Amid protest, Haverford graduation speaker withdraws

Robert J. Birgeneau was Calif. chancellor.
Robert J. Birgeneau was Calif. chancellor.
Posted: May 15, 2014

Haverford College's commencement controversy ended Tuesday when speaker Robert J. Birgeneau withdrew amid protest.

The former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, had been scheduled to speak at Haverford on Sunday and receive an honorary degree. More than 40 Haverford students and three professors - all Cal alums - objected to his appearance.

Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students, but he became controversial in 2011 when university police used force on students who, as part of the Occupy movement, held nonviolent protests over college costs.

In an e-mail to the campus, Haverford president Daniel H. Weiss said he appreciated the views of Haverford students.

But he added: "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."

Selecting commencement speakers has become increasingly divisive across the country.

This month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of Rutgers University's commencement after faculty and students mounted a campaign against her appearance, citing her role in the Iraq war. Last year, Swarthmore College's speaker bowed out.

At Haverford, protesters urged Birgeneau in a letter to meet nine conditions, 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 declined.

Senior Michael Rushmore, 23, a political science major from London, said he wished Birgeneau had met at least some of the conditions and appeared at commencement.

"Given that he was unwilling to do any of that, this is a minor victory in solidarity with the students at Berkeley, and I'll take that," he said.

Haverford has three other commencement speakers, so Birgeneau will not be replaced, said spokesman Chris Mills.


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