Amid controversy, Robert Birgeneau declines to speak at Haverford commencement

In 2007, former chancellor Robert Birgeneau forgave $31 million of Cal Athletics’ debt owed to the campus.
Karen Ling/File
In 2007, former chancellor Robert Birgeneau forgave $31 million of Cal Athletics’ debt owed to the campus.

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Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has declined to speak at the Haverford College commencement ceremony Sunday, after protest from students who disagree with how Birgeneau responded to police’s use of force toward protesters during Occupy Cal protests in 2011.

Haverford College President Daniel Weiss announced Tuesday that Birgeneau had declined the invitation to come to the Pennsylvania campus to speak and also receive an honorary degree. After the announcement of the invitation in April, 50 students and professors drafted a letter asking the former chancellor to not speak unless he met nine conditions, including a demand that he take more responsibility for his actions during the Occupy Cal protests.

“The Board of Managers, campus colleagues, and I express our appreciation for the views of those who were opposed to Dr. Birgeneau’s selection,” Weiss said in the statement. “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.”

Last week, Weiss held a forum to discuss the controversy regarding Birgeneau’s selection. Members of the committee who had selected him listened to protesters’ concerns but did not decide to withdraw the invitation.

Michael Rushmore, a Haverford College senior who helped write the letter to Birgeneau, called the decision to decline the commencement invitation “plan B.” Rushmore said he would have preferred that Birgeneau addressed the letter’s demands.

“We’re in the same place we were three weeks ago,” Rushmore said. “Ideally, we would have moved forward, and he would have moved forward.”

Outrage erupted over police’s use of batons during a Nov. 9 protest in 2011. Birgeneau, along with other campus administrators, said in an email after the incident that protesters did not act in nonviolent civil disobedience when they linked arms to obstruct police officers. He later apologized for what happened during the event and said he took full responsibility.

Birgeneau has also been lauded for his support of LGBT rights and undocumented students. He expressed disappointment, Weiss’s statement said, at missing a chance to address the plight of undocumented immigrants.

Haverford College will now have three speakers at commencement: poet Elizabeth Alexander, former Princeton University president William Bowen and environmental protection advocate Fred Krupp.
Rushmore said he does not agree with every view of the three other speakers but nonetheless finds no need to protest them.

“There’s been this characterization of these young liberals who can’t accept anybody,” Rushmore said. “(Birgeneau) is one person who we couldn’t accept.”

Melissa Wen is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.