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At U. of Georgia, Furor Over Clarence Thomas

April 23, 2008

It's not hard to imagine that a campus visit by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative jurist and strong opponent of affirmative action, would inspire protests from more liberal students and professors. Yet Thomas has made a number of visits to the University of Georgia, the flagship public institution in his home state, without too much of an uproar. But controversy finally came when he accepted an invitation to give the undergraduate commencement address this year.

Rather than sparking debates about Thomas's jurisprudence or his politics, though, the announcement has led to a flurry of criticisms drawing parallels between the allegations made at the associate justice's infamous 1991 Senate confirmation hearings -- during which a former employee, Anita Hill, testified that he'd sexually harassed her -- and more recent accusations of sexually suggestive behavior on campus that have led to a broad mandate to overhaul the way the university handles such cases.

Now some faculty members say that having Thomas as the undergraduate commencement speaker sends the wrong message at a time when the university is in the midst of a process that could change the way sexual harassment is dealt with in the campus judicial system.

"Given all of this work, and what felt like progress, the news that Justice Clarence Thomas is to give the commencement address this year has been met by dismay," said Chris Cuomo, director of the Institute for Women's Studies and a professor of philosophy, in an e-mail message. "Members of the UGA community who are concerned about the problems with enforcement of the university's own policies against harassment wonder if the university administration is sending an intentional message that they believe matters of sexual harassment and gender equity are trivial."

Already this year, one professor was placed on administrative leave and another resigned after investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. The former returned to the classroom this month, but a committee advising the university's president recommended that the professor's classes be videotaped for a period that could last through the end of fall 2008. Even more high-profile accusations were leveled against the university's former women's golf coach, Todd McCorkle, who left last year amid allegations of using crude, suggestive language with his players. The student newspaper, The Red and Black, reported last week that the former coach, now a golf instructor in Florida, was still for the time being receiving a salary of $94,464 from the University of Georgia. (The contract ends in June.)

Among the administrative reforms that have resulted from the publicity surrounding the cases include the pending appointment of three separate ombudsmen to hear complaints from students, faculty and staff. Investigations of harassment will also be moved from the Office of Legal Affairs, which some critics contended had a motive to downplay accusations, to the university's Equal Opportunity Office. The reforms are aimed at criticisms that the administration allowed some professors to teach despite a history of complaints, and that it applied its judicial procedures unevenly in different anti-discrimination cases.

"Given all that’s been going on with sexual harassment on the campus, for the choice to be someone who was embroiled in arguably one of the most public sexual harassment issues in recent political history, it’s just very surprising to many of us," said Janet E. Frick, a professor of psychology. "No matter who you believe about that issue, this is not a referendum on guilt or innocence [but] a reaction to the timing of this particular choice given all that’s been going on at UGA; it really doesn’t make any sense to us."

Cuomo, for example, wondered if Thomas's commencement invitation could be deferred a year until "things are a bit less tense, and when we won't be right in the middle of a decision-making process regarding how to deal with harassment on campus (as we are now)." The university has had its share of commencement speakers from both sides of the political aisle (to the extent that they have political views at all), although none in recent years has the sort of national name recognition or inspires such visceral reactions among supporters and critics as Thomas. In spring 2005, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, spoke at the undergraduate commencement, while the next year graduates heard from Time Inc.'s editor-in-chief, John Huey.

“Every year, there’s controversy over the selection of the commencement speaker. There’s always somebody with an opinion,” pointed out Tom Jackson, the vice president for public affairs. Thomas's critics, in turn, say they support his campus visits but believe that commencement speakers in general shouldn't be controversial.

Recent painful incidents aside, Thomas has had a longer history with the university and especially its law school. According to Jackson, the justice has been involved with the university's Foundation Fellows scholarship program as well as its honor program. He “had a standing invitation for a while and was able to accept it this time,” Jackson said.

Rebecca White, dean of the university's law school, said Thomas "has been a tremendous friend to the law school and to the university," and that most of the criticism is coming from a minority of faculty. "He is a sitting justice of the United States Supreme Court, and we are thrilled and honored [to have him speak], and I am speaking for the vast majority of the people on this campus when I say that," she said.

Many students posting online seem to have a more favorable view of their commencement speaker than the vocal critics. "I am a graduating senior and I was pleased to hear that Supreme Court Justice Thomas was going to be speaking at my graduation. Yes, there were hearings back when I was a child, but he was not found guilty; and I feel that this being an issue today is to bring up an issue that has nothing to do with graduation," wrote a student in a comment to one of the student newspaper's stories about the debate.

Over at the law school, where Thomas spoke at commencement in 2003, students are a bit removed from the controversy. Brendan Murphy, a third-year law student who remembers Thomas's last visit, said the justice was received warmly by students of all political persuasions. He said that as law students, "you can disagree on the law, but you respect each other and you work together. He was very willing to engage students in debate about his legal positions, and I think everybody really gained a lot from that.”

 

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