Controversies Crop Up Around Commencement Speaker Selections

Earlier this year, NAACP chairman Julian Bond journeyed to the U.S. Supreme Court to interview Justice Clarence Thomas.

The event was somewhat historic, in part because Bond — a staunch supporter of affirmative action and other social programs — has long been a critic of the policies and positions espoused by Thomas.

But now, both of these historic figures in Black history are the subjects of much scrutiny as they prepare to deliver commencement speeches this month at two East Coast universities.

A group of conservative students at The George Washington University have criticized the school’s administration for inviting Bond, arguing that he has made disparaging comments when he equated the Republican Party with the Nazi Party and characterized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, as tokens.

And at the University of Georgia, the decision to invite Thomas — the second African-American to serve on the high court — has been met with opposition from faculty and staff. Minority student groups and women groups on campus are leading the charge.

UGA’s President Michael Adams defended the selection of Thomas.

“We’re not going to have a political litmus test at the University of Georgia over who speaks at the university,” Adams says, telling students and faculty to “embarrass neither themselves nor Justice Thomas” when he speaks at UGA’s undergraduate commencement exercises on May 10.

The selection of commencement speakers is often controversial. And some speakers often widen the division that already exists on campus, by using the occasion to push forward controversial positions.

At GW, the College Republicans are protesting the decision to grant Bond an Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree, saying that he is divisive figure.

“We don’t take issue with the NAACP per se, but the things that Mr. Bond has said about the Republican Party are untrue and, as an organization, we had to say something about it.”

In a 2006 speech, Bond allegedly told college students at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina that “the Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side.”

Administrators at GW have met with the leadership of the College Republicans to hear their concerns, but defended their decision to invite Bond to campus. They say that it would be inappropriate to disinvite him.

“Julian Bond is certainly a well known figure in civil rights and he himself is an accomplished individual,” says Tracy Schario, a spokeswoman for the university, who adds that Bond — who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — was selected this year, in part to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination.

“There are a lot of historical synergies,” says Schario, who adds that students rarely agree on commencement speakers.

Brooks says that the College Republicans have asked to meet with Bond before the commencement speech. It’s unclear if that will happen. Bond could not be reached for comment.

“We want to ask him point blank, why he’s made these statements in the past,” says Brooks. “Once we do this, then we can move beyond this and listen to his words of wisdom.”

At both UGA and GW, additional security will be on hand, though officials are not anticipating any major disturbances. On both campuses, some students say that they may stand up and turn their back to Thomas and Bond when they take to the podium to express their disapproval.

Schario says that GW is in the process of reevaluating the way that commencement speakers are selected to give students a larger voice in the process. Unlike some other schools, the university does not pay its commencement speakers.

Charles Basden, who is chairman of the Black Student Union at GW and a graduating senior, says that his organization met with the College Republicans when the issue about Bond’s appearance on campus first surfaced, hoping to educate them on his involvement in the civil rights movement.

In recent months, the campus has experienced some polarizing racial incidents, including the discovery of a swastika and the ‘N’ word scribbled on a door. Basden believes that Bond can help unite the campus.

“His record and his social justice work, makes him a timely speaker.”

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