Not in D.C. Anymore

Is John McCain the right commencement speaker for the progressive New School? Some students and professors don't think so.
May 5, 2006

For some students at the New School, in Manhattan, their institution and conservative politicians go together as well as Swiss cheese and peanut butter.

Bob Kerrey, the institution's president and a former Democratic governor and senator from Nebraska, announced this spring that U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and past and possibly future presidential candidate, would be the commencement speaker at the New School. Kerrey said the senator's acceptance “is a big honor for our graduates and their families.”

But hundreds of students, staff and faculty members at the institution of about 9,000 students have signed paper and online petitions that seek to revoke the invitation.

Several students and faculty members pointed out that McCain has supported banning gay marriage in Arizona, and that, three days before his visit to the New School, McCain will be speaking at Liberty University, whose founder and chancellor, Rev. Jerry Falwell, has openly expressed his opposition to homosexuality.

“Up until a few months ago, I was happy he was coming,” said Anthony Szczurek, a New School freshman. “I think the thing that bothers me the most is him speaking at Jerry Falwell’s school.” Szczurek said that he thinks it’s not appropriate to have a speaker that is hostile to the gay community speak on a day of celebration at an institution with a vibrant gay community.

Harper Keenan, a sophomore, has helped organize the dissent. “In all of our classes we’re taught the value of inclusion of all people,” he said, “and we’re taught to question our leaders.”

The University Student Senate wrote a letter to Kerrey saying that the commencement speaker “commands a higher profile than an ordinary lecturer, and may be assumed to have the implicit endorsement of the university community.”

Kerrey said that he considers McCain “one of the most important political leaders in the world today,” and added that he is “unfortunately caught up in the politics of the day,” and that he “accepted our invitation before Liberty’s.”

The student demonstrations have been very respectful, the president said, noting that he fully supports their right to organize.

Kerrey added that “John McCain isn’t anti-homosexual.… He has not supported federal legislation” restricting gay marriage, he said. “We have very good policies that make our campus very welcoming....  I don’t think his presence subtracts from that.”

Some McCain opponents have said that they don’t want the New School’s commencement to be a political stop for a man they are assuming will be running for president.

McCain, who will receive an honorary degree from the New School, pointed out on the Fox News Network that the New School is a “somewhat liberal institution,” and some students and faculty members at the university think that McCain is just using his visit to balance out the Liberty stop and seem more moderate than he is.

“John McCain is a conservative politician who supports South Dakota’s ban on abortion, and he’s avidly pro-Iraq War,” said Gregory Tewksbury, a part time faculty member at the New School. “People feel like [the invitation to McCain] made commencement into a political platform.”

Tewksbury added that this isn’t a free speech issue, and that he had no problem with Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush’s former deputy secretary of defense, having given a speech at the New School in 2003. “There was give and take,” he said, whereas at commencement, “there will be no chance to engage any of his views.”

Students at the New School aren’t the only ones revolting against politically charged graduation speakers. Hundreds of students and faculty members at Boston College have voiced their opposition to having Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, appear at graduation and receive an honorary degree.

Kerrey said he’s confident that McCain’s speech will be both suitable and inspirational. “I have a high degree of confidence that the message John McCain will deliver will be one that is entirely appropriate,” Kerrey said.

Kerrey said that “the hard truth is this: for every university president in America, one of the challenges they’ve got is to try to find somebody of note to speak at commencement. If you’re an Ivy League school, it’s a lot easier than if you’re the New School … at the end of the day, it is an effort I have to make. This year, we succeeded quite well.”

In fact, McCain will also be speaking at an Ivy League institution. He will be at Columbia University for the undergraduate college’s Class Day, the first of two days of graduation ceremonies.

At Columbia, Laura Cordetti, a senior, has organized opposition to McCain. When Cordetti heard McCain would be speaking, she started a Facebook group -- “John McCain Does Not Speak For Us” -- that quickly started attracting other students. As at the New School, much of the opposition is in light of McCain’s stop at Liberty. Inviting someone “who has directly been hurting gay people in a legislative way to come here on a day which is supposed to be about celebrating what we stand for is insulting.”

Cordetti, who is graduating, likely won’t have champagne for McCain after his talk. She said that she isn’t trying to trample on free speech, but that having McCain for graduation is like inviting someone you don’t like to your party.

Kerrey said that McCain is "clearly within the mainstream of American political thinking today."

McCain, however, might not quite be in touch with the New School mainstream. Kerrey said that the "only thing that was a bit amusing" about the affair was McCain saying publicly that "nobody is objecting to him speaking at the New School."


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