Colleges Seek Big Names But Find Controversy
Religious Schools Are Pressured To Put Moral Principles First In Picking Graduation Speakers

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Saturday, May 12, 2007

When Brigham Young University senior Ashley Sanders looked around during her commencement ceremony last month, she felt a surge of pride so great it brought her to tears.

It wasn't the completion of her degree in English and philosophy that moved her. It was pulling off an "alternative" ceremony that drew 50 fellow graduates and an estimated 1,500 supporters. Angered by the choice of Vice President Cheney as BYU's official commencement speaker, Sanders and others raised $26,000, organized the off-campus ceremony and invited activist Ralph Nader to address them.

"It's the biggest thing I've ever done," Sanders, 21, said. "I've never felt prouder."

Although few are as organized as Sanders's protest, yearly disputes over commencement speakers have become as much a part of college life as all-nighters and spring break.

College presidents say they are under increasing pressure to bring in a big-name speaker who will give graduates and their families something to remember.

"Within academia there is an awareness of how big endowments are and who your commencement speaker is," said H. James Towey, president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

But finding a speaker can lead presidents -- particularly those who head religious schools -- into a predicament: Do they try to land someone who'll lend prestige to their campus? Or do they honor their institutional identity by finding someone who wholly embodies their values?

"A president has to be very careful about that," said Paul R. Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. "That's a very tenuous line you walk."

In 2005, President Bush drew protests from students and faculty at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got a cool reception from some theologians at Jesuit-run Boston College last year.

At St. Vincent, Towey, former director of the White House's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, has watched his campus grow atwitter since Bush was announced as yesterday's commencement speaker.

Thirty current and former St. Vincent professors sent an open letter to Bush telling him that his policies on the Iraq war, the economy and the environment don't square with Catholic teachings. A student town-hall forum was broadcast on C-SPAN, and Towey and a former St. Vincent president, Maynard Brennan, traded op-ed barbs in the local paper.

Catholic presidents also have had the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative group often critical of Catholic colleges and universities, looking over their shoulders. The Manassas-based society publicizes a list of "problematic" commencement speakers each spring, pressuring Catholic schools to drop those who aren't in line with church teaching -- particularly on abortion and other "life issues."

This year, the society targeted 11 schools, including St. Michael's College in Vermont and Villanova University in Philadelphia, for inviting journalists Cokie Roberts and Chris Matthews, respectively. The group says both support abortion rights.

The society's founder and president, Patrick J. Reilly, says he's just calling attention to what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a 2004 document, "Catholics in Political Life." The document said that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

And there are few bigger platforms than a commencement address, said the Rev. David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University.

"The commencement is prime-time TV. It's a super-visible platform," he said.

O'Connell said he usually starts feeling the pressure to find a prominent speaker in October.

"Whether you give in to that pressure is another thing. My first priority is to select someone whose values are consonant with the institution," he said. This year, O'Connell invited White House press secretary Tony Snow, who was scheduled to give the address to Catholic students today.

Sanders, the BYU student, was criticized by other Mormons for organizing the alternative ceremony that featured Nader at the Mormon-run university in Provo, Utah. Criticizing Republicans like Cheney is often taken as apostasy, Sanders said.

BYU spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins said that 6,000 students graduated at the official ceremony and that Cheney received a standing ovation.

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