Some students at the University of Michigan say they feel like they have been slapped in the face. Monday, the university announced that Rick Snyder, Michigan’s new governor, will receive an honorary degree this year and deliver the class of 2011’s spring commencement speech. Governor Snyder, a Republican who has three degrees from the University of Michigan, has just presented a state budget plan calling for a 15 to 22 percent cut in funding for the university.
“We found the decision very bizarre,” said Amanda Caldwell, chair of the College Democrats at the University of Michigan. “With Governor Snyder, his proposed budget is making it increasingly difficult for more members of the commencement speech audience to sit in those seats in the future.”
Caldwell has joined with thousands of other students on campus who are calling for the administration to reconsider the choice to honor Snyder. As of Wednesday morning, over 4,000 students had joined a petition that had been online for two days. Over a thousand others had signed up on Facebook to join a protest that occurred Wednesday afternoon.
The administration is framing the choice of Snyder as part of a tradition of inviting sitting governors, regardless of their funding priorities, to be commencement speakers. “It is customary for the university to extend an invitation to a newly elected governor to receive an honorary degree and provide the commencement address,” the university said in an announcement. Kelly Cunningham, director of the University of Michigan’s Office of Public Affairs, explained via e-mail that the University of Michigan is “very pleased that since 1967, every sitting governor has given the commencement address during his or her time in office.”
Because the choice of Snyder was almost procedural, having been made on the basis of his office rather than his policies, some call the choice a non-story. “It’s all about respect for the office -- even though he’s cut the hell out of us,” said Mike Boulus, executive director of the President’s Council of the State Universities of Michigan, who said he could see thousands of people protesting against the governor's pension plan from the window in his office in Lansing as he chatted Wednesday. “He was just elected by a landslide.”
Rick Durance, the University of Michigan student who started the online petition, would like to see that method of choosing the speakers change. More student input is necessary, he said, so that the university can avoid “having someone who does not support public education as our commencement speaker.” As of now, two students sit on the honorary degree committee, which selected Snyder. Those students could not be reached for comment.
Almost every year at least one college invites to commencement someone whose opinions or beliefs stir student unrest; for example, Washington University in St. Louis's choice of Phyllis Schlafly to receive an honorary degree in 2008 caused considerable backlash. (This paragraph has been updated to correct an error.)
But it is part of the unique relationship colleges have to their speakers that they can challenge student body opinion, says Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It is part of the function of universities, he said, to be "conveners for public debate." Consequently, the pick of Snyder “in a way speaks well that the university would move forward and invite the governor ... and look past specific issues,” he said.