You Can't Handle the Truthiness!

March 27, 2009

It appears the grass is still greener on the other side.

A group of students near Tinseltown think a young movie star lacks the gravitas to give a commencement speech, while others in Virginia say their graduation day needs a little more star power.

It didn’t take long for students at the University of California at Los Angeles to raise objections to the selection of James Franco, a 2008 UCLA graduate and actor in such films as Spiderman, Milk and Pineapple Express. Opposition is also forming at the University of Virginia, where a grassroots movement to recruit Stephen Colbert for “Final Exercises” failed to sway President John Casteen. Casteen went instead with Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson IIII, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge with a résumé that includes a lot of impressive work – just not a show on Comedy Central.

Will Eden, a graduating Virginia student who collected 2,000 signatures from students pushing for Colbert, said the entertainer would have better reflected the graduates’ preferences.

“It’s our graduation after all,” he said. “And we’ve gone here four years and it’s kind of our day to celebrate. We’ve paid tuition, which no doubt goes toward that [ceremony].”

Photo: TMZ

James Franco, a UCLA graduate expected to give this year's commencement address, appears to be snoozing in class at Columbia University.

At UCLA, about 550 students have formed a Facebook group dubbed “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker.”

“Clearly, this is ridiculous,” the group's creator proclaims. “Anyone who has been in his classes knows he is an average student at UCLA. This is an accomplishment while working in his industry, but he is our academic peer, which makes him an inappropriate choice for a keynote speaker. His academic experiences are too limited thus far to provide him with the wisdom and perspective such a speaker is meant to provide to graduates.”

Despite his fame, Franco has continued to pursue degrees, majoring in English at UCLA and enrolling in an M.F.A. program for creative writing at Columbia University. He has at times, however, been lampooned as a slacker – an image consistent with the stoner role he played in Pineapple Express. The celebrity gossip Web site TMZ posted a photo of him earlier this month sleeping in a class at Columbia.

Sana Soni, a graduating senior at UCLA, is among the students who’ve voiced objections. In an e-mail to commencement organizers, Soni downplayed Franco’s acting bona fides and suggested “a great event in our lives deserves someone more accomplished.”

Speaking with Inside Higher Ed Tuesday, Soni said she wouldn’t have objected to an actor who was more seasoned than the 30-year-old Franco.

“I respect him as an actor,” she said. “We think he’s great. We enjoy his movies a lot; I’ve seen almost all of them. But he’s not done anything exceptional. He’s not Sir Anthony Hopkins or anything like that. … I would love to have some studio head or something like that.”

The Facebook opposition represents a small fraction of UCLA’s student body of roughly 26,000, and 4,000 students are expected to participate in commencement this year.

Students Involved in Decisions at UCLA, Virginia

Controversies over commencement are nothing new at UCLA, where just last year former President Clinton canceled because of an ongoing labor dispute at the university. In the wake of that cancellation, the university formed a committee to select commencement speakers for future ceremonies. Previously, speakers for the College of Letters & Sciences, which contains most undergraduate programs, had been chosen by deans without student involvement. The newly formed committee has eight members, including one student.

Julie Sina, who chaired the UCLA committee this year, said she planned to meet with the organizers of the Facebook group opposing Franco to discuss the selection process and solicit input for improving it next year. That said, Franco is still expected to give this year’s address, and Sina said the movie star isn’t soured by the opposition.

“In his line of work he’s used to getting a range of feedback, and his has been pretty darn good lately,” Sina said.

As with UCLA, students at Virginia were also involved in the selection process, although the university’s president is given final say. A subcommittee of the Commencement and Convocations Committee is charged with providing recommendations to the president, and the group forwarded about 10 names, including Wilkinson. Committee members would not say who else was on their list of suggested speakers.

“I think [Wilkinson] is a very smart man, who has a tie to this wonderful place, so I personally am very excited to see what he has to say,” said Christina Polenta, president of Virginia’s Class of 2009 and a member of the subcommittee.

Wilkinson is both a graduate of Virginia’s law school and a former associate professor of law at the university. He was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by President Reagan.

Apart from not being Stephen Colbert, Wilkinson has drawn some criticism on campus for his involvement in controversial judicial decisions. In a 2008 ruling, Wilkinson took part in a decision that said former President Bush had the authority to indefinitely detain civilians captured in the United States. In his opinion, however, Wilkinson acknowledged “We may never know whether we have struck the proper balance between liberty and security. …”

The Cavalier Daily, Virginia’s student newspaper, objected to Wilkinson’s selection, in part on the grounds that his judicial views “do not align with those of many graduating students.”

Sandy Gilliam, who chaired the Public Occasions subcommittee, said student objections are misguided.

“That’s a small collection of students,” he said, “who apparently never have read anything that Judge Wilkinson has written, and have no understanding of the role of the Fourth Circuit court. ...”

As for Colbert, Gilliam said “I don’t think his name ever came up [in the committee], to tell you the truth.”

The selection of a speaker for “Final Exercises,” as commencement is called at Virginia, rightfully rests with the president, Gilliam said. Students, however, are given their say in the selection of a speaker for the valedictory ceremony, which falls on the Saturday before graduation. This year, a student committee chose Dawn Staley, a Virginia alumnus who later played in the Olympics and WNBA.

"Final Exercises" is a more dignified affair than "Grounds," and a comedian like Colbert may not have had, ahem, rapport with such a ceremony.

"Colbert would have certainly been much more appropriate Saturday than Sunday,” Gilliam said.

Unlike some institutions, Virginia does not pay commencement speakers or confer honorary degrees, and some thought luring Colbert would require a large purse. But Colbert was not financially compensated for his previous speeches at Princeton University’s “Class Day” – the day before graduation – and Knox College’s commencement, according to officials at both institutions.

Knox College did provide Colbert with an honorary degree, which he famously threatened to set afire when the college offered the speaking gig to former President Bill Clinton a year after Colbert gave his address. The college then provided Colbert with a fire-proof degree to ensure it would survive any such attack.

“Stephen Colbert refers to his Knox College degree quite often [on The Colbert Report],” said Karri Heartlein, spokeswoman for the college. “He now refers to himself as Dr. Stephen Colbert, courtesy of Knox College.”

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