increasingly divisive on college campuses. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday pulled out of giving Rutgers’ commencement speech after faculty and student protests. Last year, there was a problem at Swarthmore.
Haverford President Daniel H. Weiss, who has called a meeting of the Haverford community for 5 p.m. on Thursday to discuss the controversy, said he’s concerned with the students’ tactic of issuing demands to a speaker who was appropriately selected through the college’s process.
“The letter,” Weiss wrote to the students, “read more like a jury issuing a verdict than as an invitation to discussion or a request for shared learning.”
He said he's unsure whether Birgeneau will attend commencement.
Weiss called Birgeneau “one of the most influential and important higher education leaders in our generation.”
“It’s in that context that we want to honor him,” Weiss said.
Of the 2011 incident, Weiss said: “He accepted responsibility and he apologized.”
But Michael Rushmore, a senior, wasn't satisfied. He said he was shocked at Birgeneau’s response.
“He basically said screw you,” said Rushmore, 23, a political science major from London.
Students, he said, haven’t decided what they will do next. They don’t want to be disruptive at commencement, he said, but remain concerned that Birgeneau will be associated with it.
“The only way,” he said, “I want to be associated with Robert Birgeneau is in opposition to him.”