Meeting with Haverford president fails to resolve commencement controversy

Posted: May 11, 2014

Haverford College president Daniel H. Weiss met Thursday with students and faculty opposed to the school's commencement speaker, Robert J. Birgeneau.

Birgeneau is the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, where in 2011 university police clashed with students who were protesting the cost of college.

With a little more than a week before graduation, no consensus was reached, but, "it was one of the best experiences I've had at Haverford," said senior Michael Rushmore, who stirred the controversy when he wrote a letter to Birgeneau objecting to his appearance that was signed by 50 students and teachers.

Three faculty, all Berkeley alums, signed the letter, and several others at the meeting were critical of the college's choice to speak at commencement on May 18, Rushmore said.

About 100 people attended the meeting in Founders Hall.

The students' strongly worded letter to Birgeneau asked him to meet nine conditions - among them publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for victims, and explaining his actions in writing to Haverford students - in order for students to support his appearance.

In an equally blunt letter, Birgeneau declined to address the demands. A call to Birgeneau was not returned.

Weiss criticized the tone of the letter and called Birgeneau "one of the most influential and important higher education leaders in our generation."

The former chancellor is known for supporting access to higher education for minority and undocumented students.

In an e-mail on Friday, Weiss said it was time to reflect on how what was discussed at the meeting "can inform our path forward."

Rushmore, 23, said he didn't see how the letter could be viewed as harsh because "We aren't the people in power here. We said 'We hope you do these things and, look, if you do some of these things we can talk. If you don't do these things, we as a group of students and faculty will ask the school to rescind the invitation.' "

Maud McInerny, chair of the English Department and one of the Berkeley grads who signed the letter, said, "I think in view of the offenses that took place during the Occupy Cal protest, Chancellor Birgeneau is not really an appropriate speaker for a college with a Quaker heritage and a long commitment to anti-violence."

On Nov. 9, 2011, Berkeley students attempted to build an Occupy encampment on campus to protest the financial handling of the state's higher education system and were stopped by campus police and local sheriff's deputies in riot gear.

Birgeneau issued a statement saying the students' actions were "not non-violent civil disobedience."

Faculty and students later circulated a petition condemning Birgeneau's actions and expressed no confidence in the chancellor and other administrators.

If Birgeneau does show up, Rushmore said, students will not disrupt the ceremony but will make their feelings known by wearing buttons and engaging in some symbolic gesture.

"My grandmother is coming in from Oklahoma, and I don't think she would appreciate if I got kicked out of commencement regardless of my personal beliefs about this guy," he said.


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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