A Commencement Turns Ugly

Speaker at St. Thomas calls use of the pill "selfish," prompting some shocked students to walk out on their own graduation.
May 24, 2006

When people cry at graduation, it's supposed to be the happy kind of tears.

That wasn't the case Saturday at the University of St. Thomas, when the student speaker at the Saint Paul, Minn., institution's graduation ceremony used his address to denounce as "selfish" those women who use the birth control pill. St. Thomas has been divided this semester by a debate over whether the Roman Catholic institution was correct to ban unmarried employees traveling together with students from sharing a room, so issues of sexual morality have been front and center at the institution. The student speaker also denounced as selfish those unmarried couples covered by the policy who had wanted to share a room with a partner.

Students and family members were shocked by the speech -- and some left their own graduation in tears. Others booed or shouted. Still others are angry that the university administrator who followed the student speaker appeared to many to endorse his views. The university denies that, and the St. Thomas president and the student speaker have apologized. While St. Thomas officials said that they hope the apologies will put the matter to rest, many students and faculty members doubt that can happen.

A portion of the controversial speech has been posted online at YouTube (be forewarned that several loud expletives from audience members are also audible). The speaker is Ben Kessler, who was elected by students and faculty members as "Tommie of the Year," earning the right to address his fellow graduates. Kessler was a 4.0 student and a star on the football team. He is moving to Rome to study for the priesthood.

In his speech, Kessler asked about the couples who traveled with St. Thomas students and who set off the debate over the travel policy. The issue gained the attention of St. Thomas administrators when a choir director who is lesbian wanted to take her partner and their son on a class trip to France, as married couples on university travel had done in the past. Not only was that trip barred, but the university started barring those traveling with students from sharing rooms with their partners if they were not married -- whether the relationships were straight or gay. Kessler said that those wanting to share rooms were "selfish," and that as a result of their actions "students become confused" and "faculty and staff become scandalized," all for "the happiness of one or two people."

He then went on to call using birth control selfish, and specifically cited only one form of birth control: the pill.

As Kessler spoke, some students and faculty members started to leave. Others shouted their anger and called for him to stop. In other parts of his address, Kessler spoke of his own selfishness, praised the accomplishments of his classmates, and encouraged them to lead lives that involve giving back to their communities.

At the end of Kessler's speech, Thomas Rochon, the university's chief academic officer, spoke and he noted Kessler's "courage" in expressing his views.

With students and family members clearly upset by what had happened, St. Thomas issued an apology on Monday. In the apology, the Rev. Dennis Dease, the president, said it was "not appropriate" for Kessler to have shared "his opinions on several issues" during the commencement address, and said "I regret that the graduates and their families and guests were offended." Father Dease's statement also included an apology from Kessler, who said that he "would like to apologize to all who were offended by my words." (University officials said that Kessler was not responding to questions.)

In an interview Tuesday, Douglas E. Hennes, vice president for university relations, also said that it was wrong to interpret Rochon's reference to Kessler's "courage" as an endorsement of his remarks. Rochon and the university believe that it was wrong of Kessler to share those views in a graduation speech and that it was also wrong for those offended to boo or shout.

Hennes said that the graduation events were "unfortunate," but that the university had engaged in discussions about the travel policy in a "pretty healthy way," and that the tensions evident Saturday did not reflect any broader problems. Asked if Kessler's comments were consistent with Catholic teachings, Hennes said that they were. He said that comments the university was receiving were almost entirely critical of Kessler.

Students and faculty members had a range of views on that.

Brian J. Weber, the senior class president, said he had great respect for Kessler and didn't think he realized the hurt his comments would cause. Weber said he disagreed with Kessler's choice of topics, but thought that his apology was sincere and should be accepted. He urged others to show Kessler "some compassion."

One of Weber's classmates, Christine Johnson, said she "felt like I was going to be sick" as Kessler started talking about actions he considered "selfish." Johnson, executive vice president of the student government this past academic year, said that Kessler was the selfish one, by forgetting that he was not the only one graduating. Johnson said she started to cry when she saw the leader of a gay-rights group at St. Thomas leave his own graduation because he couldn't stand to hear the remarks.

Johnson said that the speech reinforced her belief that St. Thomas has problems with tolerance. "There is such a lack of tolerance and understanding, and many people aren't even willing to attempt to remedy this by talking with others respectfully about the issue. Rather, they gather their own conclusions and force it upon the ears of others," she said.

Jill Manske, a professor of biology and former director of women's studies at St. Thomas, said that she worried that non-Catholics would "perceive a shift to the right" at the university and might not feel welcome teaching or studying there.

Manske said that Kessler's apology focused on those he offended and didn't suggest that he understood why it was wrong to express those views at a graduation. Further, she noted that the only form of birth control he denounced was taking the pill, which is done by women, not men. She said that "embedded in the speech" were signs of underlying "climate issues" at St. Thomas. Many people did not feel "that their voices were heard" in the debate over the travel policy, she said.

"There are some very difficult issues of climate and what does it mean to be a Catholic institution," she said, that the administration is not acknowledging. Manske was raised Catholic, but does not practice the faith today.

Married, she would not be directly affected by the new travel policy as she could bring her husband with her when taking students on trips. But she has said that she told the administration that she will no longer take students on trips -- even though she has enjoyed doing so in the past. It would be unfair for her to be able to take her husband when unmarried heterosexual couples would have to marry to take a partner, and gay and lesbian couples would have no way to comply with the St. Thomas policy except to leave a partner at home.

For her to even have the choice of taking a partner, Manske said, "is a privilege I would have that others do not."


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