Pennsylvania college students who were chastised by their commencement speaker Sunday for pressuring another speaker to withdraw from the event said Monday they were dismayed to get attacked at their own graduation ceremony.
“One of my professors called it an ‘ambush,’ one of them apologized that the college allowed that,” said Michael Rushmore, one of the Haverford College students who organized the protest against former University of California, Berkeley Chairman Robert Birgeneau. The protest, which called for Birgeneau to go further than before in taking responsibility for the use of force in a 2011 clash between campus police and Occupy protestors, ultimately led him to cancel his appearance. At commencement on Sunday, Former Princeton University President William Bowens called the students “arrogant” and “immature” for objecting to Birgeneau’s speech.
Rushmore said he still got a kick out of Bowen’s speech: “I was just laughing. … I thought it was too funny.”
In their initial letter to Birgeneau, students said they were “deeply disturbed” by the 2011 altercation, in which campus police used force against nonviolent protesters. They called for Birgeneau to cancel his speech unless he publicly admitted responsibility for the police brutality, supported reparations for victims and pledged to lead efforts to ensure universities respect protester rights.
Birgeneau replied in a letter to the students that he “never and never will” respond to a list of demands, and said he would not respond to “untruthful, violent verbal attacks.” He backed out of the speech, and Bowen used the altercation to chastise the students.
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of ‘demands,’” Bowen said Sunday.
Rushmore seemed to take some pride that the protest was publicly acknowledged in Bowen’s speech.
“Most people can’t remember their commencement speech, but I got quoted in mine,” Rushmore said. Referring to other controversies that have led to the withdrawal of commencement speakers this year, Rushmore added: “All the commencement speakers who have withdrawn have said they didn’t want to disrupt commencement. But that’s exactly what Bowen did. He called me and my friends arrogant and immature at our commencement speech.”
Other students pointed out that Bowen attacked them in a venue where they could not respond. “This man decided to shame us at our own Commencement, at a moment when, out of respect for our professors, our family, our other peers, we won’t do anything to shame him back,” said Taha Ahsin, another protestor who has written about the debate in the student newspaper, The Clerk. “That’s absolutely unfair. We won’t boo this man offstage. We want to honor the Commencement for everyone else.”
Twenty-two faculty members (about 20% of the tenured faculty) sent the Class of 2014 a note after the speech congratulating students on their graduation and condemning Bowen’s comments, saying his “condescending speech marred an otherwise celebratory occasion.
“We hereby affirm our great admiration for the students who protested the College’s decision to honor Birgeneau, particularly those who spoke so eloquently at the open meeting called by President Dan Weiss,” the faculty wrote. “To those in the Class of 2014, we say, we are proud to call you graduates of Haverford College.”