Michigan State’s Black Graduation Ceremony Criticized

Michigan State’s Black Graduation Ceremony Criticized

East Lansing, Mich.
Critics are taking aim at a new, optional Michigan State University event that will honor Black graduating seniors next month, saying it is unfair and promoting separatism.
In one of several letters sent to the MSU student newspaper, Michael Cykowski, a senior computer science major, wrote: “What would happen if some students tried to organize an all-White graduation? All hell would break loose. They would be labeled bigots.”
Michael Oden, an MSU senior from Detroit, brought the idea to MSU this year after learning about a similar event the University of Michigan has had for about a decade. He says he did not expect resistance.
Many colleges across the nation and some in Michigan — Eastern Michigan, Wayne State and Oakland universities, have had separate, optional graduation celebrations for Black and other minority students for years. Students who attend are usually given a certificate of accomplishment.
Nikki O’Brien, Michigan State’s coordinator for African American Affairs, says Black students who participate in the event, called the Black Celebratory, are not being asked to choose one ceremony over the other; they are encouraged to attend both.
Supporters of the celebratory say many Black students are the first in their families to attend college, so the accomplishment often takes on greater meaning for them, their relatives and friends.
“The response of critics is indicative of White privilege, because they don’t really understand why this is a significant accomplishment for Black students,” O’Brien says. “For White students to say we all have the same struggle” is misguided.
Another element of the controversy is that the 15-member student programming board of MSU’s student government declined a request of about $2,800 for the event, saying it will serve too narrow of an audience.
That rankled some Black students, particularly since the association gave about $3,000 to help fund a campus speech by controversial author David Horowitz last month.
Horowitz made national news in 2001 when he paid for dozens of full-page ads in college newspapers titled “10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too” (see Black Issues, May 24, 2001). Some college papers nationwide rejected the ad.
Oden says the celebratory is needed because many Black students from urban areas overcome unique financial and social obstacles to earn a degree and should be recognized for their perseverance. For many students, attending MSU put them into a predominantly White learning environment for the first time in their lives, Oden says.
The celebratory is scheduled for May 3. The traditional university-wide commencement ceremony is to take place earlier that day. The celebratory will cost about $11,000, and several campus organizations, including Michigan State’s multicultural business program and its Residence Halls Association, have chipped in money.
More than 3,000 Michigan State students expect to graduate next month and about 200 of them are Black. Of the Black graduates, about 100 have signed up to attend the celebratory. MSU has held smaller, less formal celebrations for Black seniors since 1993, but organizers did not seek university funding.
O’Brien says the event will bring attention to MSU’s Black graduation rate, which is among the lowest at the university.
According to MSU’s most recent data, 46 percent of Black students who entered in 1994 had graduated within six years. During the same time, Hispanic students graduated at a rate of 58 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders at 67 percent and White students at 70 percent. 
— By Erik Lords



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