Colleges draw commencement controversies

Posted May 18, 2012, at 10:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON — As Kathleen Sebelius addressed Georgetown University graduates Friday morning, the secretary of health and human services felt the wrath of anti-abortion 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, while Latino activists gather to protest his business practices.

An invitation to be seated on the commencement stage is one of 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,” Notre Dame University spokesman Dennis Brown said. He handled the fallout when President Barack 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 contraception 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 DeGioia defended the invitation, saying “the secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views.”

On Friday morning, a small cluster of anti-abortion 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.

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 critics of Slim’s 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.”

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 picked 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 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.”

Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has drawn criticism this year for its selection of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as its commencement speaker, scheduled for Sunday.

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