An invitation to be seated on the commencement stage is one of the highest honors a university can bestow. Especially coveted is the opportunity to address the graduating class. But universities have learned to be strategic about whom they select because the choices are sometimes fraught with political risks.
“Almost any speaker is going to cause a little bit of controversy,” University of Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said. He handled the fallout when President Obama spoke to the Class of 2009 at the Catholic school despite protests over the president’s support of abortion rights. “If it’s a Democrat, we hear from the right. If it’s a Republican, we hear from the left.”
At Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute, students graduating with master’s degrees were allowed to pick their speaker, and several suggested Sebelius. “Policy students are interested in hearing from her because she’s living what we’re interested in,” said Julia Druhan, 27, who is pursuing a career in food policy.
Catholic leaders called the invitation inappropriate for a leading Jesuit university. They have criticized Sebelius for her role in helping to craft the 2010 health-care law, which requires employers to cover the cost of contraceptive coverage even if it runs counter to their religious beliefs. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, called the invitation “shocking,” and thousands signed an online petition started by a conservative Catholic think tank.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia defended the invitation, saying that “the secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views.”
On Friday morning, a small cluster of antiabortion activists traveled to Georgetown’s front gates from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Nearly all were men, many wearing red sashes. They stood under a banner that read, “Sebelius persecutes the Church, yet Georgetown welcomes her.”
During her speech, a 27-year-old protester screamed: “I have a message for you, Kathleen Sebelius. You are a murderer!” Sebelius paused, the crowd booed, and police escorted the man out. Then the ceremony continued.
Follow your ‘moral compass’
Although Sebelius did not directly mention the health-care law or contraception, she told the graduates that a “process of conversation and compromise” is required when religious issues intersect with policy decisions. Debates about such decisions, she said, require “the ability to weigh different views, to see issues from other points of view and, in the end, to be true to your own moral compass.”
It’s unclear how many protesters will gather near GWU’s graduation Sunday on the Mall, although organizers of the demonstration against Slim say they hope their social media campaign and Spanish radio advertisements will attract at least 1,000.