Georgetown U., GWU draw commencement controversies

May 18, 2012

As Kathleen Sebelius addressed Georgetown University graduates Friday morning, the secretary of health and human services felt the wrath of antiabortion activists when someone shouted “murderer!” in an otherwise quiet ballroom.

Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men, will get his turn Sunday when George Washington University presents him with an honorary degree and Latino activists gather to protest his business practices.

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.

GWU officials said they chose to honor the Mexican businessman for his community development efforts in Latin America and his extensive philanthropy. Critics call Slim a monopolist who crossed ethical lines in making his fortune and has not done enough to help developing countries.

“People in Mexico are becoming poorer and poorer . . . while Mr. Slim is becoming richer and richer every year,” said Andres Ramirez, a Las Vegas political consultant. “GWU is essentially trying to portray him as a humanitarian and a philanthropist, which he is not.”

In addressing his critics over the years, Slim has said publicly that he enjoys competition in business and that wealth is something that comes and goes.

Ramirez said Slim’s critics hope to draw national attention because GWU’s graduation will be on the Mall, with NBC television news anchor Brian Williams as the keynote speaker. GWU officials recently met with Ramirez and his allies. In a statement this week, GWU said: “The university is looking forward to Mr. Slim’s participation in commencement.”

Tough calls

When questions are raised about commencement honors, most schools stand behind their choices. Sometimes, though, the speakers themselves will bow out.

In 2008, former president Bill Clinton backed out of an invitation to speak at the University of California, Los Angeles, commencement because it would have required him to cross a union picket line. The next year, UCLA chose actor James Franco, who backed out after students protested via Facebook that he was not accomplished enough to address them.

The experience made Franco leery of commencement speeches, he wrote in the Huffington Post this week: “Mainly, I didn’t want to give a thankless speech to a bunch of ungrateful people who would criticize me and then forget the speech anyway.”

Some commencement flaps are unexpected, but universities are generally diligent in evaluating the pros and cons of booking certain speakers.

In the Washington region this year, Howard University booked Education Secretary Arne Duncan, American University law students will hear from Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Marymount University snagged former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R). First lady Michelle Obama spoke to Virginia Tech graduates.

Journalists are also hot choices. On Sunday, Katie Couric will speak at the University of Virginia. Georgetown’s school of arts and sciences lined up David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who created the HBO series “The Wire.”

Speaking invitations sometimes go out years ahead of time, especially for big names, said Frank Persico, Catholic University’s chief of staff, who oversees commencement planning. Catholic keeps an evolving list of potential speakers who have been nominated by faculty, approved by the university president, deeply vetted by researchers and then approved by the board of trustees. Names can only stay on that list for 30 months before they have to undergo the process again.

“A lot can happen over 30 months,” Persico said, adding that he sometimes gets frustrated when already approved people will say or do something that gets them booted off the list. “We’re looking for someone who is going to be special, who is going to be inspirational for the students, who is a good communicator . . . and who is capable of advancing the mission of the university.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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