Reconsidering Commencement

An examination of the process to select the commencement speaker

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Derek Remsburg/File

Last semester, comedian Bill Maher ignited controversy upon being invited to deliver the fall commencement address. The campus quickly found itself embroiled in a heated debate about the limitations of free speech.

While national coverage surrounded Maher’s public opinions about Islam, a pressing question for Berkeley was how commencement day — a traditionally wholesome affair — turned into such a fiasco.

Maher’s opposition claimed that some of his previous statements constituted hate speech making him unfit to address the graduating class. Soon after, the Californians — a student organization of 50 members charged with selecting the speaker — voted to rescind Maher’s invitation to speak. The administration, nevertheless, stood by the invitation

Beginning with the private nature of Maher’s selection and working up to the administration’s decision to ignore a student group’s vote to rescind his invitation, the process that eventually brought Maher to commencement raised concerns about how the campus deals with commencement activities.

Though the protests around Maher arguably gained the most momentum, disinvitation attempts are familiar to the campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a “Disinvitation Report” last June that included a list of 263 disinvitation attempts between 2000 and 2014. Not including Maher, UC Berkeley made the list four times — first with protests against former secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000 and last with Attorney General Eric Holder at the UC Berkeley School of Law in 2013. Still, none of these disinvitation attempts resulted in an official rescission.

That being said, student protests against the selected speaker are not always the only factor behind commencement fiascos. In 2006 and 2007, both the confirmed speakers declined to give an address due to union picket lines.

Then-California Assembly speaker and labor union adviser Fabian Nunez was set to speak at the 2006 spring commencement. But come commencement day, union protests continued, and Nunez, an avid union supporter, refused to cross the picket line. Despite efforts on behalf of former chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Nunez and the national president of the union to momentarily halt the protest to allow Nunez to step onto campus, protesters persisted. At the last minute, Birgeneau was forced to deliver the address while Nunez toured the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The very next year, actor Danny Glover canceled a week before commencement in order to stand in solidarity with another union protest. Again, Birgeneau gave the address instead of Glover.

Despite the history of these types of incidents, it wasn’t until Maher that questions arose over how the process for selecting a commencement speaker actually works.

Officially, a subgroup of the the Californians — the Senior Class Council — has the authority to select the commencement speaker. The general outline of the group’s process consists of conducting a Facebook poll to see whom seniors might be interested in hearing. According to Steven Lai, the president of the Senior Class Council, the group then sends letters of inquiry to potential speakers, soon after which they confirm the chosen speaker with the chancellor and University Relations.

But critics contended that in Maher’s case, the process seems to be a largely insider affair without many checks and balances.

When asked to comment, the Californians neglected to give insight into their philosophy behind proposing potential speakers as well as where Maher ranked on this year’s poll. Despite the fact that the graduating class is composed of several thousand students, those involved in this process make the final call in private.

ASUC President Pavan Upadhyayula, among others in the ASUC, said he found the approach to be flawed.

“We (the ASUC) were taken aback by the process after the Maher incident,” Upadhyayula said. “It doesn’t seem as if there should be so much secrecy, but around our campus, it often seems that information is prized.”

Moreover, many involved in the process have questioned how much influence students really had in the selection of Maher. While the administration has made several public statements indicating that the Californians retain full control over the process, the administration was heavily involved in the selection of Maher, according to ASUC senator and current CalSERVE external affairs vice president candidate for Marium Navid.

The Californians did not initially bring Bill Maher to the table, Navid said. Instead, Helena Weiss-Duman, director of External Relations and Office of Protocol, independently proposed Maher to the Californians, who then provided approval. UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said he had no knowledge of the degree to which Weiss-Duman was involved.

Navid said that until she earned national media attention for her Change.org petition, which garnered more than 6,000 online signatures, she felt that the adminstration neglected to consider the concerns that she and others in opposition raised. As the conflict wore on, it no longer became a matter of rescinding Maher’s invitation and became, rather, a failure on part of the university and its leaders to explicitly recognize the opposition.

“After I hit that road block, I knew we were going to start a petition,” Navid said. “It was interesting to see the amount of reception I got from administrators after I started getting interviews with CNN.”

In a one-on-one meeting with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks shortly after the petition took flight, Navid said, Dirks agreed to release another statement — separate from the one that reaffirmed Maher’s selection. This statement was supposed to acknowledge that the concerns raised by the protesters were legitimate, to engage in a larger conversation about Islamophobia and to relate these issues to UC Berkeley’s campus climate.

If the purpose of this conversation was to appease her, Navid said it worked. For the time being, she kept quiet and pushed on the sidelines for the release of this supplementary statement. Despite her persistence, it was never released.

While there is something to be said for preserving confidentiality, the Californians group has been urged to amend its selection process. With the selection of the upcoming speaker and those thereafter, the Californians will now be obligated to run their decision by the ASUC executive board in order to mitigate potential concerns.

The main issue at hand, according to ASUC Student Advocate Rishi Ahuja, is to figure out how to actively survey a wider range of the senior class.

“How can we get a broader group of students to weigh in? And how are we pushing ourselves to reach out?” Ahuja said. “It’s especially important for this group, given the mission of trying to represent the senior class as a whole, to be proactive about this.”

Although the dispute behind Maher’s selection eventually became a discussion of free speech, it was also just as much a conversation about selective student authority in conjunction with the administration.

With a little more than two months left in the semester, the graduating class will be the first to see if these proposed changes will prove meaningful in the selection of the upcoming commencement speaker.

Adrianna Dinolfo is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]