Haverford students protest invitation of Birgeneau as commencement speaker

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Haverford College students are protesting the invitation of former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau to speak at their commencement Sunday, citing their disagreement with his actions as chancellor during Occupy Cal in 2011.

Upon the April announcement that Birgeneau would be invited to speak and also be given an honorary degree, a group of 50 students and professors drafted a letter of protest to Birgeneau. They insisted that in order for him to speak at the ceremony, he had to meet nine conditions, including taking responsibility for his actions during the Occupy Cal protests.

Birgeneau — who was chancellor from 2004 to 2013 — has been criticized for his handling of the Occupy Cal movement in November 2011, in which he allegedly condoned police brutality on students peacefully protesting proposed tuition increases. At other times, Birgeneau has been recognized for his support of the LGBT community and undocumented students.

Although Birgeneau issued a public apology in 2011 regarding the Occupy protests, some Haverford students found it insufficient.

“It is one thing to invite Birgeneau to come here and speak as an academic (in the classroom setting),” said Michael Rushmore, a Haverford College senior who was involved in drafting the letter. “But, it is very different to give him an honor and tell him that he represents our college’s values.”

College president Daniel Weiss criticized the letter’s tone, saying “the letter reads like that of a jury issuing a verdict.” Birgeneau also released a short response to the letter implying that the demands were “untruthful” and “violent verbal attacks,” emphasizing his longtime advocacy for civil rights.

Weiss called for an open forum at Haverford on Thursday, where approximately 100 students, faculty and the members of the Honorary Degree Committee that selected Birgeneau to speak gathered to discuss the controversy.

At the meeting, committee members explained the process of selecting commencement speakers, and students had the chance to directly express their opinions on the situation. At the forum, Rushmore read a letter from Amanda Armstrong, a UC Berkeley graduate student who described the violence at the Occupy Cal protests as unwarranted.

“We all continue to carry psychic, and in some cases physical, scars from November 9, 2011,” Armstrong said in the letter.

Rushmore was satisfied with the outcome of the forum, saying that the committee members and president genuinely took their concerns into account.

Despite the meeting’s success, Birgeneau’s invitation was not rescinded. If Birgeneau attends the ceremony, Rushmore and other students plan to protest at the event.

“(It is not our goal) to ruin people’s commencement,” Rushmore said. “At the same time, however, we want to make it very clear that there is a large portion of the student body that doesn’t support him receiving an honorary degree.”


Contact Becca Benham at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beccabenhamdc.