A history of controversial commencement speakers

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Maz Jobrani was so excited to be invited to give a speech at the campus’s spring 2017 commencement ceremony that he accepted the offer right away — but as the date approached, he “began to lose sleep.”

Jobrani, an Iranian-American comedian and campus alumnus, joins the high-profile list of guest speakers that have been invited to address the campus this year. Some of these speakers, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, were met by enough protests to eventually cancel their planned addresses entirely.

Jobrani stated he believes his invitation has been able to escape controversy because his career is built on comedy first, rather than the intention to be provocative.

“I’m just doing my thing,” Jobrani said. “If that garners attention, that’s a derivative of my actual career. If you’re looking for controversy, you create controversy. The Milos and Ann Coulters are the Kim Kardashians of the political world. I’m just trying to be funny.”

Past commencements have also invited speakers to less backlash, such as campus public policy Robert Reich and Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer, who spoke at the winter 2015 and winter 2016 commencements, respectively. This is not always the case, however.

In October 2014, Bill Maher, host of HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” was announced by the campus as the 2014 campus winter commencement ceremony speaker. Amid student backlash over Maher’s criticisms against liberals for not condemning Islam, the student group who invited Maher, The Californians, voted to rescind their invitation.

In response, campus administration overruled The Californians’ vote and upheld the invitation, stating that the group’s decision appeared to have been “based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs.” Students protested peacefully during Maher’s speech, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, without interfering the commencement ceremony itself.

“More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative,” a campus statement released at the time of The Californians’ decision read.

Khwaja Ahmed, a campus alumnus and one of the authors of the student petition to prevent Maher’s commencement speech, said the primary difference between the commencement speakers and speakers such as Yiannopoulos and Coulter is who’s extending invitations and with what intentions. The administration, Ahmed said, only invites speakers to promote the campus name and provide a good time.

“Maher was not meant to ruffle any feathers,” Ahmed said. “(Commencement speakers) are just meant to make a big show. He’s a big name and he makes people laugh. With the (Berkeley) College Republicans, I think they have an agenda.”

Some campus community members responded to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s invitation to speak at the spring 2015 commencement with claims that he was too technology-focused to appeal to liberal arts majors. Additionally, the announcement of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and well-known gender equality activist, as the spring 2016 commencement speaker also drew mixed responses for her opinions, perceived by some as an elitist feminist.

In light of the recent campus protests against Yiannopoulos and Coulter, outgoing ASUC President Will Morrow said that bringing in speakers such as Jobrani is exciting because Jobrani’s background and understanding of the campus culture will allow him to build a stronger connection with students in the audience.

“Rhetoric being thrown around nationally can at times make some students feel like they don’t belong,” Morrow said. “I think Jobrani as a alumnus of UC Berkeley but also an individual of Iranian-American background will bring an important perspective that I believe will resonate with many students who are graduating.”

Ashley Wong is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.